A breath of fresh air: Meredith Franklin uses satellite data to assess environmental exposures

Image of air pollution coming from smoke stack with sunset background.

By Cristine Hall

 

Proving a link between toxic airborne substances in war zones and resulting respiratory illness has been a challenge for many veterans who were deployed in Southwest Asia during post 9/11 wars. Deployment to this region exposed servicemembers with a multitude of airborne hazards including dust, military vehicle exhaust, and open burn pits, which were used to dispose of waste. Heath effects of these exposures were compounded by other stressors of being in a combat environment, such as heat and noise.

 

Meredith Franklin, PhD, an associate professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Preventive Medicine, is changing that by developing a tool to make it easier for clinicians and epidemiologists to characterize the toxins veterans are exposed to when deployed. Her research, in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Veterans Administration, uses retrospective satellite data to get a picture of what was happening in regions where servicemembers were deployed.

A close up of Assistant Professor Meredith Franklin.
Meredith Franklin (courtesy of Meredith Franklin)
“This project has real-world impact on veterans’ health and their quality of life that I find very rewarding,” said Franklin, who started and is director of the Master of Science in Public Health Data Science Program, which integrates biostatistics, epidemiology and computer science.  

 

Franklin, who is from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, studied Mathematics and Chemistry at McGill University and Statistics at Carleton University before working on environmental health projects for the Canadian government. It wasn’t until she went to Harvard University’s School of Public Health that she combined her interests for a PhD in statistics and environmental health.

 

She came to Preventive Medicine in 2010 and launched the Master of Science in Public Health Data Science Program in response to a high demand among biostatistics students for computer science courses and machine learning.

 

“A lot of big biotech companies are looking for data scientists who can deal with and learn from large data sets, such as electronic medical records,” she said. “We train students how to do these data science techniques. Through this program we do a practicum where students get hands-on work with industry to be prepared for the workforce.”

 

The quality of research and the faculty success at Preventive Medicine was a big draw for Franklin. 

 

“There’s a lot of collaboration across Divisions in our Department,” she said. “You’re always working as a team to conduct cutting-edge research.”

 

Health risk? More than 500,000 Americans live within 3 miles of natural gas flares

This map shows the density of flares near oil- and gas-rich fracking sites: (1) Williston, (2) Powder River, (3) Denver, (4) Anadarko, (5) Permian, (6) Western Gulf, (7) TX-LA-MS Salt and (8) Appalachian basins. (Graphic/Courtesy of Keck School of Medicine of USC and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health)
By Leigh Hopper

More than a half-million Americans are exposed to oil and gas “flaring” events — the burning off of excess natural gas at production sites — resulting in potentially serious health risks, according to new research from USC and UCLA.

“Our findings show that flaring is an environmental justice issue,” said Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist and assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“We found that a significant number of Black, Indigenous and Latinx people live near flaring. High rates of poverty and other barriers to health in rural areas — such as a lack of access to health care — could worsen the health effects of flaring-related exposures.”

This map shows the density of flares near oil- and gas-rich fracking sites: (1) Williston, (2) Powder River, (3) Denver, (4) Anadarko, (5) Permian, (6) Western Gulf, (7) TX-LA-MS Salt and (8) Appalachian basins. (Graphic/Courtesy of Keck School of Medicine of USC and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health)
This map shows the density of flares near oil- and gas-rich fracking sites: (1) Williston, (2) Powder River, (3) Denver, (4) Anadarko, (5) Permian, (6) Western Gulf, (7) TX-LA-MS Salt and (8) Appalachian basins. (Graphic/Courtesy of Keck School of Medicine of USC and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health)

The report, published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, found that three oil- and natural gas-rich regions in the United States are responsible for most flaring activity in the lower 48: the Permian Basin (Texas-New Mexico), Western Gulf Basin/Eagle Ford Shale (Texas) and the Williston Basin/Bakken Shale (North Dakota and Montana). Some 535,000 people live within 3 miles of flaring sites in these regions. Of those, 39% — roughly 210,000 people — lived near more than 100 nightly flare events.

