April 21, 2020 By Fariss Samarrai, farisss@virginia.edu

Elizabeth Driskill headshot

Class of 2020: Med School-Bound Grad Seeks to Merge Big Data, Health Care

With a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in data science in hand, Elizabeth Driskill is bound for the UVA School of Medicine, planning to use data analysis to benefit patients.

As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, big data in medicine is increasingly important to understanding disease.

One University of Virginia student is particularly well-poised for the new challenges of integrating data science into health care. Elizabeth Driskill will graduate in May with a master’s degree in data science, and in the fall will enter the UVA School of Medicine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2019 after only three years at the University, and used this, her fourth year, to study data science with an eye toward becoming a data-oriented physician.

“I wanted to focus on a different subject than biology after graduating, and I think there are so many opportunities to use data science in the real world,” she said. “With the vast amount of health care data available, I wanted to learn how to extract valuable information from this data to ultimately improve patient care and quality of life.”

The COVID-19 pandemic proves the value of using data science to further our understanding of infectious disease transmission rates and for mitigation, she said.

“People are looking for answers; we are all trying to understand how to live our lives in a pandemic, and it’s the management of data that can help us understand, and it helps hospitals plan for and respond to an influx of patients with infectious disease,” she said.

Driskill recently completed her master’s degree capstone project, which, in an ongoing study, seeks to understand how weather extremes affect the need for urgent care by diabetics who are particularly sensitive to cold and heat. The study is unique in that it focuses on the relationships between weather and climate and emergency room utilization, an area where health care professionals have noticed a possible anecdotal relationship, but with little hard evidence.

Driskill’s adviser on that project, Wendy Novicoff, a professor of orthopedic surgery and public health sciences, said Driskill has the “perfect combination” of knowledge and skills in data science and medicine to ask intriguing questions that bring unique insights to spotting trends in the use of health care resources.

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“Elizabeth and the research team worked incredibly well together, and she was able to find so much of the knowledge that often gets lost in the sea of health care data,” Novicoff said. “I am looking forward to continuing to work with her while she is in medical school, and I am very confident that she will be a great asset to both medicine and data science in the future.”

As a biology major, Driskill took a biostatistical analysis course early on that steered her toward data science. “That was my first real exposure to computer programming, and I really loved the thought process behind it as well as the fact that it could be applied to solve problems in the real world, specifically within health care,” she said.

At that time Driskill was working as a medical scribe in UVA Health’s emergency department. A scribe works closely with physicians, observing patient interviews and documenting important information for the patient’s medical record. The experience is important to the early development of future doctors, offering a front row seat to how medicine is practiced on the go in an intense and busy setting while caring for patients from all walks of life. It confirmed to Driskill that she wants to be a doctor.

“As a scribe, I have witnessed firsthand the vast amount of health care data available and the limited number of people who know how to handle this information,” she said. “Health care data continues to grow, and I think it will be necessary to bridge the gap between physicians and researchers so that this data can be translated into meaningful discoveries and eventually help to improve patient care and quality of life.”

During the summer of 2018, Driskill gained additional perspectives on the practice of medicine at a small hospital in Arusha, Tanzania. There she worked for three weeks with physicians in several specialties, and assisted in obstetrics and minor surgeries, and applied wound dressings and tourniquets.

“I experienced the challenges faced by health care workers in a country where resources are severely limited,” she said.

Additionally, last winter Driskill shadowed an orthopedic surgeon at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, assisting in routine care and observing major surgeries.

“I’m not sure yet what specialty I’d like to go into. I find them all interesting, but as I go through medical school, I’m sure I will find my field,” she said.

As an undergraduate, she also conducted genetic research in the lab of UVA biology professor Paul Adler. There, among other projects, she and Adler used fruit flies to model the type of neuron death that affects Parkinson’s disease patients, with a goal of further understanding the pathways leading to disease and how it impairs movement and causes earlier death.

Driskill also has volunteered with the Special Olympics, is a member of a Christian fellowship group and has mentored young girls as a counselor at a Christian camp in North Carolina.

She also plays the acoustic guitar, sings and writes songs. Recently she completed a song about the COVID-19 pandemic called “Come Out on Top.”

Like other graduating UVA students, Driskill said she is disappointed that Final Exercises for 2020 graduates will not proceed as planned in May.

“I’m fortunate in that I walked the Lawn last year when I earned my bachelor’s in biology,” she said. “And I look forward to walking the Lawn again in four years when I earn my medical degree. Despite these hardships, for those of us who are still healthy, there is much to be thankful for.”

Audio: Listen: “Come Out on Top” by Elizabeth Driskill(4:01)

A song by graduating student Elizabeth Driskill about the ways the COVID-19 pandemic quickly changed her life.


Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications