Member Insights – Donna Spiegelman

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SER congratulates long standing SER member, Dr. Donna Spiegelman, as a recipient of the Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Spiegelman is believed to be the first epidemiologist and biostatistician, and the first faculty member from a school of public health, to receive this award.

The five-year $500,000/year prize recognizes “individual scientists of exceptional creativity, who propose pioneering, and possibly transforming, approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the NIH website. Click here to read the full announcement.

SER is pleased to feature Dr. Spiegelman in our Member Insights.

What sparked your decision to become an epidemiologist? 

Soon after graduating from college, I got a job as a computer programmer in the Occupational Health Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.  I loved it, and realized I needed to learn more biostatistics and epidemiology to be more effective at my job. At that time, 35 years ago, most epidemiologists were physicians, and I was advised that, given my aptitude for mathematics and computing, that I could best contribute to the overall effort of identifying the causes of diseases through further study in biostatistics. That led to a Masters degree in biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health, and then, returning to my love of epidemiology, a joint doctorate in biostatistics and epidemiology.

Where is your favorite place to vacation?
Backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; Long Nook Beach in Truro, Cape Cod, MA; Saint John, USVI; and Rome, Italy

What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing epidemiologists in the next five years?
The shrinking budget at the National Institutes of Health, coupled with the increasing number of doctoral-level epidemiologists being trained at the many schools of public health that have sprung up over the past 20 years, means funding will be ever more limited and competitive. Otherwise, epidemiology is a long way from having reached its limits.

Do you have any pets?
One dog – Perle – an Australian shepherd mix, and 2 cats, Jessie and Jill.

Why did you join SER? What keeps you coming back?
I joined SER in 1983 and have attended 20 or more meetings since then. SER is the premier organization for epidemiologists and epidemiology in the United States. I am proud to have served on the SER board between 2004-2007, as a faculty mentor at the Student Workshop in 2001 and 2007, and have given several invited talks at the annual meetings over the years.  Early this year, I contributed an SERplaylist on Measurement error and misclassification (click here). SER’s focus on epidemiologic methods – the glue that holds us all together across our diverse substantive fields of inquiry — is particularly exciting to me as a methodologist.

What advice do you give students who want to become epidemiologists?
Learn as much epidemiologic methods as you can during the course of your studies – this will likely be the only time in your career that you can do so in an intensive, focused manner with strong support from your expert instructors and teaching assistants. Think and study broadly, while becoming an expert in your particular area of inquiry. Question authority. Consider prevention as a goal of your research.

Outside of epidemiology what do you enjoy doing?
Backpacking, bicycle touring, fruit and vegetable gardening, listening to jazz, reading novels, eating great food and drinking good wine.

What is something that not many people know about you?
I am the co-founder and long-term board member of a non-profit educational foundation, Friends of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), that supports Cambridge, Massachusetts’s single public high school, one of the most socio-economically and ethnically diverse high schools in the country. My two daughters graduated from CRLS, after having attended Cambridge’s public schools since kindergarten. Currently, as a volunteer, I direct our It Takes a Village (ITAV) program, which supports the college success of low income recent alumni of CRLS attending nearby public 2- and 4-year colleges, where graduation rates range between 15-30% ( ITAV offers a June college placement exam preparation workshop, post-secondary scholarships, an Alumni and Community Mentoring program, and a college coach at the University of Massachusetts – Boston.

*Photo courtesy of Emily Cuccarese/HSPH Photography.