“There is growing evidence linking residence near unconventional oil and gas operations with negative health impacts for nearby residents, including impacts on fetal growth and preterm birth,” said Lara Cushing, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and co-lead of the study.

“This includes our recent finding that living within about 3 miles of flaring is associated with increased risk of preterm birth.”

Flaring is used during the exploration, production and processing of fossil fuels, and it is common in oil-producing areas where natural gas recovered with the oil cannot be used commercially. Air quality monitoring studies have indicated that flares — which often operate continuously for days or weeks — release a variety of hazardous air pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and black carbon.

Health risks of flaring could affect residents of 714 counties, 28 states

Along with links to preterm births and other adverse birth outcomes, these pollutants contribute to the development and exacerbation of asthma and effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems, as well as cardiopulmonary problems and cardiovascular mortality. These regions have high levels of poverty and large populations of people of color, including Native Americans in North Dakota and Montana — particularly members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation living on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation — and Black and and Hispanic people in Texas and New Mexico.

Researchers used data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to define the boundaries of all oil and gas shale production areas in the contiguous United States. The data, updated in 2016, include 47 shale plays within 28 basins that intersect 714 counties across 28 states.

The team estimated the density of nightly flares (count per square kilometer) across all 28 basins. Then, the researchers narrowed the study and refined estimates for those with the most flaring — the Permian in Texas-New Mexico, Western Gulf Williston in Montana-North Dakota and Williston in Montana-North Dakota.

The researchers focused on well data from horizontal- and directional-drilled wells that were actively producing from March 2012 through February 2020. Flares were identified with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument Nightfire technology from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Observation Group.

The researchers also utilized data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2018 American Community Survey, as well as a national dataset of building footprints to identify populations living near flaring.

In addition to Johnston and Cushing, the study’s other authors were Khang Chau and Meredith Franklin, both of USC.

The work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R21-ES028417).

USC-L.A. County collaboration to track COVID-19’s local impact

Visiting quarantined mother, communicating through a glass window

By Leigh Hopper

USC and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health are launching a study that will follow up to 3,000 county residents over time to better understand social inequities exposed by COVID-19 as well as other impacts of the pandemic.

The project, called the Los Angeles Pandemic Surveillance Cohort, is a collaboration between the county; USC’s COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center (CPRC), housed within the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC; the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.

“It’s our privilege to help in this effort and actively partner with Los Angeles County to know more about the effect of this virus,” said USC President Carol Folt. “Working alongside the Department of Public Health, our research scientists will provide data that makes an impact in our community.”

Data show that L.A. County is one of the epicenters of the pandemic and that the virus is affecting communities unequally. The goal of the study is to closely track the continued impact of COVID-19 infections on communities and families, even as vaccination programs roll out. The study will allow the investigators to distinguish between those participants who are positive due to prior infection and those who are positive due to vaccination.

Data from 2,000 households

“This partnership between the Department of Public Health and USC will help us get a more complete and accurate picture of the pandemic in L.A. County,” said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director. “Knowing how this picture changes over time will allow us to concentrate our efforts to slow the spread even more, providing resources and services directly to the residents and communities who need them the most.”

The initiative will enlist the L.A.-based market research firm LRW to recruit a representative group of 2,000 L.A. County households, including 2,000 adults and 1,000 children. The aim is to have the group represent the age, socioeconomic, gender, racial and ethnic makeup of the county. Participants will be drawn from neighborhoods with high, medium and low population densities.

Participants will be tested for COVID-19 antibodies, a sign of previous infection, and retested after two to three months. The research team will also track changes in their health and well-being during the pandemic by asking questions about their jobs, mental health and attitudes toward preventive measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.

“Even as the vaccination campaign proceeds and continuing measures such as masking, social distancing and other guidelines are embraced, it is clear that this pandemic has a long way to go,” said Howard Hu, professor and the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine. “A rigorous understanding of the pandemic’s ongoing impact will be critical to devising the public health strategies to navigate this current situation and to allow us to return to some form of ‘normalcy’ as quickly and safely as possible.”

Tips for maintaining motivation and mental energy as the pandemic drags on

Profiles of people. Faces of woman and man wear medical masks. Date. Coronavirus. Love in the distance.

