September 14, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded $1.75 million to the UofSC Big Data Health Science Center to train junior faculty to conduct infectious disease research using vast amounts of data. Through the Big Data Health Science Fellow program, the Center will provide training, mentorship and 25 percent salary support to five, one-year cohorts of early-career researchers from across the university. The program will be led by Center co-principal investigator Xiaoming Li , professor of health promotion, education, and behavior, and Jiajia Zhang, professor of biostatistics and co-lead  of the Center’s Electronic Health Records Core.

“While junior faculty, as part of the generations of digital learners, have the greatest potential to develop their big data health science research agenda, many face multiple structural barriers to conducting big data science research,” Li says. “Such barriers include the lack of protected time to initiate new interdisciplinary big data research, opportunity to participate in funded big data research, and adequate mentoring. As part of the Center’s professional development mission, the Big Data Fellow program is designed to address these gaps and promote big data health science research at UofSC.”

Li also credits the success of this competitive NIH grant to the strong institutional support from UofSC.  Just two years after its 2019 launch as one of eight UofSC Excellence Initiatives, the Big Data Health Science Center already offers solutions to these barriers faced by early-career researchers.

Led by Li and Bankole Olatosi, co-principal investigator and assistant professor of health services policy and management, the Center brings together researchers/mentors from across UofSC. They have also successfully secured funding to support big data projects, including grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Science Foundation to conduct COVID-19 research.  

One of the most challenging barriers to conducting big data research is the acquisition of the data itself. This is another area where the Center excels. The team leverages local and national partnerships to access existing databases. Through their overlapping work with the SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality, which is led by Li as the Endowed Chair of Clinical Translational Research, they have also established an integrated database of health records for people living with HIV in South Carolina.

The big data found in the health field includes rich, complex information from de-identified electronic health records, mobile technologies, wearable devices, genomic devices and more. Researchers are now able to analyze this data using advanced computational technologies (e.g., machine learning, artificial intelligence) to discover previously unknown connections and unlock answers to persistent and emerging health problems. These answers can help identify and prioritize resources and interventions for high-risk individuals and communities while enhancing researchers’ and clinicians’ understanding, treatment and prevention of infectious and chronic diseases.

“Harnessing the potential of big data embedded in large medical databases and beyond is essential to advancing public health,” says Tom Chandler, Dean of the Arnold School. “We are fortunate to have experts supported by this NIH R25 grant at the Big Data Health Research Center doing innovative research and serving as mentors to the next generation of big data health scientists.”

This next generation includes six UofSC junior faculty who will join the Big Data Fellows program as the inaugural cohort. Representing five different academic colleges/schools, the new fellows include Christopher Goodman (Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine), Sara Donevant (Assistant Professor of Nursing), Stella Self (Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics), Xueying Yang (Research Assistant Professor of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior), Gregory Trevors (Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology) and Diego Leal (Assistant Professor of Sociology).

“The Big Data Health Science Center’s R25 training grant is in accordance with the University of South Carolina’s ongoing transformative focus to have a meaningful and long-lasting impact on our state and our nation,” says Stephen Cutler, UofSC’s Interim Executive Vice President and Provost. The diverse faculty of this program represent five UofSC schools and colleges who are engaged in cutting-edge data-driven healthcare research and discovery to improve population health.”

Xiaoming Li

Xiaoming Li

Program Director

Xiaoming Li is a professor in the Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior, the South Carolina SmartState Endowed Chair for Clinical Translational Research and director of the SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality, and co-principal investigator for the UofSC Big Data Health Science Center.

Jiajia Zhang

Jiajia Zhang

Program Co-Director

Jiajia Zhang is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and co-lead for the UofSC Big Data Health Research Center’s Electronic Health Records Core.