Computational Public Health Rises from the Hills of Southwest Virginia

I had the good fortune of visiting Virginia Tech University yesterday to speak at their Public Health Grand Rounds (slides here) and meet with some fellow travelers in public health services and systems research. Alongside their powerhouse football program, the Hokies are quietly building a powerhouse team of empirical public health researchers from a broad spectrum of quantitative and qualitative disciplines on campus. The team here at VTU is building upon their university’s historical land-grant strengths in fields like engineering and agriculture, while harnessing the new energy surrounding the university’s recently-created medical school and biomedical sciences research institute, and a newly-accredited MPH program based in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Yes, the vet school – these folks understand that public health system dynamics span the animal (and vegetable) kingdoms.

Researchers here are doing some of the nation’s pioneering work in the area of “computational public health,” which brings together an array of quantitative disciplines–including engineering, computer science, operations research, statistics, and economics—to advance our understanding of the behavior of complex public health systems. A core group of scholars formerly based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have been hard at work here at VTU for nearly a decade now, adapting and extending the powerful simulation models, informatics tools, “big data” feeds, and decision support applications that they originally developed at LANL to solve complex transportation problems for cities and states. Now this group, formalized as the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, uses these approaches to study a range of public health systems issues, including infectious disease control strategies for influenza and hospital-acquired infections, novel tobacco control strategies that leverage social networks, and comparative public health responses to natural disasters.

Perhaps most importantly, the public health team here has established productive collaborations with real-world decision-makers in local and state public health agencies across this bucolic corner of Central Appalachia and beyond. One of the hubs for this work is the VTU Center for Public Health Practice and Research, which has a series of practice-based studies underway in areas such as diabetes prevention, cancer control, and infectious disease outbreak response. Most recently, the Center has joined our RWJF-supported Public Health Practice-Based Research Networks (PBRN) Program as a newly-forming Virginia PBRN, building on research and practice collaborations that university faculty maintain with the nearby New River Health District and other area public health organizations. One of the mobilizing forces in this work is Dr. Kaja Abbas, an assistant professor at the VTU Department of Population Health Sciences and a recent recipient of one of the Junior Investigator Awards in Public Health Services and Systems Research provided through our RWJF-supported National Center for PHSSR. Dr. Abbas and his students are conducting economic evaluation studies of infectious disease response strategies implemented in the New River Health District for pathogens such as Hepatitis C and tuberculosis. All of this work is supported by a network of multi-disciplinary and cross-cutting research institutes based at VTU, including the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment and the Institute for Policy and Governance. And the linchpin: an extremely talented group of graduate students in VTU’s MPH and PhD programs keeps all the work energized, innovative and engaged.

Not only did I get to take in all this great research in under 24 hours, but I even squeezed in a chilly pre-dawn cruise along Blacksburg’s extensive network of running trails – a product of the area’s commitment to public health. This is certainly a place to watch in the growing landscape of applied public health services and systems research.

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