By Leigh Hopper

The end of the pandemic glimmers on the horizon. Deaths and new COVID cases are in steep decline. Many people have been working at home for months instead of driving long commutes. So why do they feel so tired?

USC experts point to one full year of stress brought on by the pandemic — with potentially months to go. In order to thrive, we have to “put on our own oxygen mask first,” said Rita Burke, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It’s critically important during this time to make sure we make time to take care of ourselves, not just those around us.”

Here’s a sampling of advice to help you make it through the marathon.

“Zoom fatigue is real,” said Quade French, a licensed clinical psychologist and consultant at USC Campus Wellbeing and Education. “Technical connectivity issues and delayed timing on Zoom make it harder to pick up and attend to the subtle verbal and nonverbal cues that are so important to us as we connect with others. We are putting so much more psychological energy into processing and being present in conversations. We are taxing our minds like never before.

“If we can step away from all of that for a bit, even for just one minute, we give our minds time to heal and recover.”

During pandemic, pauses are needed to avoid burnout, find motivation

The pandemic can bring loss, grief and suffering, but it can also bring gratitude, meaning and new insights, said Kelly Greco, a licensed clinical psychologist with USC Student Health.

“It’s not an easy task, but it’s possible with prioritizing our mental health,” she said. “Focus on the present moment and embrace what’s occurring. It’s OK in a pandemic to be tired and feel less motivated. Focus on your daily realistic goals, manage expectations and focus on what you did accomplish and your strengths. If things didn’t go your way on a particular day, focus on what you learned, use your resources and make different decisions. A problem-solving mindset helps us thrive.”

Bosses can help their employees stay productive by giving them the time and space to recover fully after hours.

“Employees cannot outrun burnout if their work environment does not support them,” said Patricia Grabarek, a lecturer in psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Companies need to understand the challenges employees are currently facing. Without creating a positive and thriving workplace, companies cannot expect employees to be healthy and productive.

“After work each evening, employees should focus on recovery techniques, including disconnecting from work fully, spending time relaxing and finding a hobby where they can gain mastery. Mastery has been shown in the research to really help employees recharge. Employees can find an activity that is not work-related to learn a new skill — like cooking, learning a new language or practicing yoga.”

High-stress moments don’t mean bad habits win out

Lastly, if you are feeling guilty about being sedentary, lacking motivation or eating too much during the pandemic, you may be failing to appreciate the good habits that are a part of your day.

“It’s not true that we abandon good habits in times of stress and adopt bad habits such as stress eating,” said Wendy Wood, the Provost Professor of Psychology at the USC Marshall School of Business. Wood is an expert in behavioral change, habit formation, healthy lifestyles and habits.

“We have shown in our research that people fall back on good and bad habits when stressed and overwhelmed. The reason is that stress and pressure reduce our capacity to make decisions, so we are more likely to repeat automated, habitual patterns that require little thought. People believe they act on bad habits more when stressed. This is probably because we don’t notice our good habits as much as our bad ones, so we don’t recognize that we are also repeating good habits when stressed.”

Meet our scholarship recipients: Isabella Hauptman

Isabella Hauptman is a 2020 recipient of the Keck School of Medicine scholarship for incoming master’s students. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology degree at USC. She was selected as valedictorian of USC’s Class of 2020.

What has been your journey so far?

Isabella Hauptman (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

My name is Isabella Hauptman and I am in the final year of my Progressive master’s degree in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology. In May of 2020, I was selected to serve as the Valedictorian of USC Class of 2020 and graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science and a minor in Public Health. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and attended Grover Cleveland High School (go Cavs!). I developed an interest in public health early in life and have been pursuing my dream of becoming an epidemiologist ever since.

What drives you to get involved in the population and public health sciences field?

Interestingly enough, I have wanted to become an epidemiologist since the age of eleven. My introduction to epidemiology came from rudimentary elementary school lessons on the Black Plague, which inspired me to conduct my own research on the transmission of diseases. Needless to say, I was instantly sold on epidemiology. The field of epidemiology and more generally public health is critical to the progress of humankind. Years later, I find myself just as (if not more) passionate about epidemiology.

