PSU Math Students Present Public Health Data Analysis

A recent analysis by Plymouth State students evaluated New Hampshire’s potential for issuing more meaningful air quality alerts, spotlighted communities with higher rates of respiratory illness, and pointed to areas warranting further study. Professor Justin Wright’s applied math modeling class presented these and other findings during Spring 2020 finals week through a partnership in which it analyzed spatial trends in respiratory illness and temporal trends in air quality.

The students made their live Zoom presentation to several staff members of the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, including Environmental Public Health Tracking Program Manager Dr. Kathleen Bush and Public Health Protection Bureau Chief Michelle Roberge. The class made use of data collected by five air quality monitors around the state as well as aggregated hospital discharge data, with each student introducing different aspects of their investigation. 

Emily Hill ‘21

“We will examine National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) primary standards as they pertain to public health,” began mathematics major Emily Hill ’21. Her classmates then took turns explaining the pros and cons of different mathematical and statistical approaches, making use of trapezoidal and Simpson’s rules, “hot spot” analysis, and other methods that they have mastered through their PSU studies.

One group analyzed and suggested improvements for the procedure the state uses to determine when to issue air quality alerts based on ozone and particulate matter levels. “This project sought to answer the question: ‘Are we issuing alerts when we should and what would be the impacts of changing our procedures?’” says Professor Wright. 

New Hampshire “hot spots” identified by students.

Another group worked to identify communities that have a significantly high rate of emergency room visits due to asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), both of which are often linked to environmental factors. This project examined public health data to determine if there is any spatial clustering of these health outcomes at the community, regional, or county scale. The students’ presentation revealed the particular importance of this line of inquiry to New Hampshire, which has the nation’s highest rate of adult asthma prevalence. Approximately 4,000 New Hampshire emergency room visits are attributable to asthma annually. COPD, the third leading cause of death in the US after cancer and heart disease, affects one out of every 15 adults in the Granite State. 

The course was run as part of the Preparing for Industrial Careers in Mathematics (PIC Math) program organized by the Mathematics Association of America and funded by the National Science Foundation. The program organizes partnerships between mathematics programs and industrial partners to give students a better sense of doing math in the real world and to give the partners a sense of what mathematicians can do. 

A strong component of PIC Math involves students working as a group on a semester-long undergraduate research problem from business, industry, or government. Undergraduate research is a high-impact teaching and learning practice and has been shown to improve students’ abilities in problem solving, critical thinking, independent thinking, and communicating. All these traits and skills are valued by employers of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. 

John (JP) Arico ’20

The class’s partnership with state government on real-world work represents an excellent example of PSU’s Cluster learning model. The potential impact of his work became clear and a source of strong motivation to mathematics major John (JP) Arico ’20 midway through the semester. “I realized this work could actually mean something, and people who have the power to make decisions could make decisions based on it.”

Tobias Hildebrandt ’21 is majoring in PSU’s new Computational and Applied Mathematical Sciences (CAMS) discipline, and his project work produced several key insights. “The more data the better,” he says, “and learning how to present your data and your findings in a digestible manner is important.”

After their presentations concluded, the students discussed their project challenges with the environmental health experts, who generously provided useful feedback.

Tracking Program Manager Dr. Kathleen Bush commended the students on their valuable work. “It’s great for our program to have this pilot analysis and it’s rewarding to hear the class’s takeaways and big picture view.”

Funding for this project is provided by NSF grant DMS-1722275 through the MAA Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences Program (PIC Math) and the National Security Agency (NSA),