Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the demand for public health experts who possess advanced analytics skills.

After all, data – when properly collected, analyzed and understood – has immense power to inform decision-making. And in areas like public health, informed decision making can save lives.

Azhar Nizam has seen a spike in demand for public health experts with advanced analytics skills. Nizam has worked with Emory University in the Rollins School of Public Health as a collaborative biostatistician since 1988. He currently serves as the director of the university’s Biostatistics Collaboration Core.

“The demand for graduates with strong quantitative skills has increased in all areas of public health, especially over the last few years. Everyone has data that needs to be managed and analyzed and the data sets are larger and more complex than ever,” Nizam explains. “Knowledge of machine learning and predictive modeling is also much more in demand. For this reason, job opportunities for biostatistics majors increasingly require a broader array of quantitative and computing skills. Knowledge of applied statistics is still a foundational requirement for many of these jobs. Still, broader data science skills – such as data management principles, python programming, statistical computing and experience working with large data sets – are now being sought out by employers as well.”

This increased demand for graduates with analytical health talent, specifically in the health and government fields, has led the Rollins School of Public Health to offer SAS training as part of its curriculum. Its biostatistics department provides data management and statistical analysis courses, including a statistical computing course that prepares students for the SAS Certified Specialist: Base Programming Using SAS 9.4 certification exam. Courses in other programming languages and advanced applied methods – such as mixed models, machine learning and data science toolkits – which were previously available only to biostatistics majors are now being offered across the school. And to tie these advanced course offerings together, the school is developing a certificate program in data science – which already has significant student interest across the departments.

According to Nizam, SAS has been an integral part of the program’s curriculum for over three decades.

“Many employers that hire our students use SAS – including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), pharmaceutical companies and state and local public health agencies. Across the school’s departments, we’re seeing students with proficiency in SAS programming for data management and statistical analysis stand out in the job market,” Nizam says. “As an instructor, I feel that learning SAS programming reinforces the thinking skills required to be a good statistical analyst.”

Jenny Peterson, SAS’s managing director for the CDC and NIH, agrees.

“Granularity in data collection, analysis and use is the future of public health. COVID has highlighted the need to pull data from various sources – so we’re not looking at it monolithically. Instead, we’re creating the kind of tailored insight you can only get using advanced analytics like SAS. Data-driven decisions ultimately result in more equitable, effective and efficient public health programs,” Peterson explains.

Before joining SAS in 2021, Peterson spent more than 15 years in public health – including nearly six years for a leading public health organization. Recognizing the need for leaders who can provide data-informed insight into the world’s most pressing health issues, she is passionate about launching skilled analytics graduates into the public health industry.

“In the realm of public health, analytical skills are more in-demand than ever,” Peterson says. “Having graduates with those skills gives them a major advantage in the workforce. We have such a broad talent pool of individuals with SAS skills, and they are a huge asset to the field of public health.”

Nizam, too, recognizes the importance of preparing graduates for this new, data-rich public health environment.

“In 2022, US News and World Report ranked the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University No. 4 among all US schools of public health, tied with Columbia University. This means that our school’s reputation for excellence in research and teaching is becoming increasingly well-known,” Nizam says.

“One of the important strengths of our school is the strong quantitative component built into our master’s programs, as it helps students stand out in the public health job market. I’ve met former students who majored in behavioral science, environmental health and epidemiology who moved into roles with non-government organizations and state and local health departments and effectively became the primary statisticians in their offices – all because of the statistical, data management and computing skills that they came in with.”

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About Author

Lori Downen

Lori Downen is Senior Associate Global Academic Program Manager at SAS. She supports academic programs in advancing analytics education to meet the demands of the labor market with an emphasis on student engagement. She received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Physics, specializing in experimental and computational nuclear astrophysics, and has experience as a mentor and instructor with organizations like the Society for Women Engineers and Women in Science and Engineering.

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