I have previously written a few PROspective articles on the importance of developing career skills that will help you to be influential. Today I am flipping the script and writing about how to be influenced.
Changing your mind is an important career skill, and possibly one of the most difficult to accomplish. We all have beliefs and values that developed over a lifetime, and changing them requires us to contemplate the possibility we were wrong. This contemplation poses a threat to our identity, and that’s where the difficulty begins.
To be influenced, we must start by realizing that we will have to let go or modify what we had previously believed. For a scientist, this willingness to change beliefs is inherent to our work. It is our job to change our minds in reaction to accumulating evidence. We can borrow this skill, which we develop as part of our scientific training, and apply it outside of the scientific realm.
Now, of course, we are in the midst of a time of social and cultural change when we must all be prepared to modify our beliefs and values. Borrowing our willingness to learn from our scientific selves and applying it in these other realms should accelerate our progress.
It is most important, then, to listen. Active listening is also an important and learnable skill. This week’s PROspective article provides ten concrete suggestions for how to improve your active listening skills. The article explains the importance of active listening in building relationships: “Active listening builds rapport, understanding, and trust.” It also emphasizes the importance of committing your whole self to listening: “Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being said rather than passively absorbing what someone is saying… This type of listening involves participating in the other person’s world and being connected to what the other person is experiencing.” In these months of remote communication, #6 has become difficult or impossible (#6: Pay attention to their body language and make appropriate eye contact). This shortcoming requires all the more attention to the other aspects of active listening, especially avoiding internal and external distractions (#1), listening to the tone of voice (#4), and sensing the emotions of the speaker (#5).
Building active listening skills will help you to be rightly influenced, and will improve your ability to fully engage in the needed social and cultural changes that are at the forefront of our national conscience. And, if developed in this context, you will be able to loan your active listening skills to enhance your career as well.
Building partnerships is a skill set that is critical in public health and yet not commonly taught directly. I do not recall ever taking a class that specifically discussed relationship building in graduate school, but now so much of my work and work in the community is based on partnerships. What I do remember is how people dreaded group projects and how students still are not always thrilled when they are presented in class as the next assignment. So why is that? Perhaps it is more efficient to do assignments alone. For that reason, solo work can be great, but for me, the most fulfilling work I have done since graduate school has involved collaboration and connections.
For the past two months, I have been fortunate to be part of a team working on the COVID-19 response in Hall County, a community hard hit by the pandemic. The outbreak in Hall County is centered in the Hispanic community, where close community living and tight working space in factories make social distancing hard. The interesting thing about leading the outbreak response from Emory’s side is that before this partnership, I had no connections to Hall County. Nevertheless, I was able to build this partnership based on previous work in similar communities and a shared common goal: We want to change the course of the COVID-19 epidemic in a hard-hit community that already was struggling with generations of disparities and inequities.
This partnership began with a phone call from a leader in Hall County asking for help with their outbreak response. Not all partnerships begin with a specific request but most are built from some level of need, even if it is for a shared greater good. That first contact should promote open dialogue and explore opportunities of engagement. Allow yourself to imagine a collaboration that doesn’t yet exist. For Hall County, the request was wide open; they sought any kind of support and connection. After listening, doing some research, and setting some overarching goals, our partnership took off and has led to a commitment to working together and building a system of support for a community in need that did not exist before. Even with the acceleration of an outbreak, building this kind of community partnership calls for a few essential building blocks: connection, engagement, and communication.
The best partnerships are sustained by committed relationships. While this is always the important first step, pandemics do not allow for a long ramp of getting to know each other. However, a shared vision of making lives better can quickly set your connection. But even with common goals, a strong, lasting relationship won’t form without actively working on the continuous process of connecting.
Show up and listen
Much of our work in Hall County has been about listening to the need rather than expecting we know what it is. While there are some obvious needs we could anticipate, like the need to reinforce prevention messages, provide COVID-19 testing and tracing, and isolation when needed in high-risk communities, there are nuances to those needs we would not have known if we did not get into the community and talk with its members. We would not have guessed that solid prevention messages, appropriately translated, would still not be hitting their mark because of a lack of literacy that requires messages to be less than five written words. We found that concerns about immigration make options for quarantine incredibly complex. Interventions, even those with the best designs, will likely fail without a dedication to the nuances inherent to that community.
