Virginia Loo ’92, who will serve as Punahou’s first Director of Analytics and Planning, spoke with our podcast editor Allen Murabayashi ’90 about her new role, as well as her thoughts on the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At Punahou, Loo will oversee institutional research and help implement data-informed decision-making across the School. She is currently the co-director for the Partnership for Epidemic Analysis (PEMA), where she has overseen strategic planning and continuous quality improvements in the fields of HIV prevention and control and sexual violence prevention. She has extensive experience leading evaluation and research initiatives for the World Health Organization (WHO), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), World Bank, UNICEF, Hawai‘i Department of Health, University of Hawai‘i, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to name just a few.
Here’s a transcript of Loo’s conversation with Murabayashi:
AM: Thanks for joining our team of podcast produced by Punahou School. I’m Allen Murabayashi, an alumnus from the class of 1990. It’s not always easy to steer a 179-year-old institution in new directions, particularly as the rapid pace of technology alters everything from social interactions, to the jobs of the future, to how we respond to pandemics. As such, data collection and analysis has become vitally important in decision making and President Mike Latham has embraced this paradigm by hiring the School’s first director of analytics and planning.
Following a nationwide search I was thrilled to hear that another accomplished, and worldly alumni would be returning to Punahou on June 1st. Virginia Loo isn’t just some data wonk. Her PhD in epidemiology was a coincidental, but serendipitous cherry on the cake during the COVID crisis, and she has some practical ideas on how data can aid Punahou’s future.
VL: My name is Virginia Loo. I’m class of ’92, and right now, I’m a freelance epidemiologist.
AM: Congratulations. You are the new director of analytics and planning for Punahou school, yay.
VL: Yay. I’m really excited about it, yeah.
AM: This is the first time that the School has ever created a position like this for analytics and planning. Can you explain what this new role is and what got you interested in the opportunity?
VL: Sure. A school, for example, is a community that touches on so many different aspects of student and family life and has such a longterm impact on these lives, and people want to make decisions about resources, and what’s important, and how to design curriculum, and how to create a student body that’s diverse, and all these really important issues that impact students and families. They want to make those decisions with the best available information, because if we’re data-driven, then there’s some confidence that when we have to make tough choices, we’re not doing it based on somebody’s pet project, or somebody’s notional idea, but that it’s born out in something that we can measure and understand as real.
And so, I think just because these are such important decisions, it’s helpful to have a team. Really it’s not just a position, it’s going to be a team of people that can help other decision-makers within the School to help faculty, to help even students make decisions based on data, and the School is rich with information, not just survey data, or grades, or other kinds of quantitative measures, but just taking even the experience that students and faculty have in the different ways they’re trying innovations in the curriculum, or in their approach to learning some of these new areas, social, emotional learning.
These are tricky topics, and so, how do we pull different sources of information together, and make sense of it? How do we find the patterns that tell us really what our decisions should be made on? How do we be more cost efficient in what we’re doing? One of the byproducts, it’s not always known, but it’s one of the byproducts of using data, is that it also really helps to refine what your objectives are, right? Because when you’re trying to measure something, you really have to think through, well what is the purpose of this?
We want to introduce social emotional learning in a more comprehensive way, but what does that actually mean? Is that for having better classroom management? Is it about future success and outcomes in people’s lives? Those are two different things, and so, how we measure it will be different depending on what our objective is. I think this is really exciting for this School to take this on, and say we’re really going to have dedicated people to help facilitate it, and certainly it’s not that only this team will be working on data analytics, and planning, but how do we build capacity within other parts of the school to do it?
I think one of the words that we’ll just be collecting mounds and mounds of data, and I think actually the more important thing is how do we use the data that we have more effectively and pull different pieces, parts of the School together to look at data together, and really think what this picture is, and understand it together, because I think data use is a really important aspect of what this position’s going to be doing.
AM: I’ve been a tech entrepreneur for 20 years, and in the corporate world we collect and use data to inform decision making across the company, whether it’s customer service, sales, marketing, engineering, et cetera, but schools historically haven’t operated this way. What challenges do you anticipate both technically and culturally as you move into this role?
VL: Yeah, I think we look at a data-driven organization from a business model perspective sometimes. That’s like the more obvious way we think about using data and making decisions with data, and I think the big difference in some of that is that the kinds of decisions that we’re making in education are very nuanced. It’s not this idea of a black and white sort of bottom line or financial sort of picture only, right? There’s a lot of qualitative pieces that have to be taken into consideration, and it’s just a much more complex kind of decision-making. One of the challenges is helping people not be fearful that data are used to judge performance.
People sometimes think, ‘Okay, we’re going to be rated; we’re going to have quantitative data that makes a decision automated. It’s going to be a yes going to be yes, no. It’s kind of threshold exercise.’ And, that’s really not the kind of data analytics that is envisioned. I think for the School in terms of how we make decisions together, it’s really much more diagnostic. How do we understand, what is the picture of student outcomes? This is not intended to be a measuring just performance, but understanding how things are working, and help people to make improvements about what they’re doing.
