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Quest Whalen, a 2021 graduate of the John D. Bower School of Population Health, is committed to serving her community and using math as a force for good. She is now pursuing a PhD in biostatistics and data science at UMMC.
Quest Whalen, a 2021 graduate of the John D. Bower School of Population Health, is committed to serving her community and using math as a force for good. She is now pursuing a PhD in biostatistics and data science at UMMC.
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#UMMCGrad2021: Biostatistics student on Quest for excellence

Published on Monday, May 17, 2021

By: Karen Bascom, kbascom@umc.edu

Quest Whalen has always been on a journey.

“When my mom was pregnant with me, she decided my name would be Quest because she was on a journey to her destiny,” Whalen said.

So far, Whalen’s quest to learn and to serve has taken her around Jackson and Clinton, to Tuskegee University in Alabama, and back to Jackson as a student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

And at Commencement 2021, Whalen will finish one more stretch of her journey when she graduates with an MS in biostatistics and data science from the John D. Bower School of Population Health.

As a student at Clinton High School, “Math was the only thing that really focused me and drew me in,” Whalen said. The logic behind numbers and calculations made sense to her.

“I know some people don’t have a great experience with math in school, but for me, I can always see the ways that it’s applicable in the real world,” she said.

In 2019, she graduated from Tuskegee with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, ready to learn more.

However, “As much as math intrigued me, I knew by my junior year going into pure math wasn’t the right choice for me,” she said.

Instead, she saw advanced training in biostatistics as an opportunity to use her aptitude in math to help people and communities live healthier lives. With a new program in biostatistics and data science at the School of Population Health, Whalen saw an opportunity to journey home to pursue her interests.

She also chose UMMC because of the school’s role in the Jackson Heart Study, which researches cardiovascular health and disease in African Americans. It also has robust training programs for young scholars like Whalen, who participated in SLAM (Science, Language Arts and Math), the JHS’s high school summer program at Tougaloo College.

Whalen was the first student to receive the School of Population Health’s Robert Hearin Foundation-supported grant to cover tuition and stipend for Mississippians pursuing master’s degrees at the school. Dr. Jeannette Simino, assistant professor of biostatistics and data science, said Whalen models the type of student UMMC’s newest school wants to recruit and train, calling her “bright” and “motivated.”

Jeannette Simino
Simino

“Quest has an insatiable desire for knowledge in the field,” Simino said. “She always wants to learn more.”

For example, Whalen wanted to learn network analysis, so she did it as part of her first summer internship, largely through independent study. She also attended the University of Washington’s Summer Institute in Statistical Genetics, receiving multiple scholarships for the virtual workshops.

“She does not shy away from topics that are unfamiliar or difficult and seeks to understand all facets of data analysis,” Simino said. “She is also a very well-rounded student and can communicate with both scientists and community stakeholders about population health and data science.”

Whalen uses those skills to help others learn, tutoring and assisting for introductory statistics classes in the SOPH and other UMMC schools.

“When I was a tutor at Tuskegee, I would hear students say things like ‘Oh, I just want to get out of this course’. Now, I tell students that math doesn’t have to be hard, it just takes some time,” she said.

Whalen shows off her carving skills for her department's Halloween celebration.
Whalen shows off her carving skills for her department's Halloween celebration.

Whalen is also a presence outside of the classroom. She organized a virtual pumpkin-carving event for the Biostatistics and Data Science program last Halloween, and the year before that was part of the School’s Spooky U booth. Her commitment to service extends outside campus. She has tutored kids at Stewpot Community Services’ after-school program, prepared tax returns for low-income filers through the United Way of Jackson and participated in service activities through her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. At home, she is becoming a “good plant mom” to her new Bonsai tree, reading and spending time outdoors when she can.

Whalen says part of her drive to learn and to serve, particularly in health-related fields, comes from her family. Her grandmother was a nurse in the Mississippi Delta, her mother is a lawyer, her older brother is a physical therapist and her older sister, once a UMMC summer trainee, is a PhD student studying cancer at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee.

“My brother and sister are big motivators for me. I’m always trying to catch up with them,” Whalen said.

She is definitely keeping pace. This fall, Whalen will start her own doctoral degree. The physical journey won’t be far, since she is staying at UMMC to complete a PhD in biostatistics and data science. She is still exploring dissertation research opportunities, but has a few ideas to get her started.

“I’m interested in working alongside a group or project such as the Jackson Heart Study, something that connects to our local community,” she said.