What sparked your decision to become an epidemiologist?
In college, I took a research assistant position at the Penn Institute on Aging where I interviewed Alzheimer’s disease patients and their family caregivers. I became fascinated with this devastating disease and how little we knew about what caused it. Luckily my supervisor and first mentor, Jason Karlawish MD, recognized that epidemiology would be the perfect field to allow me to pursue this puzzle, while combining my dual interests in biomedicine and philosophy. When I discovered that social factors and the way that we choose to live our lives have influence over the development of Alzheimer’s dementia, I was sold.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing epidemiologists in the next five years?
As epidemiologists continue to develop more and more advanced methodology to estimate causal effects, I worry that our ability to convey our findings to the general public in an understandable, approachable fashion is becoming more difficult. Furthermore, our ability to communicate the nuances of conflicting research findings is vital to our credibility as a field; i.e., avoiding the mentality of “coffee was bad for me last year, but now it’s good for me; why should I listen to anything they have to say?”
Do you have any pets?
Unfortunately no; I love animals, especially dogs, but have pretty bad allergies. I do however have a 2-year-old daughter who keeps me plenty occupied, and who I believe thinks that I am her pet.
Why did you join SER? What keeps you coming back?
My advisor at Hopkins, Tom Glass, was very big on his mentees attending SER and becoming a part of the network of epidemiologists. He was so right that this is important to your career. I have been coming back for over a decade because I feel connected to the field and invigorated by what we do every year that I attend the conference, and I am able to learn from brilliant senior researchers. Plus, it is always a fun reunion with my Hopkins cohort!
What advice do you give students who want to become epidemiologists?
Epidemiology, and causal inference in general, is a way of seeing the world. Once you are indoctrinated into the fold, you will see everything in your life through this lens: is the belief that you hold logical and supported by data, or is it biased? What is the source of that bias? Can you correct it? This will influence how you see political debates; how you interpret literature and the news; and how you make choices about food, activities, and life in general. In other words, epidemiologists are modern day philosophers, trying to make sense of the world via gathering information and making valid inferences. Cultivating an open, curious, skeptical mind that is open to this epistemological approach is to me the most important foundation to a successful career in epidemiology. If you instead excel at rote memorization and just learning what you need to pass a test, epidemiology may not be the right field for you!
Outside of epidemiology what do you enjoy doing?
I am a bit of a “foodie” and a craft beer enthusiast; I love trying new places to eat and drink. I am a pretty big sports fan and spend way too much time watching football, soccer, baseball etc… I do crossfit to keep in shape (listen, don’t judge—I’m fighting that dad bod). But mostly I love hanging out with my wife and daughter! Being a parent has been my most enjoyable, fulfilling role.
What is something that not many people know about you?
Well I am pretty extroverted and like to talk to people a lot, so there is not much that people don’t know about me! Maybe that I come from Hollywood roots: my grandfather Dennis James was an early television pioneer and game show host who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He helped to raise over $700 million for United Cerebral Palsy throughout his career, perhaps indirectly influencing my desire to be an epidemiologist.