Communicate regularly and with intention
Sharing feedback builds trust and helps us learn and become better leaders and partners. This is a way of keeping communication open so that when problems arise, you can approach the solution together. Especially in a time of fast-paced engagement, be open to quick and varying methods of communication but do not move so fast that you are not consistently communicating.
The last critical component for partnerships is the belief that together we can increase our impact. I have no doubt that the best collaborations create something bigger than what could have been done individually. There has been a lot of trauma in our world this Spring, but there have been some amazing moments to celebrate as well. Collective cooperation working towards a common goal and an energy around building partnerships is certainly a win. We are better together.
Featured Image from: https://upstream.consulting/grant-readiness/7tipsformaintainingcommunitypartnerships
Do you like rollercoasters? My first five years of life were the epitome of privilege and comfort in Uganda, and then within days my parents and I were on a plane to Montreal as refugees. The ensuing years were tumultuous. I remember living in attics, visiting the Salvation Army for clothes, and drinking the mini half and half singles for breakfast. We eventually settled in a small northern city, and my parents re-invented themselves several times over. During the summers, my parents would pack us up and we would drive across Canada and the US – always stopping to visit the most extreme theme parks. My dad loved to take us on all the craziest roller coasters. Something my father said has resonated often during these past few months … “just enjoy the ride.”
The past few months have certainly felt like a rollercoaster to me: overwhelmed health care systems, cities and nations on lock-down, collapsing stock markets, unprecedented capriciousness and pandemonium from our political leaders. VUCA. First coined in 1987 by the US Army War College1 to describe the post-Cold-War world, and based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus,2 this acronym is applicable now more than ever.3,4
Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.
Volatility: the accelerating rate of change, uncertainty: the lack of predictability, complexity: the interconnectedness, of cause-and-effect forces, and ambiguity: the strong potential for misreads. These four terms are interrelated; it is harder to predict a health outcome, the more volatile, uncertain, vague and complex the event. Case in point: SARS CoV-2.
“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
The antidote to this is…
…VUCA: Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. This week’s PROspective article by Jake Wood, CEO and Co-founder of Team Rubicon, illustrates the two faces of VUCA, specific to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For public health professionals, consider this an opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset which will be translatable across multiple scenarios and situations in your professional and personal life. Take some time to hone (or develop) your personal guideposts which will provide the vision and strategy to ground you when the next VUCA situation takes place.5 You would fare exceptionally well by starting with the core tenets of our Epidemiology department: integrity, rigor, ambition, and collegiality. Cultivate how to be responsive and not reactive to the next crisis that you will inevitably be faced with.
“Hope is not a strategy”
– Jake Wood
How will you identify and reduce the impact of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity when faced with challenges?
Here are some suggestions from an article in NEJM Catalyst, on “Responding to Covid-19: Lessons from Management Research”:
1) Put people first
2) Manage operations creatively
3) Attend to teamwork and communication
4) Create outside partnerships
5) Embrace clear and humble leadership
As an aside, these have all been very much in practice at RSPH during the past few months.
So, are you enjoying this ride? You don’t have any choice but to be right where you are, in the middle of a pandemic so you might as well just surrender to the ride. The lows will amplify the highs and the turns will be confusing, but they will all provide opportunities to learn and grow.
As the semester comes to a close, we wanted to take a look back at some of our favorite PROspectives over the last few months. As the COVID situation developed from an isolated outbreak to a full-blown pandemic, we have gotten insights from faculty, staff, and alumni on topics both pandemic and non-pandemic related. Here are some of our favorite articles from Spring 2020:
1. In Keep Calm and…, Dr. Timothy Lash started off the semester with a discussion about performing under pressure, be it for school, work, or almost any other context. Given the pressure that many of us are feeling now to turn our skill sets towards the global crisis or maybe just to survive final exams, the strategies laid out in this article have probably never been more applicable. The quote:
“Learning to use stress to your advantage is healthy and will give you a competitive edge. Like many career skills, it requires introspection and a commitment to being intentional about the goal.”