I think also, the big challenge is always making people feel like the data is useful for them, that it’s not just I give out all this data, or I collect this data, but that actually it comes back, and that I use it for myself, because it’s valuable for me, that people really have that sort of buy into it, and so, that’s something I think we’re going to have to build in over time. And some people are more interested in it on the face of it, and so, we can build on that interest, and then, over time people can see, ‘Oh yeah, these projects have been useful. It does help me in something that I care about, and that I think is important.’ And so, hopefully that will make a big difference in how we use data, sort of build that culture in the School.
AM: Professional sports is an area where data collection analysis and decision making has really exploded, yet some critics of that approach have said that it ruins the game. For example, in basketball nowadays, because of data, you either take the three point shot or you dunk. There’s no mid-range game any more because it’s statistically parallels? Do you think there’s any risk of becoming too data-driven and removing some of that je ne sais quoi that a teacher might dream up?
VL: I don’t think we’re in danger of that. I mean, frankly, we all use data every day in our own way, so it’s the kind of inputs a teacher is constantly taking in data, and figuring out what’s working for his or her students.
AM: I’m a Yale graduate, so I have to say, you turned out okay for being a Harvard graduate.
VL: Oh, thanks, that’s a big compliment from you.
AM: You received a degree in chemistry from Harvard, and it’s weird to say this, but at a time where from my recollection there still weren’t many women going into science. I’m curious as to whether there were certain classes or teachers at Punahou that sparked your interest, or was this kind of an exploration you did at college?
VL: Oh, actually what happened. I think it was senior year of Punahou. They offered their first, I forgot exactly what they called it, women’s studies course. It was a team taught course with Kathy Boswell and Paula Hodges, so it was a science-English class, and we read literature, but we read science topic articles and everything, so it was an intro to women’s studies, and that was a great class, and that it didn’t have to be a combination of science and literature, but that was maybe the foresight of those two department chairs at that time to really put it together, and it was a great course, and so, maybe that definitely had some influence.
My mom is also a chemist, she’s a scientist. I feel like in my family I’ve had of those models already, but maybe it just, every little bit helps that you can see yourself in a field that maybe you don’t see a lot of other people, and maybe at that time it was a while ago, a lot of people that were going into chemistry were also pre-med. I think the field of medicine is an area where there’s a lot more women or definitely a lot more women now, and that’s maybe one of the earlier areas where people saw themselves in science, and it was easier to be a woman in science, and that kind of context, I think, much more common.
AM: You have a PhD in epidemiology? You worked at the CDC. You’ve worked in New Delhi for the Gates Foundation, and you’ve studied large scale HIV prevention programs, so you’re very experienced.
AM: Can you contextualize how big a threat COVID-19 is in your opinion?
VL: Well, I think it’s interesting because this epidemic is, or pandemic is really coming to the attention of people in the States, and then, in Europe in a way that I think a pandemic like HIV doesn’t really hit home in the same way in terms of it’s really affecting people directly. And I think people can see what the impact could be, not just on health, and deaths and sickness, but really on the economy, right? That’s the thing that people have really paid attention to, because this impacts everybody. Whether you get it or not, it’s going to impact you. In a pretty significant way, it already has.
Epidemics like AIDS have really hit very hard in other places, in other countries, and we’ve maybe had the luxury of being a little distant from it, and not really seeing how this hits home, but I look at places like New York and Washington and Louisiana, these places that really seem to be out of control, and it’s quite frightening. The thing that makes me really shudder is how this is going to unfold in a place like India, and a place like Africa, where they just don’t have infrastructure, where there’s a lot of population density, and they just don’t have a way to do the measures that we know are going to make a difference to control it.
AM: India has 1.3 billion people. Before [India’s Prime Minister Narendra] Modi enacted some lockdown measures they were reporting less than 200 cases in the entire country. You lived and worked there. What should we believe coming out of a place like India?
VL: Clearly they have been in a situation where they have not been able to test the same way a lot of other places have. The nature of the initial testing has been requiring pretty sophisticated machinery, and so, it’s just not something that they can necessarily ramp up in the same way they could maybe a different kind of blood tests for example. They just didn’t have very much information. They could see what was happening in other places, and then, they could draw the conclusion that yeah, it’s going to spread. There’s no question about it. It’s highly transmissible, and so, they’re going to do this really intense lockdown.
Can you imagine how that could possibly work in a place where people just don’t really have personal space, or resources, or running water all the time? And, how does this message get out to sort of the rural area, places that are very disconnected maybe from information? It’s a really tough challenge. I think that’s partly why they’ve had to be so draconian in the first instance. I think people got four or five hours of notice, and the enforcement has been very heavy.
AM: Many countries have instigated various mitigation policies. In China, we saw a lockdown of tens of millions of people. In Sweden by contrast, they’re allowing groups of 50 people to still congregate. Hawai‘i is geographically isolated, and therefore we can implement a different mitigation strategy than a place like Rhode Island, where they’re setting up roadblocks and checking license plates. What are we doing right as the state and where could we improve?
