This probably goes without saying, but not every young woman in Hefei, China, plans to soar above Alaska in a helicopter to count moose. But in 2006, there Cici Chen Bauer was, riding not only the helicopter’s lift but also her spirit of adventure and love of math.
She decided to attend the University of Alaska–Fairbanks for her master’s degree in statistics in large part because through the day she earned her bachelor’s degree at Anhui University, she had never lived outside her hometown.
“When I applied for graduate schools I wanted to go somewhere that was far and that was unique,” said the newly appointed assistant professor of biostatistics. “Alaska is a fascinating place.”
Bauer’s Alaskan adventure hit a new peak when she got a job as a biometrician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Conservation. Exotic as it was, her tenure was academically formative as well. In doing the work of estimating wildlife populations (she tracked bears and wolverines, too) and modeling the risk of disease spread among animals, she acquired an interest in spatial statistics and a hunger not only to apply existing techniques, but to develop her own.
It also inspired Bauer’s interest in epidemiology, not just among subarctic wildlife, but among human beings.
Those motivations led Bauer to the Ph.D. she earned at the University of Washington earlier this year and now to her appointment at Brown, where she’ll work with colleagues in both the Program in Public Health and the University’s Center for Spatial Structures in the Social Sciences.
“When they were hiring for this position they were looking for somebody doing spatial statistics, so this really fits my background,” Bauer said.
Indeed her dissertation covered a lot of ground in spatial epidemiology. She studied two applications of the field, both tracking the spread of hand-foot-mouth disease in China and the prevalence of diabetes in Washington state.
Each disease presented statistical challenges that required new ideas in the field. With diabetes, she faced the challenge of statistical bias. The data she had came from surveys, and not everyone is equally likely to fill one out. She was able to develop techniques that employed spatial data and Bayesian modeling to help overcome the effect of such bias, making the data a more reliable starting point to generalize for the real population.
For hand-foot-mouth disease, meanwhile, she generated time-lapse animated maps of the epidemic that showed how it plagued an area and then dissipated like a terrible, slow-moving weather front.
“You see very clear movements over weeks in the year,” Bauer said. “It has cycles of how it moves around over several years.”
The animations seem cutting edge in their own right, but they suggest the possibility of developing an early warning system for areas in the epidemic’s apparent path.
“The problem is for an infectious disease it’s very difficult to detect the exact time when there is going to be an outbreak,” she said. “So we are working to improve that aspect, so we can do better predictions.”
Bauer also helped developed techniques to track specific strains of the hand-foot-mouth disease virus, based on lab tests from a very small number of patients. She essentially sought to amplify that data to allow for a much broader prediction of the advance of the disease’s different forms.
Along the way, she realized that the statistical models she developed to overcome bias in the diabetes survey data could also be used to provide for more reliable tracking of hand-foot-mouth disease strains.
“Even though you look at these very different topics there can be a very coherent framework,” she said.
While Bauer now has a young academic career’s worth of work in spatial epidemiology behind her, the realms of the social sciences are currently more unexplored for her than the wilds of Alaska. But she seems much more excited than apprehensive to begin that work, too. She is, after all, ready for adventure in its many forms.
“To me that’s a new context and that’s very challenging for me,” she said. “So that’s what interests me. It’s a challenge but I want to take it.”