2. Next, we heard from Dr. Jodie Guest about the value of reading outside the classroom in The EPI-Curious Society. The quote:
“Learning from our past and talking about our different perspectives is fundamental to doing good work.”
“You may have heard this from me before, but my motivation for pursuing a career in public health was driven by wanting to make a difference. The reason why I love the APE so much is that it affords our students the opportunity to make their mark on public health even before graduation.”
4. In a 3 part series, we heard from alum Roice Fulton (GLEPI, 2014) on careers in global public health with multinational organizations. In Part 1, Roice shared his path from GLEPI student graduating at the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (more relevant now than ever), to a full-blown career at an unexpected employer. In Part 2, the focus turned toward the nuts and bolts of the global NGO industry and how to navigate your own entry post-graduation. Finally, Part 3 uncovered the role of teamwork and leadership in public health. The quote:
“You may be faced with a call to lead from unexpected places and at unexpected times, especially as we reckon with a pandemic that touches every facet of our work. We’ve got to be ready for the call when it comes.”
5. Epidemiology is not just about the 2×2 tables and the regression coefficients – in our profession, we will also be called to translate science into policy and action. To do that, writes Dr. Lash, we will need to Tell Influential Stories. The quote:
“To be influential, one must change minds. To change minds, those minds must be open to change.”
6. With our schedules packed and mid-semester productivity waning, ADAP Farah Dharamshi introduced the term single-tasking in her article Juggling 101. The quote:
“Our days are filled with a constant barrage of distractions, unexpected challenges and increasing responsibilities. But, the science and experience are clear – by doing less all at once, you will likely be able to accomplish much more.”
7. As Emory, along with nearly every university and employer nationwide, transitioned to remote learning and working, I shared my how-to guide for executing that transition in my article WFH: New Challenges & New Opportunities. The quote:
“This experience is likely to teach you a lot about yourself, your ability to self-manage, your discipline, and your needs as an employee – knowledge that will help you better understand your own strengths and weaknesses going forward.”
8. This Spring, the word ‘epidemiologist’ entered the public domain and left a lot of people outside our profession itching to learn more about what exactly we do. In Dr. Guest’s article The ‘Rockstars’ of 2020, we gained a new way of thinking about our role in society. The quote:
“In our work, the forgotten past and the unrealized outcomes are our principal indicators of success. Long, healthy lives, not fanfare, signal our victory.”
9. As the need for (and public misunderstanding of) COVID models increased throughout the Spring, Dr. Samuel Jenness provided us with a background on modeling and its application in infectious disease epidemiology in his article Modeling COVID-19. The quote:
“In one sense, models prove their utility in the absence of bad news if they stimulate public action towards prevention, which may have an effect on the shape of the future epidemic curve. In the short-term, public consumers of models may not be able to fully determine the technical quality of that research. But it is important to understand that priorities of newspapers and politicians, and what they find useful in some models, may differ substantially from strong scientific principles.”
10. As the economic impact of COVID became clearer, students wondered what the pandemic meant for their career opportunities. In her article, Job Hunting in the time of COVID, ADAP Noni Bourne gave us some of her insights into the current hiring atmosphere. The quote:
“Human connection is taking on a completely different role in our lives. More than ever, it will be critical to know the person behind the email and to forge relationships that might not have otherwise been so central to success in the workplace.”
11. In Work and Study Efficiency in Difficult Times, Dr. Lash helped us understand that all days are not created equal and, especially today, challenges with motivation and work efficiency are both normal, and acceptable. The quote:
“It might also be helpful to envision what success will look like for you in the long term. We will all one day tell the stories of what happened to us and what we did during the COVID-19 pandemic. You will want to say that you did your part and put your shoulder into it as best you could. Imagine your future self and the story you will want to tell, and then make it so.“
12. In our final PROspective article of the semester, Dr. Christiansen-Lindquist helped trace a path towards identifying APE opportunities during the pandemic in her article APEs: The Best Laid Plans… of 1st-Year Spring. The quote:
“Although your APE might not look like what you had planned, I would encourage you to view this as a speed bump, rather than a roadblock. Our capacity for resiliency is far greater than any of us can comprehend, and these challenging times have the potential to bring out creativity that we didn’t know that we had.”