VL: I really hesitate to bring my opinion into this, because I know that I don’t have all the information that people making decisions are making, so I’m not speaking from a particularly informed place. I can only read the news and watch the numbers that are coming in. It’s very heartening that they’re trying to get more data. They know that they just don’t have the resource to really do the wide scale testing that would be most effective. I mean, they just don’t have that resource, and so, given that reality the things that, for example, UH has launched a survey recently, an online survey to try to track symptoms.
But also, if people have been tested, or they know their COVID results, trying to map in a different way, so using other kinds of tools to gather the kind of information that might be helpful to figure out where pockets are. I think, some of the information that I would like to see, we know what the case numbers are like, we know hospitalizations, but we don’t know the denominator. We don’t know really what the scale of testing, how it’s changed. If you had some of that detail then I think it would be easier to interpret what the numbers are saying.
For a while I was feeling optimistic that with the Island travel being shut down a bit in terms of just fewer people traveling. Those things seem to have been good in terms of just reducing the kinds of import of people. It’s sort of that idea that the more isolated these pockets, these Islands can be, that feels like a really important thing. I think that’s one of the advantages of us, that we’re not just a small state cutoff from the rest of the United States, but we’re also Islands and that’s really important for reducing the spread.
I’m not sure I could say specifically what I think the government should be doing differently. I get the feeling from friends and family that people feel like they don’t have good information, and maybe they’re suspicious that people aren’t telling them everything, and I think sometimes people think like there isn’t information. But working with the CDC, and sort of being trained in that system, I kind of have the sense that part of public health messaging is being really clear and simple for the public, so there’s not misinterpretation. And so, I can imagine that part of controlling information is to not give people the wrong idea, right?
So, if you put information out there, but you don’t interpret it for people in the way that you understand best what’s happening, it’s very easy for a lot of speculation to drive different kinds of messaging, and have people do different things. For example, people want to know where these infections are happening, what neighborhoods, and zip codes, and what have you, and you can imagine people thought, ‘Oh, it’s only happening in one part of the Island.’ Then the people in the other part may think, ‘Oh, we’re okay.’ I think it’s smart not to give that kind of information out.
AM: I’ve seen a number of projects, and you mentioned one happening in UH, where different entities are trying to collect information about how people are feeling. There’s been some discussion at the federal level and maybe even some proof that it’s happening, that they’re using cell phones to track clusters of people. Can you address the privacy issue insofar as epidemiology is concerned?
VL: It’s a tricky issue. Part of it is do people understand that there’re these different tools, and that’s how they’re being tracked, right? I mean, there’s a legality issue, and there’s an ethical issue I think, and those are usually two kind of different things overlapping sometimes, but I’ve seen some of these reports about these smart thermometers transmitting back information about people with levels, and that’s really interesting. An epidemiologist is super excited about that kind of ability. It’s just a question of whether the people who bought those tools understood that this was part of it.
If there was a way people could opt in or opt out, that would be one thing, so one is how people consent to sharing this kind of information. Clearly there’s a public good for doing it, and I guess the question is what is the, I think a lot of people from the epi side, or maybe the science side would say, ‘Well what is the cost, right? What’s the perspective of the cost of this information, and sharing this kind of data for somebody’s privacy?’ I think the question is how do you educate people, and get that kind of broad consent or at least understanding that if you use these tools, this is what’s going to happen with that data.
AM: I believe the state of Hawai‘i and New York city have both said that school is back on April 30th, or at least that’s sort of the operating assumption. One of the reasons that New York City hesitated to close its public schools is because so many impoverished students rely on school for what can be their only meal of the day. One in 10 students in New York city are homeless. Can you talk me through how an epidemiologist thinks about this conundrum? On the one hand you have a virus with a high case fatality rate. On the other hand you have children who rely on school for food.
VL: I think these kinds of choices are very fundamental to what any public health person thinks about. Anytime there’s some kind of recall or closure, it’s not just a public health consideration, so for example, the other concern that people have right now is the rates of domestic violence and child abuse and neglect that might be going on because people that are stuck at home, and then, this kind of economic uncertainty, that’s a really bad recipe for this kind of violence and abuse, so how do we serve that group, and make sure those people that are vulnerable are going to be okay too?
All these things, the unintended consequences of a public health measure need to be considered, and it’s something that people take really seriously. Public health thinks about all of it, not just disease transmission, and maybe that’s important for people to realize that these decisions are balancing so many other concerns. It’s not an easy decision to say this many people will get sick or may die, but it’s also what are these other kinds of wellbeing, and health, and social economic consequences that have to be balanced with it. That’s tough. It’s not easy.
AM: Here’s your last softball question. What’s the best part about returning to Punahou?
VL: Oh wow. I didn’t think that that was going to happen. Not being in education, it’s really kind of an amazing opportunity to come back. It feels really great to be on campus, when you walk around, and you just see what it’s like to be around young people. Just that kind of energy is really amazing. I think one thing that really drew me to this position is that the kind of work that I do as a freelance epidemiologist is so variable, and I come in and out for these different projects, and just that ability to focus in a cohesive community, and see so many different aspects of that community, how it works together. I think that’s something that’s really attractive about this position.
And, Punahou is such an amazing place. There’s so many great people with ideas, people with energy, people with enthusiasm and sort of that energy, I think in a work environment is really exciting, so I’m really looking forward to it.
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