Dairian Balai ’22 peers into data to find solutions. That’s where she found her passion, too.
The Data Science major likes to say that all those numbers—on everything from community health disparities to poverty to race and education—represent people, with hopes and dreams, just like her. She’s on a mission to tell their story (and hers) by spotlighting the data that speaks to real experiences.
“I want to shine a light on the problems we’re facing,” she said.
And even though she hasn’t yet graduated, Balai is already making her mark. Thanks to a series of programs at Chaminade, Balai scored a paid remote internship with a University of Texas lab to research maternal and infant mortality and co-morbidities in Native Hawaiian communities.
She hopes to use data science to spotlight what factors can help protect moms and babies.
Balai grew up in Waiʻanae and graduated from Waiʻanae High. During her junior and senior year, she applied to a long list of potential universities in Hawaii and on the mainland. And she was pretty set on going out-of-state for her undergraduate education. But then her high school counselor told her about the Hoʻoulu STEM Scholarship, which covers 100% of Chaminade tuition and offers support services.
The scholarship convinced Balai to take a tour of Chaminade—and she’s glad she did.
“Off the bat, I liked how it was a small community. The campus was small,” she said, adding that she later spoke to her high school adviser and realized that the financial support offered through the Hoʻoulu STEM Scholarship far outweighed other aid universities on the mainland were offering her.
“I decided to stay. If I went back in time, I would make that decision again,” she said.
Balai said the thing she appreciates most about Chaminade is the one-on-one support she gets from professors and advisers, who have connected her with key opportunities. “They really make it a point to help you plan out your future,” she said. “They say ‘Chaminade is a family.’ I really believe that.”
Balai originally majored in Biology because she planned to go into healthcare.
But the course of her studies changed after she was participated in Chaminade’s Supporting Pacific Indigenous Computing Excellence (SPICE) program. The intensive, immersion experience, in partnership with the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is designed to help train students to lead in data science and visualization efforts that support social justice projects in Hawaiʻi.
Balai said she learned coding in the SPICE program and worked with other students to create visualizations that helped illustrate her research area—how socio-economic status impacts healthcare.
From the SPICE program, Balai participated in a Computing4Change event in Chicago. The national competition challenges students to use computing for positive social change. Balai said through SPICE and the Computing4Change conference, she learned that data science wasn’t just about highlighting problems “but helping to solve them.” That, she realized, was the career she wanted to pursue.
So Balai switched majors to Data Science, taking the plunge even though it meant a little more time completing her undergraduate degree. She also started considering how she could eventually bring Data Science home—back to Waianae and the community she loves and eventually wants to serve.
She said Data Science helped her understand that having vulnerable populations doesn’t define Waiʻanae (and other communities with larger concentrations of low- and moderate-income families), but that socio-economic and other factors have a significant impact on the lives of Waianae residents.
She is especially interested in uncovering the factors that contribute to health disparities in her hometown. Data Science solutions to those gaps, she said, will help build a healthier community. And ultimately, that will help build a healthier state and nation, Balai added.
In 2019, Balai was offered a paid internship studying maternal health in Native Hawaiians. She said as a Native Hawaiian, the research feels personal—and all the more important given the healthcare challenges the community faces. She’s continuing that work and hopes to build on it.
In fact, Balai is now planning to go to graduate school.
She’s working with her adviser weekly to consider programs, and on crafting her long-term dream: returning to Waiʻanae to “build a better, a more aware community”—with Data Science.