What led you to the Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology degree at USC?

I made the decision to attend USC as an undergraduate because I was drawn to the Progressive Degree Program (PDP). The PDP allows undergraduate students to take graduate courses and work toward the completion of a master’s degree. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to become an epidemiologist and planned to attend graduate school. The PDP would enable me to accelerate my studies and begin my career in epidemiology early. USC was the clear choice for this reason. I decided to complete the MS in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology because it directly aligned with my interests and career goals.

What does this scholarship mean to you?

I cannot overstate what the Dean’s scholarship means to me and my family. I am immensely grateful to have been selected as a recipient of the scholarship, which has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion.

What has been your experience at USC so far?

My experience at USC has been nothing short of amazing. I cherish the memories and friendships I’ve made both as an undergraduate and graduate student. I feel incredibly honored to learn from the best professors and mentors in the field. It is a unique experience to be studying epidemiology in the midst of a pandemic and now, more than ever, I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a difference.

How do you see your degree helping to drive your future?

The MS in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology will propel my career forward as an epidemiologist. The training I received in the program has undoubtedly prepared me to enter the field. I am excited to apply what I have learned at USC to tackle the challenges we currently face in public health, whether it be Covid-19, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, or other conditions. My ultimate goal is to pursue a PhD in Epidemiology.

How are you making a difference in public health outside of the classroom?

I currently volunteer for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in the Biobehavioral Pain Laboratory. The laboratory focuses on research projects that investigate the use of technology (specifically virtual reality) to reduce pain and anxiety during medical procedures. I am approaching my third anniversary at CHLA, a milestone I am very proud of! I am also involved in the USC Chapter of Camp Kesem, which provides support to children through and beyond a parent’s cancer diagnosis. It is my fifth year with the organization and quite easily the highlight of my time at USC.

What message would you like to share with your scholarship donor?

I wish to express my sincerest gratitude for your more than generous contribution to my education. Your generosity is truly a testament to the good-will of the Trojan Family, a community where I so proudly belong. I am confident that my studies will enable me to enter a field where I will make a lasting difference. Your generosity is truly inspiring and I hope that one day I will be in the position to give this gift to another student like me. Thank you for helping me fulfill my dreams and continue my education at USC!

Sabrina Smiley wants to talk to menthol smokers—and retailers

Close up of businessman smoking cigarette

By Landon Hall

A USC researcher and her team are focusing on the lived experiences of Black menthol cigarette smokers by asking them what they think about recently imposed restrictions on retail sales of flavored tobacco products in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.

Here’s the twist: They’re also asking the people who sell those products their opinions as well.

Sabrina L. Smiley, PhD, MPH, MCHES, an assistant professor of research preventive medicine at the Keck School’s Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research, received a grant last year for $546,447 from the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program to gather data on tobacco policy research questions of importance to the Black community.

Her project, a community-academic partnership with Karen Beard, EdD, of the California Black Women’s Health Project, is aimed at studying the impact of the ordinance imposed by the L.A. Board of Supervisors. Starting May 1, 2020, all retail sales of flavored tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes — were restricted in unincorporated areas of the county.

Smiley’s and Beard’s team are interviewing smokers and licensed tobacco retailers. 

“It’s important to engage smokers and tobacco retailers in policy intervention research,” Smiley says. “Research shows that more tobacco retailers are in Black neighborhoods, which contributes to disproportionate menthol cigarette marketing exposure and use. Neighborhood convenience stores are the dominant channel for marketing tobacco products.

“In L.A. County specifically, our research (www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2021/20_0144.htm) shows a disproportionate number of storefront advertisements and price promotions for menthol cigarettes, in addition to the cheapest Newport menthol cigarette single-pack, is found in stores located in neighborhoods with the highest percentage of Black residents.” 

The ordinance is a novel policy strategy. “Will it motivate Black menthol smokers to quit? Will smokers express stigmatization? Perceived discrimination?” Smiley asks.

During a “virtual community kick-off” event last fall to engage and sustain residents and local organizations in response to the ordinance, “some of the discussion was around Newport,” the iconic brand of smokes, Smiley says. “They were like, ‘Newport is embedded in the culture. How do you start to counter that? So this project is an initial attempt to understand the intended and unintended behavioral and social consequences of the ordinance.”

