Academics & Research News

Pharis fellowship scholars start individuals experiments to improve health of Houston community

DASH meeting over a Zoom video call | Courtesy of Andrew Kapral

DASH meeting over a Zoom video call | Courtesy of Andrew Kapral

The Pharis Fellowship Program began its third year on June 1 as 20 undergraduates embarked on their 10-week guided research experiment. 

The fellowship is conducted by the Data Analytics in Student Hands at the UH Honors College and pertains to the application of data science methods and health modeling to understand the social determinants of health.

The fellowship is sponsored by Humana Integrated Health Systems Sciences Institute and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute.

“Our goal is to bring undergraduate students from a diverse set … of interest and we want to bring them together in an opportunity to launch their work that is in service to wellness and health,” said director of Engaged Data Science at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute Andrew Kapral.

Kapral said this is a real opportunity to expose undergraduate students to methods of working with large data as well as doing it in a way that is of service to improving health outcomes for people in the community. 

“I think one of the most beneficial aspects of the fellowship is the fact that it allows for collaboration with so many individuals with such vast backgrounds,” said computer information systems senior Madhumitha Periyasamy.

This program is a great learning experience, and it would be a shame to not maximize its many attributes,” Periyasamy added.

Due to COVID-19 the fellowship has been moved online entirely. Because of this, the program has had to alter their previous method of functioning.  

Students work on independent ideas to find overlapping interests within the fellowship. From there, students break into small groups based on shared ideas to eventually merge into one hypergraph by the end of the 10 weeks. 

Many of the topics mentioned throughout the fellowship include subjects such as biology, health care business, social epidemiology, technology and education. 

Periyasamy plans on researching the social and health determinants that cause infection in the human body by a particular strain of the Clostridium difficile bacteria. 

Psychology senior Joshua Garcia decided to research the relationship between air pollution and blood pressure to infer risk factors for elevated blood pressure. 

“The beauty of this program is that there are many different members from vastly different backgrounds each contributing their own expertise,” biotechnology senior Sakina Mandviwala said.

“With the focus of the social determinants of health, we are all working towards a common goal whilst each individual focuses on exploring their own topics of interest,” Mandviwala added.

Periyasamy said at the beginning she had doubts about the fellowship going online, however after speaking to the instructors she felt assured that this online experience would be just as smooth as it would have been prior to COVID-19.  

“I’ve found that the online version of this program hasn’t negatively impacted me or my learning in any way,” Periyasamy said.

“Not only does it allow myself and my peers to technologically get our hands dirty with real-life situations, it ties in my interest to positively impact the community and that is one of the most important reasons as to why I decided to apply for this fellowship program,” Periyasamy said.

Although the student objective is to improve the community, they are also looking at how their work will be perceived outside of Houston. 

“The opportunity for our group to present our work at a conference and potentially publish in an academic journal are two things that I have my sights set on,” Garcia said.   

As the fellowship continues to develop, clinical associate professor and director of the Data and Society Program in the Honors College, Dr. Daniel Price, looks towards the future of the program and the effect it will have on the community. 

“We’re hoping to have similar size in terms of student representation,” Price said. “So it wouldn’t get larger in terms of how many students, but it would get larger in terms of the impact.”

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