What sparked your decision to become an epidemiologist?
I was a psychology major in college, but left unsure about whether I wanted to pursue a clinical or research career. I began different volunteer experiences and graduate classes to help clarify my thinking. In the process of all of this, I learned that the sometimes heart-wrenching demands of mental health clinical work were something I may not be able to meet for the duration of my career while my passion for research grew. During that time, I worked with someone who ultimately took a position at Massachusetts General Hospital with a team that was overseeing the implementation of an NIMH-funded 20-site study of bipolar disorder. Soon after that, she contacted me about another position within the team and I moved from NYC to Boston. The study was enormous by psychology standards (the final n was in the thousands), and the focus of the main arm of the study was documenting the natural course of the disorder and tracking standard clinical care at the sites (with subsequent randomization arms depending on response to treatment). Given these elements, the study sort of bridged the gap between a traditional psychiatry or psychology study and an epidemiology study. It was during my work on this study that I first learned about public health and epidemiology. I decided to take some courses to learn more about the field and took my first epidemiology course. I will never forget that first class. Epidemiology fascinated me and I loved every minute of it – I knew instantly that I wanted to be an epidemiologist. I loved the purity of the focus on research methods and the flexibility of being able to apply my expertise to whatever disease or disorder I chose to study. I applied to the MPH program at BU and, as they say, the rest is history!
Where is your favorite place to vacation?
It’s tough to pick just one place. I love Paris and London and have a special place in my heart for Denmark, which I visit often to see my colleagues at Aarhus University (I know that’s work, but I fit in fun too!). But I also love beach vacations and have enjoyed my time in Nantucket, the Caribbean, and Mexico. I also enjoy my hometown of NYC and being more of a tourist there now, as well as other great US cities, such as New Orleans and LA. I don’t think I can pick a favorite – I am always excited to explore each new place and see what it has to offer!
What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing epidemiologists in the next five years?
The obvious answer to this is obtaining grant funding and coming up with creative ways to piece together funding from different sources to keep programs of research afloat. I think epidemiologists at all levels of their career are feeling this challenge right now. On the other hand, I think that if there is a discipline that can rise to this challenge it is epidemiology because of the inherently collaborative nature of the field, and our ability to branch slightly outside of our exact areas of content expertise to provide methodological and statistical consultation to various projects.
Do you have any pets?
One cat, even though I’m a dog person!
Why did you join SER? What keeps you coming back?
Joining SER was a no-brainer. Among the students in my doctoral program SER was considered a bastion of epidemiologic excellence. We all joined. Now I work for the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is an amazing place to work in so many ways, but I am the only epidemiologist in my Division and one of very few epidemiologists in the Center (almost all other staff members are psychologists). What keeps me coming back is that SER feels like my professional epidemiology home. The annual meeting is the longest chunk of time I spend with other epidemiologists throughout the year. I love this time and always leave with a pad full of new ideas.
What advice do you give students who want to become epidemiologists?
I always tell students that the one thing they cannot underestimate is the importance of picking a mentor who is a good match for them. I also frequently talk to students who are choosing between psychology and public health and most feel like the decision about what to pursue is dreadfully final. I like to point out that once graduate school is over, the lines between disciplines can blur a little more than you think they will. For example, I’m an epidemiologist working in a very psychology-focused environment. And I have psychologist colleagues who have an approach to research that is very consistent with epidemiological methods.
Outside of epidemiology what do you enjoy doing?
I enjoy spending time with my husband and 3-year old daughter, as well as my friends. I love yoga and try to do it whenever I can.
What is something that not many people know about you?
My dad was – and still is – in a 1950’s music group called Dion and The Belmonts (known for songs such as “Teenager in Love” and “Runaround Sue”). Growing up watching your dad on TV and on stage makes for an interesting childhood!