PhD Student Awarded Prestigious NIH Summer Internship Program

A doctoral student in the Department of Communication will participate in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Summer Internship Program

Third-year Ph.D. student Ruth Heo is studying quantitative computational research methods.  Computational science is a branch of mathematics that using computing to solve complex problems.  Heo’s training will help her apply her research towards health-related issues. 

Heo will join a team led by Dr. Brenda Curtis with the NIH Technology and Translational Research Unit.  The Curtis Lab blends uses computational psychiatry to study the interactions between people who use drugs and their environments.  Curtis integrates social media and big data to form technology-based tools to help treat people living with substance abuse. 

As a social scientist, Heo will study social media messaging. 

“There’s lots of observational data from social media that leave digital traces all around,” Heo said.  “We’re recollecting it and applying computational methods like generating a model using natural language processing. We are tracking their posts to see whether their sentiments or some specific knowledge of their health issues can predict their health behavior.” 

Heo is eager to learn how computational methods are applied in the health realm.  She believes studying a person’s social media posts tends to yield better data about their health behaviors than relying only on self-reported data. 

“When a (person) is doing a clinical trial, we can't really predict whether they’ll make a good performance throughout it,” Heo said.  “So, we want to make a more accurate model using their social media posts. If we analyze their posts at the start and then compare their performance after the clinical trial and based on the language they use in their social media, that really predicts the outcome.” 

As an NIH summer intern, Heo will have access to professional development programs such as core competency training and educational and career advising.  Her internship will begin in June. Heo credits two mentors, Dr. Winson Peng from the Department of Communication and Dr. Serena Miller with the School of Journalism for their recommendations to the program. 

As she looks forward to her studies, Heo says she wants to shed light on this opportunity and urge others to follow. 

“I encourage the undergrads in ComArtSci to apply for this internship to get a chance to work with prominent researchers and pave their own path.” 

By: Kevin Lavery