Janssen to lead collaboratory focusing on overdose prevention in Iowa

Portrait of Brandi Janssen, clinical associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
Brandi Janssen

Brandi Janssen, CPH clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health, has been selected by the Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP) to establish a new collaboratory that will gather data to help prevent drug overdoses in Iowa.

A collaboratory is a creative group process designed to solve complex problems and brings together collaborators from different backgrounds and disciplines to expand the scope, scale, and impact of critical public health research. Janssen’s team will collaborate on a project titled “Iowa Substance Use Data Set: Preventing Overdoes Through Actionable Data.” The project is intended to be a first step toward developing the Iowa Substance Use Data Set, a multi-stream, multi-sourced, comprehensive data warehouse for partners, and will include information directly from substance users.

“This data base will be different from existing substance use information sources in that its focus is on timeliness, local relevance, and integration of multiple data sets,” Janssen explains. “The team hopes to design a data warehouse infrastructure to manage storing, updating, and sharing pertinent data. In addition, we will identify the data needs of providers and stakeholders regarding substance misuse and abuse and will design the data structure and applications to accommodate those needs.”

In addition to Janssen, the collaborators include:

  • Stephan Arndt, PhD, Professor, Carver College of Medicine, Psychiatry; College of Public Health, Biostatistics; Director, Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation
  • Ryan Carnahan, PharmD, CPH, Associate Professor, Epidemiology
  • Heath Davis, MS ITIL, Lead Application Developer, Bio-Medical Informatics, Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, Carver College of Medicine
  • Juan Pablo Hourcade, PhD, Associate Professor, CLAS, Computer Science
  • Boyd Knosp, MS, Associate Dean for Information Technology, Carver College of Medicine. Associate Director for Biomedical Informatics Operations, Institute for Clinical and Translational Science
  • Anna Merrill, PhD, DABCC, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology, Carver College of Medicine; Clinical Chemist, Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Iowa City VA Health Care System, Pathology & Laboratory Medicine
  • Jennifer Sánchez, PhD, CRC, Assistant Professor, CLAS, College of Education, Rehabilitation and Counselor Education

Read more about the IIPHRP collaboratories and their work.

UI joins national institute to research bacteria resistant to antibiotics

The University of Iowa is partnering with Iowa State University in a new national institute that will address the global public health concern of antimicrobial resistance.

Christine Petersen
Christine Petersen

Iowa State will be home to the new Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education, aimed at improving health for people, animals and the environment. The University of Iowa Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases—housed in the College of Public Health—is a part of the initiative. Christine Petersen, associate professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, will serve as a co-director of the new institute and will coordinate involvement of participants from the College of Public Health and Carver College of Medicine.

“This new institute will provide a platform for a coalition of scientists from across our agricultural region to consider antimicrobial resistance and stewardship across all partners in health,” says Petersen. “With this new center we will be able to openly discuss the root causes of antimicrobial resistance and the best ways to protect ourselves, our pets, and our livestock from disease while also ensuring effective antibiotics for our future.”

Each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections. Many more die from other conditions complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These drug-resistant “superbugs” also harm the ecosystem and cost multibillions of dollars annually in medical costs and economic losses.

The institute stems from recommendations made by a joint task force of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges in 2015, outlining an array of research and education initiatives to address antimicrobial resistance. The institute will help coordinate and implement those recommendations at universities and veterinary medical colleges across the country.

Other institutions involved in the initiative include the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Mayo Clinic.

Enjoy music, food, and fun at the CPH picnic Aug. 21

All College of Public Health faculty, staff, students, and their families are invited to the college’s annual picnic on Tuesday, Aug. 21 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on the CPHB patio. Food (including vegetarian options) and beverages will be provided.

CPH annual picnic is 5 p.m. Aug. 21, 2018 at CPHB18

Coffey to present CPH Distinguished Faculty Lecture Aug. 29

UI College of Public Health 2018 Distinguished Faculty Lecture

Chris CoffeyWe Built This Network: How NeuroNEXT Increases Innovative Design in Academic Trials


Chris Coffey, PhD
Professor of Biostatistics and Director of the Clinical Trials Statistical and Data Management Center
College of Public Health, The University of Iowa

Wednesday, August 29
12:30 p.m.
Callaghan Auditorium
N110 College of Public Health Building

A reception will follow in the CPHB atrium.

The traditional approach to clinical trials tends to be large, costly, and time-consuming. Correspondingly, there is a need for more efficient clinical trial design, which has recently led to substantial interest in the use of innovative trial designs.

For example, adaptive designs allow reviewing accumulating information during an ongoing clinical trial to possibly modify trial characteristics. Although there are a large number of proposed adaptations, regulatory groups support the notion that all changes should be based on pre-specified decision rules. This often requires research groups to conduct properly designed simulation studies in order to confirm that the proposed adaptations preserve the integrity and validity of the study.

