30 minutes | Jul 16th 2020

Data, Epidemiology, and Public Health

With recent events being what they are, epidemiology has come into the spotlight. What do epidemiologists do and how does data shape their everyday experience? Sitara and Mee-a from “Donuts and Data” fill us in.     Ginette: I’m Ginette, Curtis: and I’m Curtis, Ginette: and you are listening to Data Crunch, Curtis: a podcast about how applied data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are changing the world. Ginette: Data crunch is produced by the Data Crunch Corporation, an analytics training and consulting company. Many people are on the lookout for online math and science resources right now, particularly data and statistics courses, and whether you’re a student looking to get ahead, a professional brushing up on cutting-edge topics, or someone who just wants to use this time to understand the world better, you should check out Brilliant. Brilliant’s thought-provoking math, science, and computer science content helps guide you to mastery by taking complex concepts and breaking them up into bite-sized understandable chunks. You’ll start by having fun with their interactive explorations, over time you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Sign up for free and start learning by going to Brilliant.org slash Data Crunch, and also the first 200 people that go to that link will get 20% off the annual premium subscription. Now onto the show. Curtis: I’d like to welcome Sitara and Mee-a from the Instagram account Donuts and Data to talk to us today. I guess let’s just have you guys introduce yourselves, as opposed to me trying to introduce you cause you know what you do better than I do. So maybe we just have some introductions. Sitara: So I’m Sitara one half of Donuts and Data. I’m a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. I’m also a research assistant in a lab that I work in. Mee-a: And I’m Mee-a. I am an infectious disease epidemiologist that works in the public sector. I actually met Sitara through the lab that she’s currently working in. Curtis: Nice. And I’m excited to have you guys on. I just, I think epidemiology is a really interesting space, especially with what, you know, with what’s going on now with COVID. I think it’s more pertinent than it ever has been. Not that it ever hasn’t been pertinent, but maybe it’s more top of mind for people. So I’d love maybe just to have you guys level set with everybody, like what is epidemiology. There’s probably some confusion about what that is and maybe how you guys got into it. And then we can get into what your day to day is and, and what it’s all about. Sitara: So, epidemiology, I think everyone’s kind of understanding is setting patterns of disease in the, in the human population. And so in that sense, what Mee-a and I do are the same, but instead of studying infectious diseases or the natural science part of epidemiology, what I focus on is how human behavior contributes to those patterns of disease. So I look for patterns in data associated like demographics or just behaviors, diet, nutrition, and how that contributes to getting diseases. Mee-a: For me in the public sector, it’s going to be a lot of looking at incidents, rates of infectious diseases. It . . . primarily with COVID-19 right now, and just different ways that we can try to possibly implement infection prevention measures. So we are dealing a little bit more with, I don’t want to say the medical side of it because we aren’t clinicians, but we are dealing more with the medical side of, of the infectious disease than we are with, with the data compared to when I was in academia, at least. Curtis: So take us through maybe the end goal, right? So what you guys are working on. You’re hoping to come out with, I think, some recommendations for people to, to take maybe a better understanding of how the disease spreads, so we get in front of it. What does that look like? Mee-a: I always thought that epidemiology’s gold standard of what we try to achieve is probably smoking cessation. So, you know, when at least growing up for me, I felt like cigarettes and smoking were very, very pervasive and widespread. And as we grew up and we started seeing more of these campaigns showing just how unhealthy smoking was and how much it can really, really be such a detriment to your health, it became a thing where now as adults, our generation looks down upon smoking. And so that’s something that I feel like epidemiology and public health in general has helped to implement that view. And so for the public sector of things, our ideal goal is to really implement infection prevention measures. So that’s going to be in light of COVID-19, that would be making masking a normal thing, making sure social distancing is the new norm, making sure that we are washing our hands for the appropriate amount of time, making sure that when you do disinfect something that you’re disinfecting it properly. If we are in large congregate settings, that we’re trying to do everything that we can to make sure that we don’t create a hotbed of COVID cases. So that’s all the stuff that we’re trying to do right now. That would be, if everything goes correctly, ideally we would be getting to the point where we could either (1) control COVID or (2) completely eradicate it. So that’s, that would be our goal in the public sector. Sitara: And I think, going off of that, things like seatbelts were once seen as a radical change, but that was a public health measure. That was something that epidemiologists put people in the public health world, they looked at the data of car crashes and they decided that wearing a seatbelt was a safety measure that they could implement. And a lot of people were against it, but now that’s obviously the norm that’s in it’s own every car. So I think similar to that, we hope that mask wearing becomes the norm and it becomes okay. And it’s not, it’s not scary. It’s not . . . there’s no . . . there shouldn’t be any stigma on wearing a mask. But in terms of academia, I think what we want is for people to be able to read our research and, and know that that a lot of work went into it. And a lot of, you know, the scientific method, it’s evidence-based, and we’ve done these tests over and over again, this is real science. So I think in the end, we want people to read our research and take something away from it and, and be able to live a healthier lifestyle. Mee-a: The work that Sitara does in the academic field is what we build off in the public field. So we implement the measures that she proves in her research, if that makes sense. Curtis: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. And I’d like to maybe dig into that a little bit. Sitara, can you talk to us and maybe you can just pick one or, or however you want to go about it, but I’m curious, I’d like to give people a sense for how you approach a research problem like this, how you make sure it’s rigorous, how you go about collecting the data and analyzing it. All of that would be really interesting just to kind of hear from your perspective. Sitara: Yeah. So, okay. So for example, with COVID, we can talk about COVID, one of the faculty in the lab that I work in, we had a question of, you know, what is the shelter and policies? What are they doing to people’s behaviors? How is that affecting people’s behaviors? And we had these questions, like, are people working out more? Are they working out less? Are they eating more, are they eating less? And so we formulated a survey, we wrote questions. We took, we didn’t write the questions. That’s important. We took the questions from previously validated surveys. So these are, these are questionnaires that have been validated by other scientists that they’re good measures of asking these questions and getting the information that you want. And so we created this long survey that asks questions about physical activity, diet, drug use, sleep habits, and it’s this long survey. And then we just disseminated it on the internet. We shared it on our social media. We shared it in emails to the faculty at school, to students at the school. And then we just asked everyone, you know, could you share this with your friends, your family? And in the end, we ended up getting, I think, over 4,000 responses. And so what we’re doing with that data is then. So that this, the survey was on a data management website. We specifically used Red Cap and then that data was pulled from Red Cap, downloaded into an Excel file and plugged into a statistical software. So I think we used Stata for the specific one, and stata is what I most commonly used for data analysis, and then we just run tests on that data. So we do like T tests, Chi square test, cross tabulations, regression. That’s the type of tests that we do to see if there’s any pattern in that data to see if there’s any association. And then we take those results, and we write a manuscript, we write a paper, an introduction, a methods, results, conclusion, and then we to publish that. And then once that’s published, we hope that people read that we either hope that policymakers are reading that and they’re seeing these are the effects in shelter and policies. How can we change it to make it better? Or we hope that the public reads it or, or that the news, the media catches on and, and writes an articles, studies find that people are working out less during shelter and policies. So that’s kind of, you know, in a, in a, like in a nutshell, what the process is of coming up with a question and then getting that data and publishing it, there’s so many different ways of doin
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