Alexandra Hanlon is leading a new effort in the Virginia Tech College of Science, the recently launched Center for Biostatistics and Health Data Science. Its goal: Provide a strong statistical and quantitative support base for faculty, researchers, clinicians, and students throughout Virginia Tech’s health and medically related research fields.

Launched earlier this year, the program is based at the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences Campus in Roanoke. As director, Hanlon and her team will collaborate with researchers from across Virginia Tech and the region who are studying health-related issues.

Hanlon said the center will help harness how data science and data analytics are driving the health care field more now than ever.

“Recent years have witnessed rapid changes in health care, largely driven by access to big data, advanced health analytics, and quantitative reasoning,” she said. “Such changes include the use of wearable health devices, analytics built into electronic health records, telemedicine, on-demand lab testing, and many others. These changes have the potential to transform health systems to more effectively promote health and wellness, but we will only realize that potential if physicians and other clinicians are trained in the use of data to guide health decisions. This training should include a spotlight on precision medicine and how data on individual risk can be used to inform decision-making.”

The center already has more than 30 affiliated faculty members from the Department of Statistics, the Department of Biological Sciences, and the Department of Chemistry, all in the College of Science; the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering; and Carilion Clinic’s Health Analytics Research Team. 

Additional Virginia Tech partners include the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute; Fralin Life Sciences Institute; the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science; and the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment. The center also plans to partner with educators and researchers in health data science in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area, including the new Innovation Campus in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard.

Projects already underway at the center include studying nighttime agitation in persons with Alzheimer’s disease and how it causes patient suffering and often results in prescriptions for harmful antipsychotics; the effectiveness of long-term use of sleep apnea machines on cognition and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular risks in older adults; and determining if patients at high risk for post-operative atrial fibrillation have an ionic signature that can be predicted prior to surgery.

Hanlon was named a Fellow of the American Statistical Association this past July. She most recently was a research professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. 

Her interest in biostatistics is quite personal, as Hanlon’s mother died at age 37 from breast cancer.

“It was clear to me as an adolescent that our family history of cancer was quite different from others,” Hanlon said. “I decided early on that I wanted to work in cancer research, and make a difference in prevention, as well as in the lives of those suffering from the disease.”

Her first career position as a biostatistician was at Philadelphia’s famed Fox Chase Cancer Center during the late 1990s, where she worked with a clinical investigator who founded one of the first clinics for patients at high risk for breast cancer. At the University of Pennsylvania, Hanlon herself ultimately tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation and underwent surgery to reduce her risk.

“Statistics played an enormous role in my decision-making along the way,” said Hanlon, who also holds the title of professor of practice in the Department of Statistics.