USC tackles vaccination inequities with community COVID-19 vaccine clinic

Sixto Cruz gets a COVID-19 vaccination during the Keck Medicine of USC clinic.

By Gustavo Solis

Keck Medicine of USC nurses and USC School of Pharmacy students vaccinated more than 400 people from the Eastside of Los Angeles on Saturday to help counter disparities in COVID-19 inoculation.

Even though 43% of white and 39% of Asian American seniors have received at least one dose of the vaccine, just 29% of Latino and 24% of Black seniors have been vaccinated, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles County officials said these disparities are due to long-standing issues related to residents’ access to health care and education. Wealthier and whiter communities have much higher vaccination rates in Los Angeles than lower-income, more diverse areas.

“Keck Medicine of USC is committed to increasing vaccination access to those in our nearby communities, many of which are predominantly Latino and African American,” said Felipe Osorno, executive administrator for continuum of care operations and value improvement at Keck Medicine.

“Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, vaccinating our community is incredibly important.”

USC COVID-19 vaccine clinic aimed at communities in need

Saturday’s Keck Medicine clinic, held on the USC Health Sciences Campus, was the result of extensive community outreach aimed at populations whose inoculation rates have fallen behind during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

The roughly 500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were set aside at no charge to residents age 65 and older from eastern Los Angeles. This includes those who live in El Sereno, Boyle Heights and Highland Park, areas that are heavily Latino. Vaccines were also available to health care workers.

Keck Medicine worked with elected officials, churches, community centers, senior clubs and schools to spread the word.

Volunteers distributed flyers in multiple languages, walked door to door and even set up a shuttle from the Ramona Gardens public housing apartments to the Norris Healthcare Center on the Health Sciences Campus.

Among the outreach partners were:

  • The offices of Supervisor Hilda L. Solis and City Councilman Kevin de Leon
  • The Boyle Heights and Ramona senior clubs and the Pasadena and Betty Hill senior centers
  • Faith groups, including Brown Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church and St. Vincent, St. Francis and Sacred Heart Catholic churches
  • Community-based organizations like Alma Family Services, YMCA Seniors and Variety Boys & Girls Club
  • The Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles
  • Schools, including Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet, St. Agnes Parish, Vermont Avenue Elementary, El Sereno Middle, Hollenbeck Middle, East College Prep and Santa Teresita Elementary

Free clinic key step in combatting vaccination disparities

Keck Medicine administrators are committed to continuing partnerships with the city, county and nonprofit organizations to overcome vaccination disparities in Los Angeles County.

Data show wealthy areas have greater vaccination rates. For example, in Beverly Hills — where household income hovers at $109,000 per year — 25% of residents already have received the first vaccine dose. But in Boyle Heights, where the median income stands at $43,000, only 6% of residents can say the same, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of U.S. and county data.

Eastside residents who received the Pfizer vaccine Saturday will have to go back to the site in 21 days for their second shot.

Keck Medicine of USC hopes to have similar free COVID vaccination clinics in the future.

Said Osorno: “We will continue to do outreach to neighboring communities of both Health Sciences and University Park campuses.”

Preventive Medicine welcomes Jeffrey Klausner, MD, MPH

Rear view of man gesturing with hand while standing against defocused group of people sitting at the chairs in front of him

By Cristine Hall

At the height of the materialistic ‘80s, when most of his classmates in medical school were shooting for brass ring specialties like orthopedics and opthamology, Jeffrey Klausner, was ready to call it quits.

A year at a new AIDS research center in Zaire changed his mind. Studying the spread of HIV among heterosexuals in Kinshasa transformed his worldview and inspired a prolific 30-year career in public health, specializing in infectious diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea.

Jeffrey Klausner“No one had ever explained to me that you could be a doctor and do this kind of work—serving public health on a global scale,” said Klausner, who recently joined USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine as a clinical professor of preventive medicine. “It was exhausting, challenging, but it was invigorating in many ways as well.”

