When Loni Taylor presented at the National Big Data Health Science Conference at the University of South Carolina, she expected to contribute important insight into race and Alzheimer’s Disease. Instead, the Biomedical Data Science Ph.D. student experienced much more. She met students and faculty from several institutions who share her research interests. But she also had the new experience of providing the lead presentation for an entire session.
Taylor has presented several papers as a principal investigator. She was excited to be among several speakers at the session “Developing a Taxonomic Framework for Ethics and Biases in Data Analytics Involving Electronic Health Records and other Big Data Sources.”
“But when I arrived, I learned that I was the only presenter and that the session was centered around my topic,” says Taylor.
Starting a conversation on race and bias in data
The title of Taylor’s presentation, “Race and Risk: A Bioinformatic Analysis of Alzheimer’s Disease” was an ideal starter for the session’s discussion on the types of bias in data and ways to avoid them.
Taylor shared research that she and fellow Ph.D. Biomedical Data Science student Gregory Gibs performed on an important area of health disparity.
“We wanted to focus on health issues in the community where we do not have data or success in treatments and outcomes,” says Taylor.
Taylor and Gibbs analyzed the differences in alleles and gene data for Apoliprotein E (APOE) of individuals who are of African descent in comparison with the entire population. Their analysis found a significant difference in the onset of disease by race for alleles and genotypes.
Dr. Bishnu Sarker, assistant professor of computer science and data science, provided guidance and was also a co-principal investigator. He encouraged them to submit the abstract for the conference and helped get it approved.
Taylor admits that speaking before an audience is not natural for her. Dr. Sarker helped her tailor her presentation for her audience. But she also had her own idea to engage the room.
“I tried to add humor to the science with a Pac Man example,” says Taylor. “I could see their interest change as soon as I got through the science and to the human component.”
“It is very interesting to see their reactions in real time instead of waiting for the question and answer session,” add Taylor. “That tells me what to expound upon, what needs more focus, and what are they actually interested in hearing.”
“Loni provided an engaging presentation that was really well received by her audience,” says Dr. Sarker. “She is the first student in our new doctoral program to present at a conference. I have no doubt that her story will inspire many more students to share their research at a conference.”
Making connections in biomedical data science
Speaking at the conference also helped Taylor meet several Ph.D. students and faculty from other institutions.
“I met a few people from across the spectrum. Some students were interested in speaking further with me about the same topic after the conference. I also discussed with others how technology actually fits within the role of health care,” says Taylor.
She also connected with faculty from other universities about potentially collaborating with Meharry in the future.
“I even met representatives from the NIH who were open to further discussions about doing a more extensive dive with their dataset,” says Taylor.
These connections are invaluable for a Ph.D. student who is not far from beginning her dissertation. But she hasn’t had many opportunities to start building these relationships before Meharry.
“This is my third HBCU. I have graduated from two HBCUs and, a lot of the time, the avenues to developing contacts can be very limited,” says Taylor.
“So, to make those connections with people who not only share my research interests, but also other students in my cohort, was a unique experience,” says Taylor.
Advice for future Meharry SACS presenters
Taylor encourages other Meharry students to present at future conferences. She also shares her advice for starting the same meaningful conversations she enjoyed.
“If you have the chance, don’t hesitate to put yourself forward and make those opportunities to speak to people,” she says.
“You can speak to them directly and ask them to come over and talk to you about your research,” says Taylor. “A lot of them are just waiting for you to reach out.