A Face Behind Every Number

January 9, 2020
The field of data sciences is a diverse and rapidly advancing field, drawing theories from machine learning, data mining, scalable data storage and digital communication. Baylor’s Illuminate strategic plan names it as one of five signature academic initiatives, committing substantial investment into data sciences projects across a variety of disciplines.

For many, the term “data sciences” brings to mind imagery of rows of code, ones and twos, with researchers behind a computer looking for the next breakthrough. Kelly Ylitalo, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Public Health, however, sees within the data sciences an opportunity to bring a touch of empathy into the often-faceless world of high-tech innovation.

The driving mission and motivation in Ylitalo’s research underlies her approach to working in public health and data sciences: “There is a face behind every number.”

Watershed in Haiti

As a Baylor undergraduate—she earned a degree in biology in 2004, with a medical humanities minor—Ylitalo experienced a mission trip that expanded her view of what it meant to serve. Ylitalo went to Haiti with a team led by fellow Baylor alumnus, Jimmy Dorrell, the co-founder and president of Mission Waco Mission World.

“I didn’t know what epidemiology and public health were at that time,” Ylitalo said. “Looking back, I can see that trip to Haiti as a watershed moment. It’s the first time I observed fully and clearly how infrastructure and basic public health needs were lacking in a whole community.”

Sparked with the discovery of professional opportunity at the intersection of science and math, Ylitalo earned her Master of Public Health in epidemiology from the University of North Texas in 2008 and her Ph.D. in epidemiological science from the University of Michigan in 2012 before returning to her alma mater as faculty in 2015.

At Baylor, she found the opportunity to connect her passion to her research.

Connecting Study to Practice

In the spring of 2019, Ylitalo was awarded a grant delivering more than $626,000 over a five-year project period from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the link between physical activity and healthy aging.

Enriching her partnership with the Waco Family Health Center, as well as the Center’s network of 15 satellite healthcare clinics throughout McLennan County, Ylitalo earnestly set to work in search of, and support for, healthy aging trajectories through prevention. Serving one in every five McLennan County residents, the Waco Family Health Center carries a growing clientele of nearly 70,000 people.

“We know that mobility can decline throughout the aging process, so I became interested in physical activity as a way to facilitate healthy aging and functioning,” Ylitalo said. “My partnership with the Waco Family Health Center really allowed me to be involved in some of their prevention activities. The (NIH) Career Development Award facilitates a link from my previous work in mid-life and older adult populations with healthy behaviors like physical activity throughout the life course so that we can prevent functional limitations.”

“One of the exciting pieces of the Family Heath Center project is the ability to leverage different data types to understand how we can all be more responsive to the needs in our community and generate actionable results for real-time intervention,” Ylitalo said.

Analyzing the Best Use of Resources

Ylitalo’s work is growing to meet needs in and beyond the scope of her research.

“We can promote health with the soft and personalized touch of a community health worker,” Ylitalo said. “We’re looking at ways to couple things like group meetings, where we’re sharing experiences as a community, to the high-tech technologies. We want to leverage health promotion, whether that be diabetes care, self-management, physical activity – still keeping that soft touch, but leveraging the high-tech possibilities.”

With a focus on physical activity and promoting healthy behaviors, Ylitalo has found a home in a Wellness Center for the Family Health Center which provides an expansive fitness center and exercise equipment for the Center’s patients. Innovative approaches to clinical care have allowed physicians to take unique paths to meeting the health needs of clients, including prescribing exercise at the wellness center and even prescribing vegetables from the Veggie Van, a partnership with the World Hunger Relief Farm to offer food and education on preparation and healthy eating habits. Ylitalo’s work helps the Family Health Center measure the effectiveness of these programs.

To measure specific aspects, Ylitalo and her team utilize a data collection app which eliminates the need to enter data manually. The app, developed by Matthew Fendt, PhD, lecturer in computer science at Baylor, combines Ylitalo’s survey work on health behaviors and dovetails with information collected through medical records, quantitative surveys and qualitative focus groups.

Additionally, Ylitalo uses tools that synthesize vast amounts of data to analyze health on a macro level. For Family Health Center patients, that software analyzes exercise referrals, health outcomes of individuals who initiate exercise earlier after the prescription, predictive analysis that could help Family Health Center better utilize resources and improve health outcomes.

“We’re working with thousands and thousands of data points from different sources to make the best use of the resources we have available,” Ylitalo said. “Family Health Center wants to make the best use of programs like the wellness center and vegetable prescriptions. As an epidemiologist, I’m interested in what’s going on in an entire population. We look at what’s taking place as a whole, including the data from individual program participants, so together we can support and improve health in the community.”

Every Person in Every Population

As Baylor continues its push towards Research 1/Tier 1 (R1/T1) status, the real benefit that Ylitalo sees is having a seat at the table in national and global conversations in her field and impacting many others.

“It allows faculty efforts to reach outside the classroom and have an impact beyond our campus,” Ylitalo said. “Public health research and subsequent dissemination of that research can have far-reaching impacts in supporting the health and well-being of local and global communities. As we involve our students in that research process, it also enhances their learning opportunities and skill sets.”

Baylor’s distinct voice and Christian mission position the University to inject a spirit of empathy and compassion into these global conversations.

“When I look at the ministry of Jesus, he was always concerned with the underserved,” Ylitalo said. “I think public health has a similar mission of making sure that every person in every population has the opportunity to be healthy and to be lifted up, offering support to everyone. Public health research and a Christian Research university go hand in hand.”

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