After completing his work in Zaire, Klausner finished medical school at Cornell University and went on to work at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan in the ’90s, during the AIDS epidemic. From there he conducted more AIDS research in Thailand, studied at Harvard University, worked for the Centers for Disease Control in San Francisco and completed a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Washington.

As director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health STD Section, Klausner set up the St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers. The clinic recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. More recently after a stint with the CDC in South Africa as head of the PEPFAR HIV and TB Program, he was a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, where he practiced and taught infectious diseases.

Klausner has a large NIH portfolio of research projects in Botswana, South Africa, Peru and Vietnam. The underlying theme in his work is addressing global health injustice—transferring technology and interventions from the U.S. to other areas to improve the community health. In Peru, for example, his team is working to develop a vaccine for syphilis, which contributes to the high rate of stillbirths globally.

He takes great pride in his work as a mentor to his students.

“Part of my joy of being in academic medicine is working with young, smart, hard-working people,” he said. “My teams are very productive because I delegate and allow them to take the lead.”

Klausner’s passion for health equity drew him to USC. He will be working with the  COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center and other faculty on HPV vaccination policy.

“USC has a reputation for serving different populations that traditionally may not have the best access to medicine,” he said. “It is a tremendous opportunity to have a greater focus on community health.”

Preventive Medicine ranked No. 2 in NIH funding nationally

Stock image of researcher in lab.
Stock image of researcher in lab.

By Cristine Hall

USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine has earned a No. 2 ranking in funding from the National Institutes of Health for the second year in a row.

Preventive Medicine was one of six departments in USC’s Keck School of Medicine to reach the top 10 in their respective fields. The rankings are based on data compiled by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.

“The Department of Preventive Medicine is once again proud to have gained this re-affirmation of the research strength of its faculty,” said Howard Hu, MD, MPH, ScD, the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “Behind the numbers is a deep and abiding commitment to generate the scientific evidence that is essential for optimizing the health of large and diverse urban populations, locally and globally.”

Preventive Medicine recently opened a COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center in response to the pandemic and DPM faculty have covered a wide range of research topics in recent years.

“We’re competing better than we used to,” said Tom Buchanan, MD, professor of medicine, the Bernard J. Hanley Chair in Medicine and KSOM’s Vice Dean for Research.

Buchanan noted how difficult it is to secure an NIH grant, which is based on merit. “It takes a good fundamental idea, it takes preliminary data that the idea could be right, and a proposal that is feasible and scientifically very vigorous.”

KSOM’s Ophthalmology Department is again ranked No. 1 among medical schools in the country.

Rounding out the Top 10 is Neurology at No. 4; Physiology and Neuroscience at No. 5; Otolaryngology at No. 7, and Orthopaedics at No. 9.

Neurology, led by Helena Chui, MD, the Raymond and Betty McCarron Chair in Neurology, rose from No. 9 to No. 4, while Otolaryngology went from No. 10 to No. 7.

Meet our scholarship recipients: Melissa Lorenzo

Melissa Lorenzo is a 2020 recipient of the Keck School of Medicine scholarship for incoming master’s students. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Biostatistics degree at USC.

What has been your journey so far?

Melissa Lorenzo (Image courtesy Melissa Lorenzo)

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, I call the Los Angeles area home. Growing up, desiring higher education was regarded as dreaming of a treasured prize — hardly out of reach, yet virtually unattainable. My family, as incredibly supportive as they are, did not grow up with advantages at their disposal that could easily bring me to pursue university and a better life. Yet, I managed to work against the odds: I am the first person in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree and the first to pursue graduate education.

From a young age, I was captivated by both mathematics and the medical field. When I volunteered at the local hospital during my adolescent years, I was already in awe of the environment I was working in, envisioning my career in this field. At the same time, I noticed that my interest in mathematics rose to a high peak when I had the opportunity to take an advanced placement statistics course. As soon as I was introduced to basic applications and theory of fundamental statistics, I was captivated — I immediately knew what I wanted to major in when the time came to apply to universities. But I still firmly held my interest in medicine, as my days spent volunteering constantly reminded me. I eventually found a career path that perfectly combines my two passions: biostatistics.