From all of us on the editorial team, thanks so much for reading PROspective and congratulations for completing another semester! As we transition to our Summer publishing schedule, keep an eye out for more from PROspective going forward.
What was your favorite article this semester? Tell us in the comments!
Featured image from: https://www.freeagent.com/guides/small-business/retrospectives/
We know that the challenges of identifying an APE are amplified due to the pandemic – some organizations are experiencing hiring freezes, while others have turned their attention to the pandemic response and previous plans have been put on hold. Although your APE might not look like what you had planned, I would encourage you to view this as a speed bump, rather than a roadblock. Our capacity for resiliency is far greater than any of us can comprehend, and these challenging times have the potential to bring out creativity that we didn’t know that we had. It is in this spirit that I wanted to share some strategies to help you find an APE over the coming months.
Tap into Networks Both Old and New
Is there an organization that you volunteered with prior to coming to Rollins, or one whose mission resonates with your core values? Reach out to these groups to see what opportunities they might have. Take the initiative to sell your skills and experience to note how it will benefit the organization.
Is there a professor whose work you really admire? Reach out to them to see if they have contacts with any outward facing organizations who might be interested in hosting an RSPH student.
Have you checked out #EpiTwitter yet? If not, now is the time to take the plunge! From budding epidemiologists to giants in our field – Twitter has become a place for sharing critiques of published studies, nerdy epidemiology jokes, and JOBS! There’s even an account (@EpiJobs) that regularly posts positions for both internships and full-time employment. Some students have even had success securing APEs by tweeting that they’re searching for an internship. If you decide to do this, be sure to include the #EpiTwitter hashtag, and provide some background information about who you are and what skills you hope to gain – it’s low risk with the potential for great reward. Pro tip: If you tag @EmoryEPI, there’s a good chance that your tweet will get even more traction!
Use Your Resources
Job postings will continue to become available both in Handshake and The Confounder. Remember that although The Confounder is distributed once a week as an email newsletter, you can access the scholarblog at anytime to view past and current content.
To schedule a coaching appointment, please utilize Handshake as you have previously done to request a coaching appointment.
We encourage you to continue to pursue internship, APE and full-time job opportunities. OCD will continue to recruit and collaborate with organizations to create opportunities and emphasize the utilization of virtual hiring through Rollins. Public Health Organizations are still actively recruiting students, but most likely will be shifting their in-person hiring procedures to phone and virtual interviews for the time being. Continue to utilize our Handshake platform as one of your primary job search boards, as well as other resources and job boards like the Emory Public Health Connection andLinkedIn.
Even in non-pandemic times, students can find it challenging to find an APE – the networking that is required to secure these opportunities is new for some and can be awkward at first. You may need to pursue many (N > 30) avenues before you find something that will work. To help you keep track of these contacts, I recommend creating a spreadsheet to systematically track the progress of each of your outreach efforts. The lessons that you learn along the way will be valuable as you continue to work towards becoming the influential public health professional that you hope to be.
Take heart that much time remains to identify and complete your APE, and that we are here to support you in this process. If you’ve followed all of these steps and still come up short, please reach out to your ADAP and/or Dr. Ann Do, our faculty APE advisor, and they will work with you to identify additional strategies for finding something that will be a good fit.
Featured Image from: https://survivalreport.org/survival-contingency-planning/
I hope this message finds you and yours well during these difficult times. We have worked hard to keep open channels of communication with students and faculty and, in addition to concerns regarding physical and emotional wellbeing, a recurring theme has been a concern about the efficiency of the time they can allocate to work or study.
There is no single strategy to address this concern; though here are some ideas for how to take it on if you feel your efficiency could be better. It starts with reflection about the source of the self-perceived inefficiency. More than one of the below may be at play, and they may be weighted differently on different days or even over the course of a single day.
If you believe you could be more efficient with the time allocated to work or study, take a moment to think about which of the following may be operating and how to diminish their impact.
