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Emory senior helps develop COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard

Emory College senior Star Liu (left) discusses work related to Emory’s COVID-19 Health Equity Interactive Dashboard with Shivani A. Patel, a social epidemiologist who hired Liu to help with the project. The dashboard offers a visualization of the pandemic’s impact on communities nationwide.

When COVID-19 disrupted everything last spring, Emory College of Arts and Sciences senior Star Liu threw his name into the mix for a new project at the Rollins School of Public Health, where he was volunteering his programming skills.

Shivani A. Patel, a social epidemiologist who interviewed Liu after his CV circulated among her group, quickly hired him as the only undergraduate researcher for her team looking to better understand the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

Patel thought Liu’s major in quantitative sciences (QSS) gave him the skills to help with data cleaning. Instead, he learned an entirely new programing language and became an integral part of Emory’s COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard, a visualization of the new virus’ impact on different communities nationwide.

“It is exceptional that, as an undergraduate, Star was able to ask the important and timely questions of the data to give us an understanding of what was happening,” says Patel, an assistant professor of global health at Rollins.

“The Equity Dashboard has become a service to the community because we were able to provide that understanding dynamically as the pandemic was unfolding,” she adds.

Liu says one of the most appealing aspects of the project is working as part of an interdisciplinary team. “Emory has shown me that’s what I want to become, someone who can speak the language of computer science, data science and health,” Liu says. 

“If you can converse across disciplines, you can do so much more,” he adds. “I want to have an impact.” 

Data in context

Liu already has. His work highlights the strengths of Emory College’s Department of Quantitative Theory and Methods. Launched in 2014, the department’s QSS major was the first of its kind to give students a mastery of data that must be combined with a concentration in another area of study.

The concentrations serve as the focus for datasets. For Liu, the field of interest is biology. For senior Ke “Lisa” Sun, a second undergraduate that Patel later hired after Liu’s success, the QSS major concentration is computer science.

Their success also helps lay the groundwork for more partnerships linking Emory’s liberal arts excellence on the undergraduate level with the university’s national reputation in research.

“I think our students do so well outside the department because they are interested in more than data,” says Seunghwa Rho, a lecturer and director of undergraduate students in the Quantitative Theory and Methods Department. “If you think about the context underneath the data like Star has done, you see all of the interesting stories.”

Change in direction

Liu’s story started in Texas and was, he thought, supposed to end with him becoming a doctor.

The narrative changed when, exploring classes his first year on campus, he realized he was more interested in understanding the health of groups of people than in treating individual patients.

The QSS major allows him to build on that interest. In addition to regular coursework, Liu also signed up for the QSS capstone program — the College’s first department program that partners with the community on specific projects — and sought out other hands-on training.

His volunteer role at Rollins, which involves extracting data and writing scripts for the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center and the capstone, proved critical in the work Patel needed done.

Not only was Liu familiar with population-level data, his capstone team project creating a fire-risk model for the Atlanta Fire Department helped him understand how to present layers of information in easy-to-digest visuals.

“From the start of my undergrad, I knew I wanted research experience,” Liu says. “I had no set parameters on what that would look like, because I really didn’t know and was willing to do anything that needed to be done.”

Learning by doing

That enthusiasm is what struck those who worked with Liu on the COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard and what allowed him to expand his role on the project.

The framework of the website was done by the time Liu came on board. Yubin Park, an adjunct professor in the Department of Computer Science, had volunteered his skills from his experience with dashboards in his two start-up firms.

But Park warned Patel that she would need to hire a small team of programmers who were skilled at JavaScript to maintain the complex features of the site.

Liu had never used JavaScript and asked Park to help teach him the basics of the programming language. Liu also looked for outside sources to learn more, becoming the sole manager of the site by the time it went public in June.

“Star has been doing the work of two or three engineers. And that’s with regular classwork and his other volunteering,” Park says. “I have given him some pointers, but essentially he taught himself all of the technology and the language. He learned by trying, which is very impressive.”

Among Liu’s creations is the drop-down menu on the dashboard, which allows visitors to select from multiple epidemiologic indicators of COVID-19 across states, down to the county level.

Liu added the feature after the team gave feedback on the website the week it launched, Patel says. Liu was there listening in as investigators discussed ideas to improve the dashboard’s value.

No one directed Liu to take notes, much less take action, Patel says. Yet within the weekend, he emailed her with his solution for the drop-down menu and other small changes.

Then, when the dashboard was active, he worked with a graduate student on her idea to add state-level mask mandates to the data gathered. 

They worked through inferential challenges in a differential analysis that shows states with early mask mandates had lower COVID-19 case rates during the third wave of the pandemic.

Liu and Pooja Naik, who will earn her MPH in global health this spring, are now conducting a statistical analysis for a more thorough examination they hope to complete before Commencement.

“Star has shown a ton of initiative and been a genuine pleasure to work with,” Patel says. “And he has opened my mind up to the College for a whole new pool of student collaborators who I’m excited to work with.”

Embracing uncertainty

Patel is looking into bringing on more undergraduates as the website adds features, such as the Vaccination Tracker.

Liu plans to work on the project for as long as he is able, including after his graduation in May. He is also continuing his work as a fellow with Emory International Student Welcome and mentoring first-year students exploring all majors.

In August, Liu will start on a master’s degree in health sciences informatics-research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The program allows him capitalize on his experience during the pandemic, blending both public health and data science, with additional training for industry work or an eventual PhD.

“It has been an uncertain time, but not knowing can be enough reason to want to learn,” Liu says. “To me, the uncertainty is the exciting part. There is a lot of interesting work to be done to find the answers.”

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