It was on a high school backpacking trip that Margot Bolanos-Gamez first developed an interest in the environment, one that would follow her to the latter half of four years here at UChicago and a double major in Environmental Science and Global Studies. Among other projects, she’s extended it to her work with the Global Health Alliance, where her Global Partnerships subgroup recently teamed with India’s non-profit Every Infant Matters to remedy the environmental deficits driving child blindness in developing countries. Her current research internship with the Center for Spatial Data Science (CSDS), however, connects to that backpacking trip in different and sometimes surprising ways while expanding what’s become for Margot a body of work on Opioid Use Disorder (OUD).
She first approached the epidemic last year in "Mapping Global Chicago," a lab that guides its students through the process of publishing their own research projects. For hers, Margot looked at OUD in Chicago and its exacerbation by COVID-19. Through several interviews with health care providers for the West Side’s worst-affected communities, she got to see the problem from their view. "My project tried to understand, from a clinical perspective, the challenges in trying to help minorities and communities that don't have enough resources," says Margot. "Already on its own, it's a very difficult crisis going on. It's not just on the individual—there are many outside environmental factors sustaining OUD, starting it, or even preventing reaching out for help."
Addressing those factors is at the heart of Margot’s Global Studies major. She came to UChicago focused on Environmental Science but felt something missing from the program’s STEM focus. "I could do p-sets on the physics and chemistry of something all day, but how is it really affecting people?" She got to answer that question in "Global Viral News Lab,” where her understanding of environmental pressures helped parse the media misportrayals of public health. Continuing through the Global Studies course bundle, Margot found several more topics that built on her science background as well as her passion for helping others.
"I realized that in order to pair my STEM major with something that's more fruitful for me, I would look at it through the social, societal, cultural, and global level," she says.
In her current research with the University’s Center for Spatial Data Science, Margot is doing just that. Her team is working to develop an interactive map from the Opioid Environment Policy Scan (OEPS) database, an open-source warehouse stocked with nearly fifty data variable constructs characterizing the national opioid risk environment. Much like its conceptual antecedent US COVID Atlas, the OEPS dashboard will prioritize a navigable user interface. “It has to be presentable, in a form that users can easily access and bring two variables together, for example, to see any trends,” Margot says. Unlike the Atlas, however, the OEPS will integrate multiple variable types, and most of its data will be measured at multiple spatial scales.
The work requires GIS, spatial analysis, cartography, a few programming languages, and much more that Margot has learned in the Summer Institute alongside her internship. Still, the difficulties of building the OEPS dashboard exceed its technical demands, and no decision on how the risk environment is depicted is trivial. “If you do a bright red color in one area, that could affect how the area is perceived by users. If you use a lighter color, you could blur something crucial," she explains. It’s all added an interesting perspective to Margot’s already unusual double major, and she hopes to keep GIS a part of her studies in the future.
Margot is also thrilled by the potential of the OEPS project. The database was created as a repository of uninterpreted data intended to bolster comprehensive analysis of OUD. Somewhere in the numbers are policy arguments, academic curiosities, and maybe even answers to the public health emergency of opioid abuse. Through her work, Margot is helping open it all to journalists, researchers, and policymakers while making the intersection of environmental and public health clear for all to see.