To start, it’s possible that your expectations of your efficiency are too high. Our schedules have been disrupted, we are grieving the loss or distance of our social networks, and we are all concerned about friends, colleagues or family who are not well and/or experiencing anticipatory grief about the same. It is normal to work less efficiently under these circumstances. Are your expectations of your efficiency calibrated to the reality of the current moment? Is some recalibration necessary? It’s also possible that you need to help your colleagues, instructors, and peers to recalibrate their expectations of you. External pressures that we cannot meet are uniformly demotivating, so do your best to avoid them or resolve them.
Second, it’s possible that you are distracted by more than the realities described in the preceding paragraph. When our ability to concentrate is diminished by circumstances, other distractions invade more easily, occupy more time and a higher proportion of mental reserves, and therefore have an ever larger than normal effect on our efficiency. Turn off the email, close the browser, turn off the television and music, keep clear of the kitchen. Duncan’s earlier PROspective article provided some great ideas for creating a productive work-at-home space.
Third, it’s possible that you could be more productive with the time that you have available. There is a large literature on work productivity, most of which remains relevant even under new circumstances. Make a to-do list for the day that is realistic given the time that you will have available. Delete anything that is not important (aligned with your goals and values). Organize what is left into what is urgent (impending deadlines or helping someone else to keep working) and not urgent (chipping away at larger projects with later deadlines). Take on the urgent and important tasks first, working first on the ones that are least appealing to you. Be sure to save some time each day to work on what is important but not urgent, so that you don’t face unmanageable deadlines later. Work in short bursts without distraction (25 minutes is often recommended), and then reward yourself with a distraction (check email or Twitter or Instagram) for five minutes (no more). You can set a timer to keep the rhythm for you. Be sure, also, to optimize your productivity by eating well, avoiding too much sedentary time, and sleeping well. As advised in Duncan’s earlier PROspective, schedule time to give yourself a break; it’s too easy to sit in front of the work screen all day, even if that time is not productive.
Fourth, it’s possible that your motivation has truly waned. Lack of motivation may emanate from a combination of all the above, and is also possibly influenced by feelings of despair and loss of perceived control. To restore some of your missing motivation, start by addressing the first three. Also, find ways to restore a sense of control where you can. We cannot come back to campus for class, but we can organize our closet or write to a high school friend we have been thinking about for a long time. Taking on nonwork items that have been lingering on your personal to-do list will reassert your locus of control, and that will spillover to improve your motivation. Structuring your time will also remind you that you are in control: keeping a daily schedule will help to be sure you have regular sleep, diet, work, and relaxation.
Feelings of inefficiency during times like these are normal, and some days will be more productive than others. On those days when you aren’t able to tackle as much as you would have hoped, give yourself some grace, and know that you’ll have another chance at it tomorrow.
It might also be helpful to envision what success will look like for you in the long term. We will all one day tell the stories of what happened to us and what we did during the COVID-19 pandemic. You will want to say that you did your part and put your shoulder into it as best you could. Imagine your future self and the story you will want to tell, and then make it so.
Featured image from: https://blog.hubstaff.com/productivity-techniques/
Living in our new reality is difficult. We all recognize and respect the importance of flattening the curve; but, adjusting to the reality of social distancing is hard. Our daily decision-making process has shrunken to the sizes of our homes and apartments, making going to dinner a question of table or couch.
We need expertly trained epidemiologists tackling today’s public health problems, even while so much is uncertain about today and tomorrow.
Even more difficult is looking towards the future. Yet, we are asking our graduates to do just that. We need expertly trained epidemiologists tackling today’s public health problems, even while so much is uncertain about today and tomorrow.
Still, we know that our rising graduates are looking ahead at how they can leverage their skills during this time of crisis and are eager to put to work their skills at asking and answering important questions. They’re also wondering just how to manage a job search during a global pandemic.
At the end of last month, GLEPI alum Vanessa Da Costa (MPH, 2018) was asked these very questions in an interview with RepoJobs.org – how do you navigate the current job market, what’s different about the hiring process now, and how you should approach networking without leaving the house.
