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UNB Saint John data scientist pioneering in occupational health informatics

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Oct 22, 2020

Category: Computer Science , UNB Saint John , Inspiring Stories


UNB Saint John alumnus Hongchang (Gary) Bao’s (BScCS’19) undergraduate research in occupational health informatics has been published in a leading peer-reviewed journal for digital medicine and health, and has garnered interest from national organizations, such as CanPath and the National Cancer Institute.

While a student in the computer science department, Bao collaborated on a research project through the campus’ certificate of data analytics program. A dedicated and driven data scientist, he helped develop an automated coding algorithm which applies job title and industry codes for the Canadian National Occupation Classification (ACA-NOC) to patient data.

Not only has the algorithm created a huge acceleration and time saving in coding medical records, it will also help link to many sources of open government information that are not being fully leveraged. From an occupational health standpoint, the algorithm will more efficiently relay information on a patients’ exposure to environmental hazards and help predict their ability to perform a particular job or return to work.

As co-author of the research paper, alongside UNB computer science professor Dr. Chris Baker and UofT and St. Michaels’ hospital director of occupational medicine Dr. Anil Adisesh, Bao’s impressive work was presented in Edinburgh at Semantic Web Applications and Tools for Healthcare and Life Sciences 2019, and was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research just months after completing his undergraduate studies.

“It’s very exciting,” says Bao. “The certificate gave me the opportunity to focus on an applied area and develop advanced skills in data science. Publishing in a top journal has given me credibility as a young scientist and has opened the door to an academic career. I never imagined this would happen during my undergraduate studies. ”

Bao says he credits much of his early success to the tight knit faculty at UNBSJ and the opportunities to collaborate on important and impactful projects. Now enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Alberta, Bao is continuing research in Natural Language Processing

(NLP) and hopes to soon pursue a PhD. Someday, he says he would be happy to return to New Brunswick for a faculty position in computer science.

“UNB has had a positive influence on me. What I learned for the last project I did with Dr. Baker is closely related to what I am doing now at U of A. Today I realize the classes I studied at UNB were very helpful for learning core principals and essential skills in computer science.”

Although Bao has since completed his undergraduate studies, the project continues to have a lasting impact on the faculty’s contributions to healthcare in the province and across the country. Last November, the research received important funding from the NBHRF and The Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow's Health (CanPath), a national platform for population-level health research, which is being used to further develop, optimize and scale the algorithm’s performance.

Similarly, the department plans to have a student work closely with the National Cancer Institute this year on the algorithm, a collaborative relationship that stemmed from their interest in the research paper. This algorithm has created a meaningful gateway into many fields of healthcare, COVID-19 research, human resources, immigration and more.

“Gary did a remarkable job and we have new students starting on further refinement of the algorithm this semester too, so it’s a wonderful opportunity to build their expertise in data science,” says Dr. Baker. “Giving our undergrads the chance to work on meaningful projects and getting publications out with their name on it really gives them a leg up to apply for graduate studies, or getting ahead with employment opportunities.”

Alumni from the Saint John campus’ computer science programs are producing high quality work and Baker says they are seeing them go on to pursue further education and training at top tier universities like Yale, Waterloo, and the new Data Science Institute in Virginia, or accepting exciting positions with companies like Apple.

“We are the springboard to help launch their careers in data and computer science.”

The faculty to student ratio, along with collaborative connections with other universities and corporations has helped give graduates like Bao the opportunity to contribute to meaningful research and make an impact in the world as a student.