Maternal mathematics

Doan brings data science to summer internship in Tanzania

Photo of Michelle Doan, A.B. ‘25, in front of a red brick Harvard building

Michelle Doan, A.B. ‘25

Ever since she almost went blind due to health issues as a child, Michelle Doan, A.B. ‘25, has been interested in health science.

“Nearly going blind gave me a deep appreciation of how fundamental your health, sight, senses and body are to how you experience the world,” she said.

As she grew older, Doan also became interested in logic and mathematics. She struggled to find a way to combine those interests, but that all changed this summer. A dual concentrator in applied mathematics and economics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Doan worked as a data analytics intern at the Touch Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on strengthening healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa. Doan analyzed the effectiveness of an application and database designed to quickly connect pregnant women to hospitals in Tanzania.

“This experience made me realize how I can be involved in the health space with my math and logical perspective,” she said. “It was such a rewarding application of what I’m learning. I didn’t have to study biology to be in this space. I didn’t have to be a healthcare worker to participate in this space. I could do it by analyzing data and storytelling with numbers.”

Maternal and infant mortality rates in Tanzania are almost 20 times higher than in the United States, though those rates have been consistently declining since 1990. The Touch Foundation platform, called “m-mama,” aims to reduce those rates further by connecting hospitals to find facilities with the resources to treat pregnant women in emergency situations.

The platform was first implemented in Tanzania and expanded to Lesotho this year. Doan analyzed and collected data on the usage and effectiveness of the program to help scale it up in the coming years.

“I was observing referral data they were getting back from each hospital in the regions they were surveying to see if the technology actually impacted whether women were getting to hospitals more quickly or dying less, or if more babies were being saved due quicker medical intervention,” she said. “My day-to-day work consisted of processing all that data, analyzing trends, and putting them into presentations. I’d also go on trips to help with implementation, sitting in on meetings with the Tanzanian government and Minister of Health.”

Michelle Doan, A.B. ‘25 on a safari with a giraffe eating from a tree behind her

For her summer internship, Michelle Doan, A.B. ‘25, did data analytics for the Touch Foundation in Tanzania

Doan came across the Touch Foundation internship through the Harvard Global Health Institute. Passionate about women’s health, Doan had previously fundraised to buy mattresses for homeless women in her native Melbourne, as well for organizations that empower girls in education and public speaking. But this was her first time in sub-Saharan Africa, and first time working in a role in which she’d routinely meet with government officials.

“I was really taken aback at how open they were to me, a college student, being there to try to learn as much as possible and do my best to be helpful,” she said. “I also really appreciated just how open and happy to teach me they all were.”

While always passionate about math and numbers, Doan returned to campus with a newfound appreciation for the importance of data science as it relates to health innovation. She’s currently working for a venture capital firm that specializes in health technology start-ups and hopes that can be another way to bridge her interests in data and health.

“I want to spend the rest of my Harvard career doing so much more training in data,” she said. “If I could’ve entered this experience with a more rigorous training in data, I could’ve been 10 times more helpful. Moving forward, I want to stay in the health technology and health innovation space.”

Topics: Applied Mathematics, Health / Medicine, Undergraduate Student Profile

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