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Saving Lives Through...Statistics?

May 12, 2014

Editor’s Note: Amy Jenkins, a 10th grader from Lawrenceville, Georgia, aspires to a career in mathematics. So when the Association for Women in Mathematics sponsored an essay contest calling for profiles of women working in a mathematical science career, she jumped at the chance to enter. Jenkins decided to interview Chinelo Ogbuanu, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Georgia Department of Public Health, about her life and career. The following is Jenkins’ profile of Ogbuanu.

To many, statistics is a mysterious division of mathematics, sometimes regarded with distrust due to an impression that statistics can be manipulated to support any claim possible.  Therefore, it is far from an exalted career path, and it is certainly unknown to many that statistics can aid in saving lives.  Still, Mrs. Ogbuanu validates this claim through her work with data on maternal and infant mortality and similar issues, which has the potential to reveal possible solutions to problematic issues surrounding birth.  From her first love of math to her most recent research project, she clearly exemplifies a mathematician on a mission to improve lives.

As the youngest of four, Chinelo Ogbuanu grew up in southern Nigeria, where she developed an interest in math at a young age.  It continued to be her favorite subject throughout her school years.  Mrs. Ogbuanu says that the reason math has been and is enjoyable to her is that math “is simple and logical...once you know the right formula to use, you are sure to get the right answer.”  After high school, Mrs. Ogbuanu went to the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where she earned an MBBS, a medical degree comparable to an MD.  While working towards this degree, she took a Community Medicine course, where she conducted a meticulous statistical analysis on the sources of maternal deaths and advanced her concentration in public health further.  She later garnered a Master of Public Health degree (MPH) and a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) from the University of South Carolina, all while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.  While doing her graduate work, Mrs. Ogbuanu took biostatistics courses and was enthusiastic about learning statistical methods.  In fact, she declares, “my goal was to learn every statistical method in existence...  [but] I now know that there are so many statistical methods that I am yet to learn.”

From Mrs. Ogbuanu’s passion for math came a desire to be an epidemiologist, a field that necessitates a background with public health training yet also employs mathematics and its technologies quite frequently.  She says that she chose the career because of its statistical aspects:  “In studying the distribution of health and disease states, we employ statistical methods.  I decided to become an epidemiologist because I enjoy analyzing data and learning new statistical methods and statistical software programs.”  Working as a Senior Maternal and Child Health Epidemiologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, Mrs. Ogbuanu investigates characteristics of motherhood- and birth-related factors or diseases through numerous statistical methods, such as measures of center and spread, p-values, confidence intervals, and correlation matrices.  Also useful are statistical tests, like the chi-square method, and regression models, including Cox hazard models for survival analysis.  She uses these techniques to determine the most effective procedures for prevention or treatment of birth-related issues, fulfilling the Department of Public Health’s motto of “We Protect Lives.”  Aside from mathematics, one of Mrs. Ogbuanu’s favorite facets of her career as an epidemiologist is networking with her colleagues through conferences and journals, in which she likes to present her conclusions.

However, Mrs. Ogbuanu loves more than just her career.  She epitomizes the nuclear family with a pleasant marriage (to fellow epidemiologist Ikechukwu) and three lovely children, so it is no wonder that one of her favorite pastimes is to have fun with her family.  Mrs. Ogbuanu also helps out in her church and creates both dance routines and culinary dishes in her spare time.

Recognizing the value of math to students, Mrs. Ogbuanu would like to inspire curiosity in young people, wishing to impart a desire to learn as much math as possible.  Not only is this hunger for knowledge useful now; “math is very foundational to success in any career,” she states.  Even so, many math-related fields are generally characterized by far more males than females.  Nonetheless, because Mrs. Ogbuanu works with maternal and child health data—such as an ongoing task that she calls a “breastfeeding-friendly worksite survey project”—it is only natural that her field tends to possess the exact opposite.  She says, though, that there are no evident difficulties to being a female in her line of work.

Mrs. Ogbuanu’s internationally-renowned work is proof that although they sometimes have a bad reputation, statistics and statisticians demand a second chance to prove their necessity to the modern world.  She truly is a lifesaver, a champion of mothers and babies alike. 

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