My Practicum Experience with CFI and Stepping into the World of Data Science
By: Jack Palillo
I started my Masters of Public Health in September 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. There was a lot of uncertainty in my program, especially being in the first cohort of MPH students to begin fully in the middle of the pandemic. One of the most pressing issues was finding an applied practicum experience that would allow me to display the skills I had gained during the first year of my MPH. I saw a listing online for a “Foodborne Disease Epidemiology Practicum Opportunity”, applied and hoped for the best. Little did I know that this experience would be crucial to my development as a graduate student and ultimately change my professional career path.
After interviewing with Dr. Kowalcyk and various CFI students, I was invited to join the SHARE project (Developing Methods for Assessing the Public Health Impact of Foodborne Illness Using Electronic Medical Records). While CFI traditionally operates in-person, COVID-19 required them to transition to virtual meetings with limited time in the lab within the Parker Food Science and Technology Building. SHARE was a great fit for me as it allowed me the opportunity to finetune the biostatistical analytical skills I had gained from my graduate program as well as learn how to code. Coding had been something I wanted to learn for a long time, but my educational path had never allowed me to explore it. During my interviews when I had mentioned it as a goal of mine, I realized I had come to the right place as this was something that was heavily taught and utilized at CFI.
Under Drew Barkley, I was tasked with characterizing patients who had stool samples submitted within OSU’s healthcare system from 2011-2019. It is critical to investigating foodborne illnesses due to the underdiagnosing and underreporting associated with them. There are many reasons why there is an underrepresentation of foodborne illnesses, but it can be best understood by looking at the events required for an illness to be properly reported/diagnosed. “First, the ill person must seek medical care. Second, a specimen must be submitted for testing. Lastly, the illness must be reported to public health officials”.1 Any break in this chain can cause underreporting or misdiagnosis. Characterizing this break in the chain was exactly what one aspect of SHARE was looking to investigate as it could provide a better picture of the impact that foodborne illness may be causing at the local level here in Columbus. By writing my code I was able to analyze data by selecting the correct collection methods and then interpret those results into an effective PowerPoint presentation. I was able to investigate foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. After much trial and error, I sorted through a data set with over 500,000 observations and presented demographic and diagnostic trends in patients to CFI during our weekly meeting.
Dr. Kowalcyk emphasized that working with her team would teach you professional skills that would go beyond the classroom. While the skills as a newfound data scientist I had learned were very useful, I also developed two very important professional skills. The first was learning to integrate myself into a well-developed team. For the first time in my professional career, I had to be the chair and take minutes for weekly meetings, schedule one-on-one meetings with various team members and even be willing to help out on others’ projects when they had deadlines to meet. The second skill I learned was how to effectively translate research to others. At the end of my practicum, I was required to present my results to both CFI and other MPH students doing their practicums. While CFI was an audience with background knowledge in food safety, many of the other MPH students had focused on other areas of public health. Being able to translate my findings to an audience with minimal knowledge was a challenge, but CFI had prepared me well.
The skills I’ve gained while at CFI have allowed me to successfully defend my master’s thesis and graduate a semester early, submit two abstracts to the International Association for Food Protection 2022 conference, and prepare a manuscript for submission to the Journal of Food Protection. CFI is passionate about mentoring students as this was one of the most rewarding experiences during my graduate education. I will be forever grateful for the skills that CFI has taught me and hope to make a lasting impact in the world of public health research.
Upon graduation, I have accepted a position as a Clinical Data Manager at Massachusetts General Hospital.
1. Scallan, E., et al. “Hospitalisations Due to Bacterial Gastroenteritis: A Comparison of Surveillance and Hospital Discharge Data.” Epidemiology and Infection, vol. 146, no. 8, June 2018, pp. 954–60. PubMed, doi:10.1017/S0950268818000882.