To address this issue, there has been an industry movement towards creating in-house teams primarily responsible for planning and conducting such simulations. Greater barriers exist for implementing this same type of infrastructure within the academic clinical trials environment. For example, the simulations would need to be conducted before the design is finalized – which must occur well before a typical grant submission to support funding for a proposed trial. For researchers who are completely grant-funded, few mechanisms exist to support these complex simulation studies.

As a result, there is a growing divide between the practicality and feasibility of conducting adaptive designs in industry compared to academia. Since acceptance of adaptive designs in general will depend on increasing their use across all types of clinical trials, infrastructure-building efforts are needed within the academic clinical trials environment in order to help further advance the use of adaptive designs.

One recent example of such an effort is the creation of the NINDS-funded Network for Excellence in Neuroscience Clinical Trials (NeuroNEXT). The Network infrastructure provides support for a group of senior statisticians with a great deal of experience in protocol and grant development for clinical trials. This infrastructure dramatically increases the feasibility for using more novel trial designs – including adaptive designs.

In this presentation, Dr. Coffey will provide a summary of the NeuroNEXT experience to date and illustrate how initiatives like NeuroNEXT greatly increase the practicality of using adaptive designs in an academic trials setting.


Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa–sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires a reasonable accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact the College of Public Health in advance at 319-384-1500.

A Statistically Significant Summer

The Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics introduces undergraduates to biostatistics and real-world research.

group photo of Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics participants
The 2018 Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics participants

Data crunching isn’t a typical summer activity for most college students, but for 16 undergraduates who traveled to the University of Iowa to attend the Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics (ISIB), it was a big part of their skill-building experience. During this seven-week program based in the College of Public Health, students with a knack for mathematics are introduced to biostatistics and work in teams with a faculty mentor on a health-related research study, culminating in a final presentation of their project.

ISIB has been drawing talented students from around the nation since 2008, but this year, one team’s research experience won’t end with the last day of the program — instead, the students will continue their work under the supervision of a faculty member at their home institution, along with guidance from their UI faculty mentor. The ultimate goal is to produce a published paper.

This continuing research collaboration is a new addition to ISIB, and is a pilot project aimed at building a stronger research education network consisting of the institute, small liberal arts colleges, and graduate programs in biostatistics.

Building Stronger Ties

The idea for the collaborative project grew out of feedback from faculty at small colleges that refer students to the Iowa Summer Institute in Biostatistics.

“It came to our attention, during the 2017 annual Joint Statistical Meetings, that some of our faculty contacts in small liberal arts colleges couldn’t keep pace with their research agenda due to heavy teaching loads,” notes Gideon Zamba, UI professor of biostatistics and director of ISIB. “Collaborating with faculty from Research-1 institutions was appealing to them. Given that many of our summer research projects can easily lead to publishable research, we decided to pilot test a new collaboration that will build stronger ties with students’ home institutions.”

In addition to enriching students’ biostatistics skills and bolstering participating faculty members’ research portfolios, the aim is that, over time, ongoing partnerships will lead to a research education consortium and a “pipeline” for students to enter biostatistics graduate programs.

The inaugural faculty partner in the pilot project is Darcie Delzell, associate professor of mathematics at Wheaton College, a private liberal arts college located about an hour west of Chicago. Three of Delzell’s students participated in the summer institute and were mentored at Iowa by Brian Smith, professor of biostatistics.

The institute, which is funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, gives priority for admission to underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged students and to students from small liberal arts colleges that lack a substantial statistical curriculum.

“Wheaton offers courses in statistics, but doesn’t have a statistics department. So the students have had some exposure to stats at their college, but are getting more through our summer program,” says Smith. “They’ll take their project back to Wheaton and continue to work on it with their mentor as an independent research project for which they’ll get class credit.”

“I thought the opportunity for faculty at a research university and a primarily teaching college to work together to give students a top-notch research experience was a great idea,” says Delzell about the pilot project. “It not only allows the students to experience real statistical research, but also gives them the opportunity to take this research all the way to publication of the results. There are a lot of summer-only opportunities for students to do research, but it’s rare that research can continue under the mentoring of a faculty member at the students’ own institutions.”

Learning New Methods

photo of Michelle Smith, Prof. Brian Smith, Tabitha Peter, and Sara Magnuson
From left: Michelle Smith, Prof. Brian Smith, Tabitha Peter, and Sara Magnuson

For the three Wheaton College students — Tabitha Peter, Michelle Smith, and Sara Magnuson, who will all be entering their senior year when they return to school this fall — the summer institute has offered a number of benefits.

