Professor, Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University
Sector: Human Services, Science
Born: Outside Canada
Type: Career Profile
Biology, Chemistry, Family Studies, Health, Math
I love training young professionals and then supporting them in launching their careers. My former students have done amazing things. Some examples are conducting HIV research around the world, and organizing the public health infrastructure for international sporting competitions. I get to take pride in their accomplishments!
My research allows me to nerd out and write code for statistical analysis all day some days, or to just write when I’m feeling introverted. On other days I am intensely engaged with community leaders across Canada, or planning an international meeting of researchers to focus on a particular health or data challenge. I might be testifying to the Senate or as an expert witness in a court case, or designing research to answer upcoming policy questions. I have a lot of control over what type of research I do, and the flexibility to change my focus to respond to new issues. I learn a lot from the people and communities I work with. I really love the mix of technical skill and innovation with real-world applications. Not many people get to see their work actually change things in the world, and I feel so fortunate to be able to have that experience.
In high school, I had no idea what an epidemiologist was, and many of the tools I use in my work did not yet exist. Like a lot of young queer people (though we didn't use that word then), I left home at an early age; I moved to New York when I was 17. I had to put myself through school, and so it took me ten years to do an undergraduate degree, with the work done at four different colleges/universities.
I thought I was going to go into neuroscience and do lab research, but a couple of years of working in a lab convinced me I would rather work with people than animals. I designed my own undergraduate degree as an interdisciplinary approach to health and health care. This allowed me to combine calculus, statistics, biology, and anatomy with sociology of medicine, medical anthropology, and history of medicine. I didn't know it at the time, but it ended up being the perfect background for going into public health.
Math had always been easy for me, but boring. Learning that I could put my skills to use in studying health was so perfect! I did a master of public health (MPH) degree, and then a PhD in epidemiology. For my PhD, I did the "biological track", with coursework in virology, pathobiology, etc. and a molecular epidemiology thesis on drug resistance in HIV. However, most health issues will not be solved without a combined biological, behavioural, and social approach, and I became a big supporter of social epidemiological research, an area that was new at the time.
You will probably end up doing things that don't exist yet. Focus on getting a really good broad base education and a range of experiences, and think about combining classic STEM fields with social sciences.
Honestly, my work is most of my life. I get to do so many different kinds of things, and many of them I would do for free anyway! My work allows me to travel (and I often add on days just to visit an area), to teach in different contexts, to collaborate with community organizations, to work with policy makers, and to work with so many different people and communities. Outside of work, I go hiking and swimming and enjoy time with family and friends.
I teach graduate university courses to Masters and PhD students on how to conduct research. I also do research to improve the kinds of methods we use in health research. One of my main areas of research is with regard to working with communities that experience social marginalization that can impact health. If we are going to improve policies and practices that affect health, we need to have good data on which to base those decisions. My work has focused on how we get usable samples of research participants from "hidden populations" where we can't get a random sample, how we measure experiences like discrimination in surveys, and how we can do statistical analysis in ways that make fewer assumptions about how social marginalization impacts health.
My other research has focused on community health, and right now is focused on transgender and non-binary health. I lead two national studies in this area. One is a clinical study of youth referred for puberty suppression or hormones, and the other a large population survey. My research teams include doctors, psychologists and other professionals, and members of trans and non-binary communities who have deep community knowledge (some of whom are also health professionals).
One thing I love about all of my work is matching math to meaning. A lot of the basic statistics we teach are not necessarily the tools we need to best answer all types of questions. People sometimes don't think about math, statistics, and epidemiology as being creative areas of work, but they really are. For improving health, we often have to adapt the tools we have, and evaluate them to ensure they are producing accurate results. We use a lot of different computer programs in data analysis (SAS, R, Stata), but sometimes we also have to write our own procedures to do things differently.
I was born/grew up in: I grew up in a rural area outside of a tiny town in Minnesota in the United States.
I now live in: London, Ontario
I completed my training/education at: I completed both a Master of Public Health and a PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
When I was
- Foreign Languages
- Computer Science
- Enjoyed doing things on my own
- Always wanted to be outside
- Liked helping people
- Enjoyed working with my hands
- Liked being given free range to explore my ideas
- Liked reading
- Was really creative
- Was socially awkward!