GIS skills can advance your career in health research
Adele Balram is a Database Analyst with the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data, and Training. She holds a professional specialization certificate in Population Health Data Analysis from the University of Victoria, Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Public Health from Memorial University in Newfoundland. Adele has several years of experience in public health, including working as an epidemiologist on environmental and community health issues across New Brunswick. We interviewed about her skills in GIS and how they had contributed to her career path.
Can you share some of your experiences with learning and using GIS skills for health research and how it has advanced your career?
While I had done some practicum work using some basic GIS software skills, I’ve since become much more involved in geospatial work within my current position as a Database Analyst with the New Brunswick Institute for Research Data and Training. A research support opportunity arose using spatial methods to investigate and evaluate health outcomes and it peaked my interest. I knew I would have to enhance my skills in this area so I searched for a course that could provide me with hands-on GIS experience that I could take through a distance learning program while working full time. When I found the University of Victoria’s Population Health and Data Analysis program I was excited. This program offered fully online training including two geospatial courses using ArcGIS – one course in Population Health and GIS and another in Spatial Epidemiology and Outbreak Detection. The skills I learned in these courses really helped my work in a Canada-wide research project that studied “Urban greenness and mortality in Canada’s largest cities.” In this study a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI layer used to assess canopy structure, light absorption, and photosynthetic activity) was created for the country by downloading thousands of image tiles from NASAs aqua satellite at a spatial resolution of 250m on 16 day averages. Using this information, we calculated the annual maximum greenness values averaged over the summer months for each year from 2002 to 2011, and long-term mean values over the 10-year period. This layer was then used to assign green space exposures to individual postal codes in our study.
How have your GIS skills influenced your identity and career goals?
Thinking back now, after completing my Master’s program, I never thought that I would pursue this area of research. Nevertheless, I am now engrossed in the study of environmental exposures, and I plan on continuing my education and research in this subject area. My current job requires a sound knowledge of statistics and program coding. These types of positions have typically been filled by men in the academic environment, as a result, I find that there continues to be push back to accept women into these positions. Many are surprised to learn that I am a woman working in this technical field. However, I am pleased to tell people what I do, and more women should be encouraged to gain geospatial skills and fill these technical positions in the future.
What advice would you give those who are interested in developing or expanding their GIS skills?
Some of the personal strengths and skills that I believe are key to working in the field of geospatial analytics are having a strong statistical background, excellent data management and programming skills, patience and having great attention to detail.
What inspires you in your personal and professional life?
What inspires me in my personal life is my family. I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick with my husband and 9-year-old son. They inspire me every day to continue in my field and to advance my technical skill set and career. They have also been very supportive of me continuing my education and I am very grateful for that. What inspires me in my professional life is the drive to be a leading woman in the area of geospatial analytics and eventually pass this experience along to other women who want to do the same
Geospatial knowledge has an important role to play in supporting the social, environmental and economic health of our society. Knowing how to incorporate space into health research is essential in the 21st century - be it for exploratory analysis, quantitative research or communication.