Through Fulbright, VCU alum applies data science to COVID outbreaks in the Philippines – VCU News

Chelsea Jones, Ph.D., has always blazed her own path. She is the first Black woman to graduate from the Systems Modeling and Analysis Ph.D. program in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently spending nine months in the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar.

Jones earned a Ph.D. in systems modeling and analysis in 2021. She is a data scientist who is helping the Philippine government better understand COVID-19 outbreaks as part of her Fulbright grant.

“A lot of my work for my dissertation centered around modeling processes with statistics and figuring out when things were getting out of control,” Jones said.  “I am extending that work to what I am doing here with COVID-19.”

Jones began considering a Fulbright scholarship shortly before earning her doctorate. Run by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a cultural exchange program with over 140 countries. Jones had originally looked at an opportunity in Australia, but later zeroed in on the opportunity in the Philippines. And that worked out well for her.

Getting settled in the country

Jones arrived in early June, and the experience has been amazing, she said. She said her affiliate at the University of Philippines-Diliman emphasized that she spend time learning about the country and growing acquainted with it.

Jones’ goal in her work is to find a model that can help identify potential COVID-19 outbreaks and the best way to manage the direct deployment of the appropriate resources to stop them before they develop.

Jones said she is not doing any testing or work in the field. Instead, she is trying to better understand the available data and help government and health care officials make decisions.

“I’m just a computer nerd sitting behind a screen and working with the data,” Jones said.

Jones became interested in computers and statistics during high school. She grew up in Norfolk and attended a specialty high school that focused on engineering. While she found biology and chemistry challenging, Jones excelled in statistics.

“I took an AP statistics class and that put me on track to just loving numbers,” Jones said.

On the road to Fulbright

She earned an undergraduate degree in actuarial science with a minor in computer science      from Virginia State University. In 2017, she started the Ph.D. program at VCU.

D’Arcy P. Mays, Ph.D., associate dean for research and operations in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Abdel-Salam G. Abdel-Salam, Ph.D., affiliate professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research, were Jones’ academic co-advisers for her dissertation.

Mays said it was apparent from the outset that Jones would excel in the field. She came to VCU as a Southern Regional Education Board scholar, which supports students from underrepresented groups. Mays said the scholarship is highly competitive. 

“Most of us knew from the beginning that she was a highly skilled student,” Mays said.

Mays helped guide Jones toward the Fulbright program. He has volunteered for years on a panel organized by VCU’s National Scholarship Office that helps students apply to be Fulbright scholars and believed the opportunity in the Philippines was a good fit. Mays said Jones is an excellent communicator, and her application was one of the best that he had ever seen. Jones applied for the Fulbright scholarship through the National Scholarship Office.

“There is a huge amount of prestige of saying you are a Fulbright scholar, which is fairly significant when you are looking for a job,” Mays said. “When you get chosen, people realize this is a good representative of the United States.”

Enjoying Filipino culture

Jones already has a job lined up with a government agency when she returns to the U.S. She was set to start the onboarding process with the agency when she received word of the award. The agency agreed to delay her starting date until after completion of the scholarship.

Jones hopes to one day work at a historically black college, but after the long years spent pursuing her doctorate, she said she is ready for a break from academia.

Jones said she is enjoying the culture in the Philippines and getting to know the people. While there have been some language barriers, many people in the country speak English. She has been most impressed by how warm and welcoming everyone has been.

“In the Filipino culture, kindness is just so deeply rooted that more times than not I am going to be welcomed just for being a foreigner,” Jones said.

Jones feels fortunate that she has the opportunity to grow her career and immerse herself in a new country.

“I have been given the space to learn about living in the Philippines,” Jones said. “I really appreciate that.”