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New Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science opens for business

Alexandra Hanlon is leading a new effort in the College of Science, the recently launched Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science. Its goal: provide a strong statistical and quantitative support base for faculty, researchers, clinicians, and students throughout Virginia Tech’s health- and medical-related research fields.

Launched in spring 2019, the program is based at the Virginia Tech Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke. As director, Hanlon and her team will collaborate with researchers from across Virginia Tech and the region who are studying health-related issues.

Hanlon said the center will help harness how data science and data analytics are driving the healthcare field more so than ever.

“Recent years have witnessed rapid changes in health care, largely driven by access to big data, advanced health analytics, and quantitative reasoning,” she said. “Such changes include the use of wearable health devices, analytics built into electronic health records, telemedicine, on-demand lab testing, and many others. These changes have the potential to transform health systems to more effectively promote health and wellness, but we will only realize that potential if physicians and other clinicians are trained in the use of data to guide health decisions. This training should include a spotlight on precision medicine and how data on individual risk can be used to inform decision-making.”

The center already has more than 30 affiliated faculty members from across Virginia Tech. The center also plans to partner with educators and researchers in health data science in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, including the new Innovation Campus in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard. Several projects are already underway, including those that touch on Alzheimer’s disease, sleep apnea, and atrial fibrillation.

Hanlon’s interest in biostatistics is quite personal, as Hanlon’s mother died at age 37 from breast cancer. “It was clear to me as an adolescent that our family history of cancer was quite different from others,” Hanlon said. “I decided early on that I wanted to work in cancer research, and make a difference in prevention, as well as in the lives of those suffering from the disease.”

Her first career position as a biostatistician was at Philadelphia’s Fox Chase Cancer Center during the late 1990s, where she worked with a clinical investigator who founded one of the first clinics for patients at high risk for breast cancer. At the University of Pennsylvania, Hanlon herself ultimately tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation and underwent surgery to reduce her risk.

“Statistics played an enormous role in my decision-making along the way,” said Hanlon, who also holds the title of professor of practice in the Department of Statistics.

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