Big Numbers, Big Ideas: Pingsheng Wu
Pingsheng Wu, PhD, likes playing with numbers. She combs through large amounts of data, such as hospital records and surveys, seeking the causes of disease. Although she has worked with data related to several diseases, her current research centers on asthma. No primary prevention strategy exists for asthma, so in determining the causes of this disease, she hopes to find ways to preclude its development.
Of special interest are prenatal factors such as maternal smoking. Dr. Wu’s research questions don’t lend themselves to double-blind clinical trials—after all, she can’t randomize a set of patients and tell some to start smoking—so instead she performs observational studies using medical records from thousands of people to get a picture of which factors, in what combination, lead to the disease she’s studying. Maternal smoking during pregnancy, for instance, contributes to asthma in the child. Other exposures in the womb and after birth, infections, and genetics all play a role.
As an example of the power of observational studies, Wu cites her first project at Vanderbilt as a postdoctoral fellow. She and her mentor, Dr. Tina Hartert, knew that infants born in the fall are more likely to have asthma, but no one understood why. One possible influence was that infant bronchiolitis, an infection caused mostly by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), is also more common in fall babies, because they reach three or four months old during the winter. Many typically begin day care or leave the house for extended periods at this time, which is also when the virus is most common. Using Tennessee Medicaid data, their team was able to demonstrate the causal connection between the infection and development of asthma, thus determining one cause of the disease and solving a long-standing riddle. Of course, this is only the beginning; Wu recently received R21 funding from NHLBI to study the effects of immunoprophylaxis on RSV morbidity and asthma in healthy preterm infants, another of many steps on the path to preventing childhood asthma.
Wu credits much of her success to the “tremendous” resources available to early career faculty at Vanderbilt, as well as to strong mentoring by Dr. Hartert and others. “I used everything” while preparing her R21 and her R01 on the effectiveness and safety of long-acting beta agonists in asthma, she says.
In addition to formal programs like VICTR Studios and Edge Reviews, she presented her work at weekly Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) work in progress meetings and discussed her ideas with anyone who would listen. For her R21, she called her mentors and potential collaborators together to talk about the RFA soon after it came out, and over two hours, the group helped her hash out specific aims from her original idea. Since she received a second percentile score on the application, she must be doing something right. “So I’m going to continue to bug people!” she says.
Earlier in her career, Wu worried about where new ideas would come from. Now, with several grants under her belt, ideas generate ideas. She knows she’s found her niche, and has plenty of things to study as well as many people around to bounce ideas off of. For her next study, she plans to look at the effects of products like the nicotine patch on pregnancy outcomes and childhood asthma. As always, she’ll play with numbers, and keep using these mathematical methods to probe the causes of disease.