I acquired my undergraduate degree in mathematics under the statistics option from California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where I conducted a research project studying medical applications and theory of categorical data analysis. Now, I am extremely grateful to be presented with the opportunity of studying the specific field of biostatistics at USC.

How do you hope to make a difference in population and public health?

As mentioned earlier, my passion for health and medicine began with volunteering at a hospital during my high school years. The experience of volunteering during my younger years gave me the gratifying opportunity to help nearly everyone, from patients to doctors, to visitors. I relished every moment of providing assistance of any form, no matter how simple or small the job may be. The volunteering experience instilled in me a drive to contribute to the improvement of public health and medicine by the use of statistics and mathematics.

Due to the pandemic, I am pursuing education in public health and population sciences with a fiercely determined spirit now more than ever. I’m inspired by and in absolute awe of public health professionals and practitioners: they are making more than every effort promoting and fortifying public health and medicine, and it is my sole desire to assist them.

The core of my interest in public health is a simple yet strong desire to help people. If I can manage to be of assistance along the way of my never-ending pursuit of education, that would be all the better.

What led you to pursue your MS in Biostatistics at USC?

Since I have always been fascinated by medicine while being engrossed in mathematical statistics, I chose the program of biostatistics since it artfully combines my passions. When I completed my bachelor’s degree, I still yearned for the knowledge that could be found beyond the undergraduate level. The time to choose a graduate school eventually came, and I knew even then that USC holds great renown and prestige, especially for its specialty in medicine and public health. The Keck Hospital of USC stands among the most highly valued hospitals in the country, and the Keck School of Medicine drew me in when I learned of its plethora of remarkable research towards the betterment of public health and medicine. After taking these facts into consideration, USC became the optimal choice for me.

What does this scholarship mean to you?

From my standpoint, this scholarship offers a vast number of opportunities. Being the recipient of this scholarship provides not only advantageous financial assistance but also gratifying recognition. The name of this scholarship is accompanied by a sense of distinction, which is quite meaningful for me: a person who grew up with a quiet and simple lifestyle without any expectation of pursuing higher education. On top of that, receiving this scholarship means that someone out there genuinely supports students like me, and truly desires to be of assistance in their academic journey. Being aware of the fact that there is a generous person out there who has students of need on their mind is remarkably heartwarming.

What has been your experience at USC so far?

One of my favorite classes thus far is PM 512: Principles of Epidemiology. In spite of the unusual circumstances we are all facing, I still find myself enjoying the class and internalizing considerable amounts of information. Suddenly switching gears from four years’ worth of mathematics to graduate-level public health and epidemiology was certainly an enjoyable and engaging experience. Learning about some elements of the pandemic — such as outbreak investigation and measures of disease occurrence — was almost surrealistic, as I concurrently observed these elements unfolding in the real world, in real-time.

On top of that, receiving news of being the recipient of this scholarship, as well as having the opportunity to feature my story on the department website, has undoubtedly been a notable highlight of my first semester of being a graduate student in my dream program.

How do you see your degree helping to drive your future?

My ultimate goal is to apply statistical applications towards medicine and public health while studying and researching mathematical and statistical theory, and to simultaneously teach the topics I’ve learned and researched. I understand that this goal would require years of academic training; therefore, in order to reach that destination, I found that it would be ideal to acquire a master’s degree in biostatistics as preparation for a PhD in the same subject. By obtaining a master’s degree first, I would be able to strike a balance between statistical applications and theoretical statistics relating to medicine and public health.

To fulfill my desire of endless learning, I plan to continue studying biostatistics through both research and practical applications, while ideally serving as a professor. “The more you know, the more you owe” dwelled in my mind as a prominent proverb for a considerable amount of time, and I aspire to apply this mentality by sharing any knowledge I acquire with my peers — and, eventually, to future generations of students.

What message would you like to share with your scholarship donor?

Please accept my utmost and genuine, heartfelt thanks for your charitable acts and contributions. Without a doubt, the future will bring other students like myself — and with the help you had kindheartedly given to me, it would be my honor to represent those future students, relate to them, and assist them to reach their goals, just how I had been assisted. I dearly hope you know how much your contribution means to me.