“For me, deciding to participate in the institute was a perfect opportunity to gain an introduction to biostatistics while learning how to apply statistical techniques to scientific research in the health-related fields,” says Michelle Smith, a math major. “I’ve enjoyed being part of a cohort of students with different backgrounds and having the opportunity to learn alongside and from each of them.”

“The three of us were very excited about the prospect of working on a longer-term research project as well as learning more about and continuing to take classes in applied statistics,” adds Sara Magnuson, who is majoring in applied mathematics and economics.

 For their research project, Peter, Smith, and Magnuson are developing statistical models for medical imaging screening of patients at high risk for lung cancer.

“This is a study that was conducted at Iowa, and the students are working with a subset of the study that includes 200 patients who had a lesion on their CT scan,” Brian Smith explains. “Those patients went on to have a biopsy to tell definitively whether the lesion was malignant or benign.”

The goal of the project is to build predictive statistical models using information from the medical images along with patient demographics to predict which lesions will be malignant or benign, potentially reducing the number of patients who receive biopsies.

“This particular project uses machine learning techniques to build the statistical models,” Brian Smith continues. “Machine learning is used a lot in the tech industry by companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, and for things like autonomous driving and face recognition. Essentially, machine learning helps automate the process of building prediction models from data that contain complex patterns and relationships.

“This is something the students would not have seen at their home institution, and it’s new to their mentor as well. The nice thing about this project is that the students are getting exposed to new statistical methods, and they’ll be able to take this back to Wheaton to work on with Dr. Delzell, so they’ll all learn together.”

Delzell visited the UI early on during the institute to meet with Brian Smith and learn more about the students’ project. At the end of the program, the two professors assessed what aspects of the project were completed, what was left to future work, and what will be needed to move the project toward publication.

Research, Patience, and Career Possibilities

The hands-on research experience was eye-opening for the three students.

“Professor Zamba jokingly said it best: ‘You search, and then you search again, and again… this is why we call it research,’” says Tabitha Peter, a math major. “I’ve learned so much about the perseverance required to do good research; it is a process that has helped me cultivate patience. It’s been humbling to realize how much we don’t know.”

“Going through the research process, it has been cool to read books and papers on topics and models that I then got to try and apply to our data set. It’s helped me realize how open-ended and explorative research can be,” Magnuson says. “I’ve also learned a lot about patience because some of our code for our research has taken hours to run, and at times it can feel a lot like watching paint dry.”

Outside of class, summer institute participants had time to relax and socialize with other ISIB students and UI graduate students in biostatistics.

“I’ve been so thankful for all of the activities that the graduate students have planned for us; we have been to baseball games, had game nights, and cooked together,” adds Peter. “The faculty have been so inviting and available. The hospitality of the Iowa biostatistics department is most impressive.”

Along with a strong network of peers and firsthand research experience, ISIB participants come away with a better sense of career possibilities.

“One highlight of the institute has been all the speakers from the different areas of biostatistics. We’ve heard about opportunities to use biostatistics in industry, academia, research, government, and so much more,” says Magnuson.

“My hope is that the students will experience how fun and interesting collaborative research can be and that this will help guide them as they make future career choices,” adds Delzell. “Statistics is a fascinating field; these students are learning what it’s really like to do statistical research outside of the confines of classroom assignments and grades, and they are working on projects that have the potential to help people and contribute to medical science.”


Alumna Tala Al-Rousan named Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health

portrait of Tala Al-RousanUniversity of Iowa College of Public Health alumna Dr. Tala Al-Rousan (15MPH) has been named an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health by the Atlantic Institute. This is the organization’s first full global cohort of Fellows.

Al-Rousan will be investigating how the stress resulting from war and displacement affects rates of dementia in a group of refugees in the Middle East. She will also be creating a network of experts in brain health to reduce disease burden and use a public health lens to assess aging in the Middle East and North African region.

Al-Rousan received her master’s degree in public health from the University of Iowa and her medical degree from Cairo University. After completing a fellowship in global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, she joined the Department of Global Public Health, University of California San Diego as a postdoctoral fellow. She joined the Global Brain Health Institute as a fellow at the University of California San Francisco in 2017. She is a recipient of two awards from the Aging Section of the American Public Health Association.

“The Atlantic Fellows are energetic, diverse, international leaders who are acting on the world’s urgent needs and collaborating to build healthy and equitable societies. The Fellows’ work, individually and as a community, represents our highest aspirations for what our founder Chuck Feeney and the Atlantic Philanthropies set out to achieve over 35 years ago,” said Christopher G. Oechsli, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The Atlantic Philanthropies has committed more than US $660 million to seed and support the work of the global network of thousands of Atlantic Fellows over the next twenty years. The full list of Fellows, and more information on the programs, can be found here.