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Stetson Professor Helps Uncover Volusia Health Needs

Even as a child, Laura Gunn had a knack for statistics. Some of her earliest memories include making a guessing game out of estimating the total cost of grocery shopping trips  — each item added to the cart was another data point and another piece of evidence contributing to an estimation.  She always came within a few bucks.

“It was kind of like a game for us. It was exciting for me to say, ‘How close can I get this time?,’ ” she said of the grocery game. “Even as a child I was estimating. That’s what we do as statisticians, we estimate.”

Professor Laura Gunn working with students

Laura Gunn, associate professor of public health at Stetson University, talks with student Timille Barrow, a junior majoring in biochemistry, and other students from her Health and Medical Statistics class in the computer lab in Davis Hall.

Gunn, Ph.D., associate professor of public health at Stetson University, took that youthful skill to dedicate herself to biostatistics – the melding of statistics and health. She has traversed the globe from Stetson to Imperial College London’s school of public health in an effort to further public health through applied biostatistics. Some of her latest work, through the Volusia County Community Health Needs Assessment Report, had her collaborating with local health care providers and community leaders to focus on local needs.  She was the only biostatistician on a 19-person leadership team that developed the comprehensive report.

“It was very meaningful and impactful to hear other perspectives of what’s going on outside of Stetson,” she said of developing the report.

Gunn, who earned her advanced degrees at Duke University in North Carolina, began her biostatistics career as a research training fellow with the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. In the years that followed, she served as lead biostatistics director and interim associate dean at Georgia Southern University’s college of public health and, later, as the associate director of the Global eHealth Unit at Imperial College London.

She moved to Stetson in 2013, and once was the department chair of integrative health science and public health program director. She was the driving force behind the development of a major and minor in public health at Stetson.

Laura Gunn

Laura Gunn, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public health at Stetson University.

It was because of her expertise she was asked to be a member of the needs assessment leadership team that prioritized countywide health problems. By reviewing data that detailed risk factors and social determinates of health, examining thousands of community surveys and getting input from community stakeholders, the team culled more than 320 factors to develop a three-year strategic plan for five countywide health priorities. They are adult behavioral health, youth mental and behavioral health, chronic disease: cardiovascular and diabetes, barriers to accessing health care services, and healthy eating and physical activity.

Julie Barrow, One Voice for Volusia executive director, said Gunn was essential to culling through data in a meaningful way because she had the “perfect combination of both applied and academic knowledge to bring to the table at every meeting.”

“Dr. Gunn has already established herself and Stetson University as great community champions and partners with a willingness to use university assets to increase the capacity of our community to reach its full potential,” said Barrow, whose organization spearheaded the needs assessment. “Dr. Gunn, her students and programs have a reputation for both reliability and excellence, which was what was needed on this leadership team.”

Gunn said working on the team brought her closer to the community and gave her a greater insight to local needs. She’s already signed on to the next part of the assessment, which includes devising plans for the health priorities and will begin soon.

In the end, the countless hours working on the needs assessment brought Gunn to exactly what she wants to be doing: helping people.  As far back as middle school, Gunn knew she wanted to work in the field of public health, but didn’t want to be a physician. Back then, she’d often ask herself a single question: “How can I combine my critical thinking and my quantitative side with my caring side that wants to make a difference in the world?

“I was really very passionate about caring for individuals,” she said. “Putting them together was perfectly defined as a biostatistician.”

-Amy Connolly