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Profile: Tian's Appreciation for Technology and Visualization Impacts Studies of Public Health

January 28, 2013

Nancy TianDr. Nancy Tian

Public Health Analyst
Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations (OPEO)
Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)
Lieutenant, United States Public Health Service
Commissioned Corps, Washington, DC

In November 2011, Dr. Nancy Tian was commissioned to active duty as a Public Health Service (PHS) officer in the Scientist category. She was transferred to the ASPR as a public health analyst from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in March 2012. One thing is certain: her colorful career path began in geography.

Tian’s interest in geography was first ignited by her brother’s Global Positioning System (GPS) related career in China. Shaped by her early exposure to and belief in visualization of geography and public health, Tian’s dissertation research was squarely focused on using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial statistics to understand health disparities in female breast cancer including stage of diagnosis and mortality. Over the last decade, she has observed the rapid evolution of geospatial technologies and how they have become powerful tools in analyzing the relationship between humans and their environment.

Nancy’s career trajectory has closely followed her strong technical skills in GIS and statistics which stemmed from her dissertation research. When she began looking for employment, Nancy knew that a doctoral degree in geography can lead to a range of careers outside of academia, and decided to extend her application to positions in the government sector. After completing her doctoral degree in geography, she landed a postdoctoral position at the EPA, followed by her current work at ASPR which builds on her research on the influence of place and space on public health. As a Public Health Analyst, she is integrally engaged in developing and analyzing the performance measures in the Healthcare Preparedness Program.

Reflecting on geographic skills used in the workplace, Tian recognizes the importance of the applications of GIS and spatial statistics in public health, especially in Emergency Management. Equally important, she observes, are project management skills that include the ability to think independently and “break down a project into smaller pieces to sequentially complete each part and then to bring the individual parts together.” Since higher education tends to encourage specialization, Nancy continually upgrades her knowledge by reading current literature on disasters to complement her technical strengths. She stresses three major, high value skills needed in the workplace that are usually not part of graduate school curricula: 1) communication with colleagues, 2) teamwork, and 3) the ability to adjust to the professional environment. 

Nancy enjoys the dynamism of her role as a PHS officer and finds inspiration in her work through its application of theory, where one “can see the direct impact of our work.”

Her geography background is unique in her unit, standing out from such degrees as a master’s in Public Health or an M.D. Nevertheless, geography is critical to her work; she stresses the value of GIS and mapping skills in providing visualization to the management team, which can be as simple as information about where healthcare facilities are located. Tian’s advice for current students is to broaden their technical skills by taking GIS related courses, as well as those in statistics and programming. To strengthen her knowledge as a public health analyst, she is working towards sharpening her Statistical Analysis System programming skills through training and reading related technical articles. Her continuing education goal is to pursue a master’s degree in public health to enhance her comprehensive understanding of public health issues. As a final word of advice, Nancy suggests that current students be flexible and active in learning new skills and related knowledge required in whichever career path they choose.

— Niem Tu Huynh and Mark Revell

One of the major book publications stemming from the AAG’s current EDGE-Phase 2 is Practicing Geography: Careers for Enhancing Society and the EnvironmentEdited by Michael Solem, Kenneth Foote and Janice Monk, Practicing Geography features contributions from a diverse group of authors from the private and public sectors offering perspectives on career opportunities for geographers in business, government, and nonprofit organizations. The book also explores opportunities in education, working internationally, freelancing and consulting, and offers perspectives on issues of particular interest to students (e.g., getting the most out of internships) and current professionals (e.g., networking and balancing work and home life). Many chapters feature profiles highlighting the work of professional geographers, such as the profiles below. Practicing Geography has recently been published by Pearson Prentice Hall.

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