What sparked your decision to become an epidemiologist?
To be perfectly honest I didn’t know much about epidemiology and biostatistics until I started graduate school. Like many in our field, I initially thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. I was intending to get an MPH and move on to medical school. But in my first epi class, I was immediately impressed that there was an entire field devoted to the science of improving population health. I realized early on that this was the career for me, and after getting my MPH went on to earn my MS in biostatistics and PhD in epidemiology. Now I work as a clinical epidemiologist and biostatistician (or health care data scientist as it’s being called here in San Francisco where I live) using large scale national electronic health data answering questions about health care delivery and quality and population health.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing epidemiologists in the next five years?
I think traditional epidemiologic studies we learned about in graduate school are becoming increasingly challenging to fund and maintain. However, there are exciting opportunities for epidemiologists in the era of big data. As data sources continue to become standardized, we are going to have exceedingly complex and rich sources of data linked together for knowledge discovery and the evaluation of population health. Our training in causal inference and study design in addition to the biological and social sciences, is well suited to the critical thinking required in using these data properly, which is not always happening. Epidemiologists need to be a part of the conversation in the era of precision and predictive analytics.
Do you have any pets?
Not currently, but I am a dog person (they’re so cute!). I had the cutest and sweetest dachshund when I was growing up. I feel like my next dog companion will be fluffy and travel with me everywhere. Most likely a Yorkie-poo, a Malti-poo, or one of the many variations of the Teddy Bear puppy. If you want to improve your mood in a matter of moments, google the words “Teddy Bear Puppy” and let the happiness begin. Seriously, there’s a causal association happening.
Why did you join SER? What keeps you coming back?
Bernie Harlow! He’s the most wonderful enthusiastic supporter of the next generation of epidemiologists. I completed my PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where he was the Division Head of Epidemiology and Community Health. Bernie helped me become involved in the Student and Postdoc Committee, first as Program Committee Co-Chair, and then as President. I’ve found that SER is unique from other professional societies in the integration of very established epidemiologists with those earlier in their training. It’s at SER where I continue to learn about advances in our field and be a part of the discussion about where it should be going.
What advice do you give students who want to become epidemiologists?
Get involved with the Student and Postdoc Committee of SER! It’s a must! And then after you get involved, don’t be too discouraged about not knowing exactly what you want to do as an epidemiologist. There are many interesting opportunities for work with a degree in epidemiology in the government, academic, or private setting. I would encourage students to seek other internships and opportunities to help them find the direction they want to pursue. When I started my PhD, I made a list of the skills I wanted to acquire and the areas I wanted to learn about by looking at the skills requirements listed for jobs I found interesting. During my training, I was fortunate enough to have an internship at the Minnesota Department of Health, an internship at a pharmaceutical company in outcomes research and epidemiology, research fellowships under training grants in epidemiology and environmental health, and clinical and translational science, and research positions in both the School of Public Health and the Medical School at the University of Minnesota. These diverse experiences helped me find the direction I wanted to pursue in my career as an epidemiologist.
Outside of epidemiology what do you enjoy doing?
Now I live in San Francisco, and there are so many beautiful places to explore and go hiking in the Bay Area. I am avid runner, and have run the Chicago Marathon, and many half-marathons including a recent race along the coastal trail of the Bay.
What is something that not many people know about you?
I’m artsy! Before I pursued a career in the health sciences, I trained as a classical flutist (James Galway was my hero!), vocalist, and visual artist. I started college in music school, transferred to art school, and completed a degree in visual art, specializing in ceramic sculpture and drawing.