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competition last February and tied for first place at the university-level event. Jacob Mortensen, another secondyear graduate student, is assessing the meteorological impacts of heat on health. “My research is building maps that show which areas in certain cities are at the most risk for extreme heat and the different health outcomes that you get,” Mortensen said. First-year graduate student Spencer Galbraith is analyzing census information for his project. Galbraith is realigning census data so that it can be used at whichever level researchers want. “Census information is used in a lot of different types of research, from sociology to geography. It’s all over the place,” Heaton said. “However, when census information is released, it’s in terms of, say, a county-level summary. Maybe I'm not trying to study counties; maybe I'm trying to study cities, but I only have county level data. Spencer is working to rearrange the data to make the use of census information more practical.” First-year graduate student Kate Gibson is working on a project related to traffic safety and funded by the Federal Highway Administration. Gibson is researching factors that make a road more likely to be the site of car accidents, such as the condition of the road during a particular accident. This project will help fix roads that have problems, as well as suggest new guidelines for the building of future roads. “We’re trying to figure out how to use spatial statistics on roadways, rather than just latitude and longitude locations,” Gibson said. Sierra Pugh, one of the undergraduate students in the group, is studying the incidence of flu, and whether flu season starts at different times in different areas of the United States. Her hope is that this project will lead to a more efficient approach to providing flu vaccine. “We want to find when peak seasons start and end,” Pugh said. “Then, we want to map that across the U.S., so we’re using spatial correlations to estimate it.” Finally, Dalton Bagley, the other undergraduate student in the group, is working on a project, like fellow group member Mortensen, that deals with extreme temperatures. The purpose is to better understand where extreme heat can occur in a city. “I’m modeling data for temperatures for the Houston area and building out models based on a few locations that can be applied to the rest of Houston,” Bagley said.
The students’ projects are sponsored by one of three institutions: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Federal Highway Administration. All three agencies also help pay for scholarships and student salaries. Finding solutions to these real-world problems, however, requires tools beyond those learned in the classroom. “It's not a classroom setting, and because I don't have classroom materials that I can just hand them, they have to learn how to solve these problems on their own,” Heaton said. “So I teach them the real basics of the methods, but then they hash out the details and figure it out.” For the students, the hands-on experience of applying spatial statistics to real-world problems is invaluable. “It's not something that we can learn in a class here.” Pugh said. “You can only learn it through research, so it's really interesting.” The students credit the research they do in the group in helping them plan out their futures, including their education and career paths. “It's a great way to get some exposure to research and find out if it's something that I want to do for the rest of my life,” Galbraith said. And while the students are learning spatial statistics by solving real-world problems, they are also learning from the knowledge and experiences of Heaton and other professors in the statistics department. “The mentoring experience is really valuable because you not only explore a research topic a lot more in-depth than you can on your own, but you have access to a lot more resources that way,” Mortensen said. Heaton said the research his students conduct prepares them for future academic pursuits. “If they do a Master’s or a Ph.D., they're very well prepared because they have this research experience already,” Heaton said. “They're also extremely well prepared for whatever job they decide to go into because they have these skills of tackling a data set, analyzing it, answering questions, etc.” Spatial statistics is challenging, but it’s something that the students love learning. “The math and the coding is hard, but a lot of the ideas are really intuitive because it makes sense to think about things being correlated spatially, so you have that to motivate you,” Gibson said. “You understand where the problem is going.” Heaton hopes his research group will have a positive impact on the world and alleviate important problems in various industries. “Spatial statistics is applied, it’s hands-on, and it’s very problemdriven,” Dr. Heaton said. “That's what we're trying to do— solve problems.”
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