Spreading knowledge in uncertain times

McGill undergrad leads research project exploring the relationship between COVID-19 and income

Like too many diseases and health crises throughout history, COVID-19 appears to be hitting marginalized communities the hardest. McGill undergrad Camille Clement is helping shine a light on this tragic reality by tracking and sharing how the pandemic is playing out in real time.

Heading into her fourth and final year of a B.A. in Environment and Development with a minor in Computer Science this fall, Camille is co-president of the McGill Environment Student’s Society. She also works part time as a research assistant with the Geo-Social Determinants of Health Research Group led by Nancy Ross, Geography Professor and Associate Vice-Principal of Research and Innovation at McGill.

A rare opportunity comes calling

Originally from Lyon, France, where she’s staying with her family until she returns to Montreal in September, Camille has been working with the research group since the end of her second year.

This May—right after finishing her final exams and with McGill’s research labs shuttered—she found herself with some rare free time on her hands. And that’s when Professor Ross approached her with a fascinating opportunity.

Tracking a totally new pandemic

“Nancy was curious to explore income as a social determinant of COVID,” Camille remembers. “As a health issue, it was such a pertinent topic to our lab, and we saw it was impacting some groups more than others.”

Ross had been following data on COVID-19 since it came to Canada as a hobby at home, then decided to see what others in the research group could learn about whether cases of COVID-19 were patterned by social circumstances and whether this patterning was unique to local contexts.

Photo of Nancy Ross“It seems pretty unfair that people lower down on the social ladder seem to get more of everything no matter what. And right here in front of everyone’s eyes was this new virus, and it was playing out exactly as we thought it would,” Ross explains.

Taking the lead

Knowing Camille was available and eager to help, Ross asked her to take the lead on the project, working under the collaborative supervision of Clara Kaufmann (MA Geography ’20) who has extensive research and analysis experience.

Camille, the youngest member of the research team, was tasked with exploring the relationship between COVID cases and socioeconomic status in neighbourhoods across Montreal. But she ran with the project, expanding her research to cover cities throughout North America. “I told her to go crazy and she did!” Ross laughs. “Camille’s smart so she adds value and makes a project way more than it could have been.”

Clara agrees that Camille proved herself more than capable of leading this project. “She’s really dedicated and will go above and beyond what we talk about doing,” she says. “When she joined our lab, she’d just finished her second year but was already interested in taking the lead on projects—and it’s cool that it’s possible at McGill for undergrads to take on that kind of leading role.”

Key findings so far

Preliminary data confirms what Camille and the team predicted: individuals living in lower-income households are more likely to become infected with COVID-19. And these findings are consistent across all the cities they examined, with the exception of Detroit.

Photo of Clara Kaufmann“Detroit is definitely the most interesting because it doesn’t fit the same patterns. It’s such an economically deprived city so there’s not the same variation in income across zip codes,” Clara notes. “But the fact that there’s this visible and persistent trend across all other cities, that it’s so consistent, is surprising.”

Working 20 to 30 hours a week from her home base in France, Camille has been collecting data from open sources like Statistics Canada and the Centre for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in the U.S., and presenting the findings in easy-to-read scatterplots online.

“We’re using data that’s available to everyone and presenting it in a way that’s interesting,” says Camille. “Our goal is to gather more information that will hopefully give us more insight into what’s coming up if COVID persists. We want to educate the world on what’s happening.”

Next steps include broadening the research to cities around the world and exploring other social determinants of health such as race, gender, age and occupation.

Tapping into a talent for research

While Camille admits tracking down data can be difficult and frustrating at times, especially when working remotely, this experience has given her the skills and confidence to pursue her passion for research.

“In the beginning, it was a bit overwhelming to be in the research group because everyone was so accomplished. They’d all had papers published and were advanced in their careers,” she remembers. “But everyone was so welcoming and I’ve learned so much. It’s been a wonderful learning opportunity and the people are so lovely to work with.”

The feeling is mutual for Clara, who checks in with Camille every couple of days via Zoom or email to brainstorm and share findings. “I think she has a knack for coming up with interesting approaches, and I’m so impressed with how independent she is as an undergrad researcher,” she says.
Ross has been equally impressed by Camille’s autonomy and drive. “She’s so curious and really likes to dig into a problem. She’s super interested in the work, she has great training and her technical skills are excellent. She’s been very, very helpful.”

Forging a promising future

With her passion for research firmly cemented, Camille plans to pursue it as a full-time career after completing her B.A. followed by a Master’s and PhD.

“It’s been great having this hands-on experience and it’s given me a much clearer view of what I want to do in the future,” she says. “This experience has shown me that I really enjoy doing research and that’s something you don’t know until you do it.”

Camille stumbled into the research field after attending a 200-person Geography class that sparked her interest, co-taught by Professor Ross. Although she was one of the youngest students in the class, she approached the professor to ask if there were any opportunities to work in her lab—and she encourages any student with an interest in research to do the same.

“Don’t be shy to ask professors for opportunities. Have conversations, be bold. They’re open-minded and looking for students who are eager.”

Follow the COVID-19 project and all ongoing research via the group’s ArcGIS Story Map

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