For Paul Rathouz, Ph.D., it began in the Peace Corps: Stationed in the Central African Republic to work on HIV education efforts, Rathouz’s passion for improving health was ignited.
Now, as director of Dell Med’s Biomedical Data Science Hub and professor in the Department of Population Health, Rathouz’s approach is different: He uses his skills as a statistician to hone research study designs, aiming to bring cutting-edge methods to bear on Dell Med’s mission to shape how people get and stay healthy.
“When I came back to the U.S., I was inspired to pursue public health,” Rathouz says. “I also happened to have this undergraduate degree in mathematics, so I was able to pull that off the shelf and use it to pursue a master’s and then a Ph.D. in biostatistics.”
In 2018, Rathouz joined the Dell Med team to spearhead the creation of the Biomedical Data Science Hub. Rathouz’s primary role as the hub’s director is to work with clinical investigators — researchers who design medical studies involving patients — to ensure that they’re asking the right questions, gathering the right data and interpreting that data correctly.
“There are a lot of assumptions that data science is all about sifting through the information that’s already out there,” Rathouz says. “What’s more important in my role is setting up systems so that they collect good data. We ask investigators: What data is most important to collect? Then, how do we collect it, turn it in to information and interpret it?”
Even before he can ask these types of questions, it’s up to Rathouz and his team to identify which studies the hub should focus its efforts on. As Rathouz reviews potential studies, he keeps a critical eye out for new analysis tools, research questions that will advance medical knowledge, or the opportunity to recruit new populations in a study.
“The range and growth of data types and quantitative tools in 2021 is breathtaking,” Rathouz says. “We spend time improving on these and figuring out which ones are truly quantum leaps.”
Partnerships Near & Far
Rathouz’s work isn’t limited to just the initiatives taking place at Dell Med; he works with groups across the UT Austin campus to create strategic partnerships. His team is working with partners such as Molly Lopez, Ph.D., research associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and Dell Med’s Justin Rousseau, M.D., on EPINET-TX: a network of community health centers for pediatric patients with psychosis. Because clinical sites in this project don’t all use the same data collection platforms, Rousseau and colleagues are developing a pipeline to streamline the flow of information so that Rathouz’s team can use the platform for previously unanswered questions about modalities of care for young adults experiencing psychosis for the first time.
“I reach out often to people across campus to see if they would be interested in biomedical investigation work, and hope to bring in more quantitative methodologists from outside Dell Med,” Rathouz says. “Because our medical school is young and growing, we’re spending a lot more time developing projects than seeing the results of them. The clock has just started ticking.”