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Sociology student turned data scientist leaves the Institute’s Data Center for San Francisco-based climate change startup

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health

How many students begin their academic careers as a sociology major but end up in public health data science? Not many. One former sociology student did just that and after four years working with the Institute for Public Health and its Public Health Data & Training Center, he’s now headed to a new position as a data engineer at a climate change start up based in San Francisco.

Branson Fox

A success story in the making

Branson Fox, while an undergrad in sociology at SLU, was accepted into the Institute for Public Health’s 2016 Summer Research Program (the Aging & Neurological Disease Track) and while there, learned of the Institute’s Gun Violence Initiative and crime prevention efforts. He then worked with Anne Trolard, then manager of the Institute’s Public Health Data & Training Center, first through an independent study and then as a research assistant. Branson brought his extensive geospatial skillset to many projects and collaborations. He mapped and analyzed crime data for the St Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, and he powered the analyses in this paper on where people choose to get tested for sexually transmitted infections. His analysis found that one-third of patients who sought routine sexual health care in an emergency department had passed by a clinic that was open, offered testing at no-charge, and was available for walk-in appointments.

“The heart of the Data Center’s mission has been to contribute to a local evidence base that can be used by policy makers, program developers, and researchers. Branson lent his incredible skillset to this cause, as well as his collaborative and dedicated spirit.” – Anne Trolard

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fox transitioned to a senior statistical data analyst role with one of WashU’s infectious disease labs, led by Elvin Geng, MD, also a center director at the Institute for Public Health. “This work was incredibly successful,” says Fox. “Our team directly advised stakeholders in medicine, public health, and government; in large part projecting hospitalizations and the impact of policy.”

Fox says his most significant contribution to the Institute for Public Health and the Data Center has been “pushing the envelope on data around crime and vacancy in the city of St. Louis.” In collaboration with community and government stakeholders, he developed a crime dashboard showing where crime is most prevalent in St. Louis, and was first author on a study revealing how vacancies (buildings, open lots) in those areas are associated with an outsized risk for homicide compared to other types of places (e.g. bars, gas stations).

Onward and upward

Soon, Fox will join the data engineering team at NCX, a climate change startup democratizing carbon capture and conservation. He says his time at the Data Center and work projecting COVID-19 hospitalizations based on St. Louis data and health trends, is a good example of the type of work he’ll be doing at NCX. His responsibilities include applying statistical models to predict the amount of carbon absorbed by trees and habitats that may be preserved by forestation or just saving trees.

Some good advice

The greatest lesson I take from my time at the Institute for Public Health is that there is always room for improvement. Your peers should always provide constructive feedback and you should always consider it. Research is always a team effort. My skills have flourished largely due to the freedom I had to learn, explore and carve my own path.

Branson Fox

Fox has some advice for prospective students interested in promoting actionable and effective uses of data to advance population health:

“Bring an open mind and a passion to learn new things. Even if you are unsure of what you want to work on, you’re very likely to figure it out as you go. Make close connections with your peers and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.”

Good luck in your new position, Branson, and thanks for your time and talents, from everyone at the Institute for Public Health.