HSPH student takes aim at AIDS with statistics

4 min read

Bethany Hedt has always been in love with numbers. Her challenge has been finding a way to feed that love while fulfilling an equally strong drive to help the people around her.

With biostatistics, Hedt feels she’s found a way.

Hedt, who is graduating from the Harvard School of Public Health with a doctorate in biostatistics, has used statistics in critical settings around the world. She took a break from her studies last year to work with the government of Malawi on that nation’s AIDS crisis. She spent the summer of 2004 working with the World Bank as an intern and consultant, crunching HIV-related numbers for programs in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

“I believe that having better information will improve health policy, and improving health policy will improve health care delivery,” Hedt said.

A former Peace Corps volunteer and graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), Hedt has loved numbers as long as she can remember. She graduated from UNC in 1999 with a bachelor of science degree in math, but said she was disappointed at the jobs available for math majors. The daughter of an advocate for long-term care residents and a Lutheran minister, Hedt had toured South Africa for three months during her undergraduate years, falling in love with both travel and Africa.

With college over, she applied to the U.S. Peace Corps and was thrilled when she got a posting as a math teacher in a small town in Namibia.

“It seemed like a perfect fit: Teach math, service to the community, and I get to travel. I considered it a win-win-win,” Hedt said.

Hedt spent two years living with a local family who embraced her and helped her adjust to life in the African nation. As her school’s first math teacher in five years, she had a lot of remedial teaching to do, and it would be years before test results reflected the benefit of her back-to-basics approach.

Hedt credits a professor at UNC for suggesting biostatistics as a good way for her to work on social justice issues. In order to have the greatest impact, however, Hedt said she felt she needed a graduate degree. So she applied to the Harvard School of Public Health.

“I’ve never been unhappy being a math major. The truth is, I’m a little bit of a nerd at heart. I love it,” Hedt said. “With math and statistics, there aren’t already paths laid out to put your skills to work in social justice. But without a lot of forged paths, the possibility of making an impact is enormous. There is a real opportunity to make a difference in public health.”

Hedt returned from the Peace Corps in 2001, and when she realized she wouldn’t start at Harvard until the fall of 2003, she volunteered to return to Namibia in a shorter-term commitment as a Peace Corps Crisis Corps volunteer. During that year, she worked to develop an HIV/AIDS curriculum for the nation’s teachers and worked on AIDS education programs in schools. She returned to the United States just weeks before starting her studies at Harvard.

While at Harvard, Hedt’s research has focused on new methodologies useful in disease detection and analysis, as well as on more applied subjects, such as HIV’s impact on Malawi’s police and education sectors.

Hedt, who plans to continue her work next year as a postdoctoral fellow, said she’s been impressed with the Harvard School of Public Health, whose student population is enormously diverse, with people from many nations and backgrounds ranging from medical doctors to policy experts to people interested in quantitative science.

“The work here has made me realize the complexity of the troubles we face and the role quantitative science plays in these puzzles,” Hedt said. “The exciting thing about being here is [that] there is never a lack of things to work on.”