Breast cancer invades the lives of thousands of Iowans each year, placing its menacing hand on women and their families. These diagnoses represent 28.1 percent of all new cancers among Iowa women, causing a statewide concern as to why so many people are developing the disease.
For fifth-year biostatistics PhD student Amy Hahn, statistics is a key method to helping this rising problem. In her research, she uses statistics to identify areas in Iowa with the high rates of breast cancer.
To do so, Des Moines native analyzes data, such location at birth and diagnosis, year of diagnoses, and age at diagnosis, of Iowa women with breast cancer in order to identify areas that have higher rates of this type of cancer than normal.
Hahn is passionate about her research because breast cancer resonates with so many Iowans on a personal level.
"It's something that so many people are affected by," Hahn says. "I tell people what I'm working on, and they'll be like, ‘My mom has cancer and she's among four people in her high school class that has cancer too.’"
But the process of accessing birth records in rural areas has proven to be a challenge for the study because most records have been moved from hard copies to electronic ones.
“It’s something that affects so many people,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re getting a good representation of the entire state over all the years we’re studying. But the goal is that if we can narrow it down and find where this might be happening to people, other people (researchers) can move forward (with that data) and look at why or what it might be connected to.”
By using statistics and data coding, Hahn is able to pinpoint a space and time where changes have occurred that could possibly be linked to breast cancer. Her work helps researchers follow the correct path in determining why there are more breast cancer diagnoses in a certain location. A large part of her investigation focuses on asking the right questions.
“Was there something that changed in the water policy for the area?” she says. “By looking at the year someone was born and their age of diagnosis, we can focus on environmental, as well as social or biologic factors.”
While a considerable amount of her work is done through coding and modeling on her computer, Hahn also problem solves with other researchers in the field. Together, they help each other answer big questions to solve problems.
“You get to work on a team and collaborate with people and learn new things,” Hahn says. “We do sit in front of the computer a lot, but I really like that we get to turn around and meet with people in the field and get to know their research and their passions, too. It’s kind of nice that we get to put a foot in a lot of different areas.”
Hahn is set to graduate in spring of 2020. She has her eyes on working at a collaborative position at a research institution like Iowa. While her research continues to consume much of her time, Hahn hopes that one day her research will help build the platform other researchers need to help alleviate breast cancer among women.