UNC Gillings Epidemiology Students Bring Data Analysis Training to Public Health Practitioners

Instructor Mike Fliss helps participants navigate through R’s graphical and line-driven interface.

Three doctoral students from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, with support from the North Carolina Institute for Public Health (NCIPH), recently debuted their one-day introductory workshop on R language and the RStudio environment for 22 state and local public health professionals.

Mike Dolan Fliss, MSW, Sara Levintow, MSPH, and Hillary Topazian, MSc, designed and facilitated “R for Epi and Public Health” to provide a hands-on introduction to public health professionals interested in using this powerful statistical programming language in their own work settings. Because R – and RStudio, R’s graphical user interface – is an open-source, community-supported programming language, it is ideal for those working in public health data and other budget-conscious environments.

When asked about the development of the workshop, the training team stated, “We believe R is an integral tool in the future of epidemiology. Yet while there is increasing demand for R programming skills in public health research, most training resources for learning R are not geared towards health data or epidemiological research methods. We developed ‘R for EPI’ to respond to this need.”

The workshop received positive reviews in evaluations, with 94% of respondents stating that they were satisfied with it overall and would recommend the training to coworkers. Eighty-eight percent of participants stated that the workshop provided content relevant to their daily job.

Attendees spend some time practicing data input.

“[The instructors] did a great job covering so much in so little time. It was an excellent balance of practical coding and examples of more advanced techniques to encourage everyone to continue to develop their skills.”

“R for EPI” was presented through three interactive, lecture-based modules: learning base R, data manipulation and statistics, and data visualization, with an opportunity for participants to ask questions about using the software with their own projects. Instructors closed the workshop with brief demonstrations of advanced R capabilities – such as mapping and report building – relevant to public health applications. The instructors designed the workshop to provide participants with a foundation in R programming that they could continue to build upon after the course.

“This was a phenomenal course…[and] I’m looking forward to studying independently & becoming proficient to help expand my skills for my local health department.”

Interacting with instructors during the Q&A portion of the workshop.

The instructors plan to incorporate the feedback they received from this initial program and revise the workshop to allow for more hands-on time with R programming. R for Epi will be offered again in Spring 2020. Workshop dates and registration will open in Fall 2019.

If you would like to express your or your organization’s interest in “R for EPI” or any other workshop or training, please visit our website to view NCIPH’s full course catalog or contact nciph@unc.edu.

Meet the Instructors

Mike Dolan Fliss

Mike Dolan Fliss is a MPS/PhD candidate with the UNC Biomedical Informatics and Department of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, with a BS in computer science and a Masters of Social Work. Mike has worked in NC county and state public health since 2010. Mike has been using or teaching R for social, injury, environmental, and spatial epidemiology for 5 years, including opioid overdose, tobacco and alcohol retail environment, violent deaths, child maltreatment, industrial animal farms, disparities in policing, and public health informatics.

Sara Levintow

Sara Levintow, MSPH is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Her doctoral research uses epidemiologic methods and mathematical modeling to study the psychological and behavioral determinants of HIV transmission and clinical outcomes. Sara is an instructor of UNC’s R for Epidemiologists course and has lectured on specialized applications of R for modeling of infectious disease.


Hillary Topazian

Hillary Topazian, MSc is a PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. She uses epidemiologic methods to study age-disparity and HIV risk among young women in South Africa and sickle cell prevalence among Malawian HIV exposed infants. Hillary will also use R for her dissertation to spatially map health facility data from the RTS,S malaria vaccine evaluation in Malawi.

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