Proving a link between toxic airborne substances in war zones and resulting respiratory illness has been a challenge for many veterans who were deployed in Southwest Asia during post-9/11 wars. Deployment to this region exposed servicemembers to a multitude of airborne hazards including dust, military vehicle exhaust and open burn pits, which were used to dispose of waste. Heath effects of these exposures were compounded by other stressors from being in a combat environment, such as heat and noise.

Meredith Franklin, PhD, an associate professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, is changing that by developing a tool to make it easier for clinicians and epidemiologists to characterize the toxins veterans are exposed to when deployed. Her research, in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Veterans Administration, uses retrospective satellite data to get a picture of what was happening in regions where servicemembers were deployed.

“This project has real-world impact on veterans’ health and their quality of life that I find very rewarding,” said Franklin, who started and is director of the Master of Science in Public Health Data Science Program, which integrates biostatistics, epidemiology and computer science.  

Franklin, who is from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, studied mathematics and chemistry at McGill University and statistics at Carleton University before working on environmental health projects for the Canadian government. It wasn’t until she went to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health that she combined her interests for a PhD in statistics and environmental health.

She came to the Keck School in 2010 and launched the Master of Science in Public Health Data Science Program in response to a high demand among biostatistics students for computer science courses and machine learning.

“A lot of big biotech companies are looking for data scientists who can deal with and learn from large data sets, such as electronic medical records,” she said. “We train students how to do these data science techniques. Through this program we do a practicum where students get hands-on work with industry to be prepared for the work force.”

The quality of research and the faculty success at the Department of Preventive Medicine was a big draw for Franklin.

“There’s a lot of collaboration across divisions in our department,” she said. “You’re always working as a team to conduct cutting-edge research.”

— Cristine Hall