Elin Shaddox, fourth-year graduate student in statistics, was awarded a National Library of Medicine (NLM) Fellowship in Biomedical Informatics, through Rice’s NLM Training Program in Biomedical Informatics and Data Science. This is the second time she has received the funding.
Rapid advances in technology have made it possible for scientists to capture digital information from innumerable sensors, instruments and simulations, but the rapid growth of available data is outrunning their capacity to make sense of it, hindering their ability to make health care decisions. The program addresses these challenges by providing research training to Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers.
Marina Vannucci, Noah Harding Professor of Statistics and department chair is Shaddox’s primary mentor, and Nicola Hanania, associate professor of pulmonary medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, is her co-mentor.
“I feel that the program fosters collaborations that are more interdisciplinary,” Shaddox said. “Bioinformatics is stressed in the program, so I have taken more of those classes since receiving the fellowship. I had to take genetics, which was my first biology-based course since high school!”
Her research through the fellowship centers on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Shaddox works on inferring multiple graphical models to illustrate genetic and metabolic pathways.
“We model the data to show how the pathways are breaking down as the disease progresses,” she said.
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States and affects the lives of over 15 million people. The development of COPD is often tied to cigarette smoking, although genetic risk factors also seem to play an important role in whether or not a person will develop the disease.
“COPD is complicated in that it doesn’t follow the same progression in all patients, so doctors have a hard time deciding on treatment plans,” she said. “The goal of our project is to determine certain genes losing expression from one stage of the disease to the next, so that we can find therapy targets influencing disease progression."
The data that she works with is supplied by the COPDGene Study. It is one of the largest studies ever to investigate the underlying genetic factors of COPD.
The Gulf Coast Consortia and its training arm, the Keck Center, administer the program. It is one of only 16 institutionally-based NLM training programs in the United States and recently won its sixth renewal. Shaddox previously received the fellowship in 2017 and is the third student advised by Dr. Vannucci to receive it.
The Houston native said she was always drawn to mathematics, particularly statistics. “The coolest thing about statistics is the ability to tell a story with numbers,” she said. “Especially in the Big Data world. There’s so much complicated data out there, and with statistics we can actually understand it.”
Shaddox graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She then spent two years working in the oil and gas industry processing marine offshore data, but always knew she would be going back to school.
“Rice was an easy decision. It was the only school I applied to,” she said. “I love how intellectually stimulating Rice is. I have multiple projects and I enjoy working on a lot of interesting things at the same time. The statistics department is a really fostering community.”