Leveraging Data to Make a Difference.

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epidemiology

Leveraging Data to Make a Difference

Imani Decaille-Hodge, a senior clinical outreach associate at OpenBiome and part-time master’s student in epidemiology, plans to apply her degree to research at the nonprofit, which provides investigational treatments to patients with life-threatening infections.

April 12, 2024
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Once a month, Imani Decaille-Hodge and her colleagues at OpenBiome, a nonprofit research institute and stool bank in Cambridge, have a meeting they call “The Plunge.”

The part-time Master of Science student in Epidemiology says “The Plunge” meetings always begin the same way, with the testimonial of a patient who benefited from novel microbial therapeutics through the nonprofit. The idea is to remind researchers and other behind-the-scenes staff of the importance of their work, since they seldom directly interact with the patients they aim to serve.

“This changed me for the better” is an example of the kind of feedback Decaille-Hodge, a front-facing staff member, says she has received from patients.

As a member of OpenBiome’s clinical outreach team, Decaille-Hodge serves as a liaison for clinical sites and physicians partnering with the nonprofit. Because OpenBiome’s main product is donated stool processed for use in fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), a treatment not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and thus considered investigational, patients must meet certain eligibility criteria to obtain it under an approved research protocol. Decaille-Hodge’s job is to confirm OpenBiome’s partners are compliant with the rigorous checks put in place by the FDA to protect potential patients.

When Decaille-Hodge, who earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from Georgia State University in 2019, joined OpenBiome in 2020, she was captivated by FMT. “We all poop every day, and [that waste] can change someone’s life,” she says.

Over the past decade, FMT has emerged as the standard of care for recurrent C. difficile, the most common hospital-acquired infection in the U.S. and an urgent antibiotic-resistant threat according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. C. diff, as it is commonly known, disproportionately affects people over 65, causing inflammation of the intestinal tract that leads to watery diarrhea—sometimes up to 15 times a day and even involuntarily during sleep.

By transferring fecal matter from healthy donors to sick patients via a capsule or colonoscopy, FMT has achieved astonishing cure rates, documented to approach 90 percent in some studies.

It is a significant achievement given the approximately 500,000 patients affected annually, an estimated 30,000 of whom die of the infection. Moreover, OpenBiome theorizes the microbiome science behind FMT may have even broader applications in global health; as a novel treatment for childhood malnutrition, for example.

The longer Decaille-Hodge worked at OpenBiome, the more interested she became in its research activities. After picking the brains of colleagues, some of whom were BU alums, she decided to enroll part time in the Master of Science in Epidemiology program at the School of Public Health.

While the decision has made this one of the busiest periods of her life—between continuing to work full time at OpenBiome, taking two classes at SPH per semester, and conducting mentored research on the Charles River Campus— Decaille-Hodge says, “You make time for things that you enjoy, and I really like data. I don’t mind sitting and trying to figure out an answer to a question through data. I think it is really interesting.”

In GH811 Applied Research Methods in Global Health with Andrew Stokes, an associate professor of global health, for example, Decaille-Hodge and her classmates are evaluating student use of campus health services. They designed a survey to collect data and are currently analyzing the results to examine how factors such as wellbeing and sense of belonging influence student engagement with mental health services.

Decaille-Hodge says she mainly dedicates evenings to her coursework and weekends to her mentored research project. A significant factor in her decision to enroll at SPH, she says, was the emphasis the MS program placed on flexibility. She was convinced she could successfully balance both her professional work and education.

“All of that holds true,” Decaille-Hodge says.“You can get a very well-rounded education that is also flexible for people that don’t have the ability or the privilege to go to school full time; it’s nice.”

Determined to gain clinical research experience she could directly apply to her career, Decaille-Hodge connected last summer with her mentor Emily Evans, an assistant professor of physical therapy at BU’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. Evans’ lab, Learning Informing Care in Rehabilitation (LINC) lab, leverages clinical data to study rehabilitation practices and improve care. Decaille-Hodge is collaborating with Evans to investigate how emergency department (ED) visits for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have changed from pre- to post-COVID. She cleaned and is now analyzing data on ED visits for TBIs to hospitals with level two and three trauma centers from the National Trauma Data Bank.

“This was the first time I have worked with datasets this large,” says Decaille-Hodge. “In classes, we usually work with smaller data sets, so I can do a lot of checking to see what is right and [catch] any issues that may arise. But the dataset that I have from 2016 to 2021, it [contains] about 1.6 million people, so there was a lot of learning that I had to do along the way. But I have learned so, so much the past year that I have been working on this.”

At OpenBiome, Decaille-Hodge has started exploring how her newly acquired skills in epidemiology could enable her to take on more research-oriented responsibilities. She has noticed that OpenBiome collects an abundance of data that in some cases goes unused, so she recently suggested to her boss how she could use the data and potentially publish her findings.

“I am starting to feel comfortable enough within my knowledge to pitch different ideas,” she says. “I think there is something to [be said that] you do not necessarily have to be front-facing in order to make some type of difference. You can also look at numbers and trends, and that can make a difference.”

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Leveraging Data to Make a Difference

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