New boot camp enables undergraduates to explore career options, growing impact of data analytics on health care

Students investigate some of the biggest issues in health care through Project ENABLE, which encourages students and professionals from diverse backgrounds to explore careers in biomedical and health informatics.

As part of a new seven-week program at Carolina this summer, undergraduate students used data and information they pulled from electronic health records, the census and other research publications to investigate some of the biggest issues in health care.

The students were participating in the inaugural Health Informatics Data Analytics and Visualization boot camp held at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The boot camp is part of Project ENABLE, or the Extensible Network-Accessible Biomedical and Health Informatics Lifelong learning Environment. It’s an initiative to deliver biomedical and health informatics training to people who currently lack access to such resources. The initiative, including the boot camp, focuses on minority undergraduate students interested in learning more about health informatics as well as working professionals needing to advance their health informatics skills.

Undergraduate students from historically black colleges and universities were encouraged to apply to the program.

“Every day I learned something new,” said Joseph Fonseca, a biology pre-med major from Morehouse College. “I was expecting to come in and do traditional research, similar to what I had done previously, but this isn’t the wet lab that I’m used to. This is a whole host of information on data mining, text mining, visualization and medical imaging that was completely new to me.”

Classes and lectures focused on subjects such as data visualization, classification algorithms and programming languages. Through guest lectures by researchers and medical professionals from across UNC-Chapel Hill, students learned about topics such as genomics and virtual reality applications for health care. Students also visited RTI, SAS, Optum and UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center to see how the concepts they were studying are shaping research and medicine.

The boot camp culminated with three teams of students presenting the results of their self-directed research projects.

“I’ve been a research assistant before, but this was my own project and I really liked that a lot,” said Dara Bradley, a rising senior at North Carolina A&T State University. Her team studied how unemployment rates, environmental conditions, educational level and other factors can affect flu concentrations in certain locations. As a visualization, they created a heat map of flu outbreaks in North Carolina.

The program, which was announced in January at a news conference with Gov. Roy Cooper and Chancellor Carol L. Folt, received $1.6 million grant from the United Health Foundation to host the boot camp for three years and develop an online master’s degree program, as well as other online educational tools.

Javed Mostafa, director of Carolina Health Informatics Program and a professor in the UNC School of Information and Library Science, created and leads ENABLE.

“The boot camp students’ enthusiasm and deep interest in health data analytics has further motivated us,” Mostafa said. “They have made a lasting impact on ENABLE and CHIP.”

Fonseca said he sees great potential for utilizing what he learned during the camp when he returns to Morehouse in the fall.

“Something that once took me a week, I can do before lunch in one day now,” he said. “Learning these skills and techniques are allowing us as students – as researchers – to do better and more accurate research at a faster rate.”