Let’s think a little more about that last part – networking. Now that we are all doing our part to stay home during the pandemic, human connection is taking on a completely different role in our lives. More than ever, it will be critical to know the person behind the email and to forge relationships that might not have otherwise been so central to success in the workplace.
What that means is that now is your chance to take advantage of the networking environment. In her interview, Vanessa talked about reaching out to people directly on LinkedIn – simply to learn about their career path. While this might have felt intimidating for some of us in the past, now this sort of interaction is more socially acceptable than ever before. I, myself, am always excited when someone in my network takes the initiative to reach out to me on LinkedIn. To me, this is the first indication that someone would be great employee – resourceful, confident, and motivated.
Vanessa also mentioned the value of attending virtual webinars and events. In particular, I find these places to be great opportunities to identify those people who you might want to reach out to later. An added bonus is that it’s always a little more comfortable to reach out to someone (especially someone with clout) when you can say, “I watched your presentation last week at the conference and I was curious about what you said about ____ .”
“…in the age of remote working and technology, you could be hired to start a position at any time.”
The last part worth mentioning about networking is the element of random chance. Sometimes I like to think about networking more like a chemist. The universe is a container of particles randomly colliding with each other. The laws of chemistry and physics suggest that the randomness or entripy of the universe is constantly increasing, despite our attempts to organize it (at least on our little planet). The more particles you bounce into, the more likely it is that you will encounter the perfect partner particle, and that your electrons will align to form a strong molecular bond. There is a lot about the job search that involves chance, and you’re more likely to create chance opportunities if you maximize the number of encounters you have in the first place. Think of networking like particle collisions, the more collisions that happen (ex. cold calls or emails, introductions, etc), the greater the chance that one of them will result in a real employment opportunity.
From Dr. Samuel Jenness, Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology:
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has raised the profile of mathematical modeling, a core epidemiological approach to investigate the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases. Infectious disease modeling has been featured in routine briefings by the federal COVID task force, including projections of future COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Models have also been covered in the news, with stories on modeling research that has provided information into the burden of disease in the United States and globally. Along with this coverage has also come interest in and criticism of modeling, including common sources of data inputs and structural assumptions.
Much of epidemiology (with many exceptions) is focused on the relationship between individual-level exposures (e.g., consumption of certain foods) and individual-level outcomes (e.g., incident cancers). Studying infectious diseases break many of these rules, due to the interest in quantifying not just disease acquisition but also disease transmission. Transmission involves understanding the effects of one’s exposures on the outcomes of other people. This happens because infectious diseases are contagious. Sir Ronald Ross, a British medical doctor and epidemiologist who characterized the transmission patterns of malaria in the early 20th century, called these “dependent happenings.”
Dependent happenings are driven by an epidemic feedback loop, whereby the individual risk of disease is a function of the current prevalence of disease. As prevalence increases, the probability of exposure to an infected person grows. And prevalence increases with incident infections, and this is driven by individual risk related to exposure.
These dependencies create non-linearities over time, as shown in the right panel above. At the beginning of an infectious disease outbreak, there is an exponential growth curve. This may be characterized based on the doubling time in cumulative case counts. Epidemic potential can also be quantified with R0, which average number of transmissions resulting an infected individual in a completely susceptible population. The 0 in R0 refers to the time 0 in an epidemic when this would be the case; colloquially, people also use R0 to discuss epidemic potential at later time points. Therefore, R0 might shrink over time as the susceptible population is depleted, or as different behavioral or biological interventions are implemented.
Mathematical models for epidemics take parameters like R0 as inputs. Models then construct the mechanisms to get from the micro-level (individual-level biology, behavior, and demography) to the macro-level (population disease incidence and prevalence). This construction depends heavily on theory, often supported by multiple fields of empirical science that provides insight into how the mechanisms (gears in the diagram below) fit together individually and together in the system.
Because of the complexity of these systems, and the wide range of mechanisms embedded, models typically synthesize multiple data streams from interdisciplinary scientific fields. Flexibility with data inputs is also important during disease outbreaks, when the availability of large cohort studies or clinical trials to explain the disease etiology or interventions with precision may be limited.
Fortunately, there are several statistical methods for evaluating the consistency of the hypothesized model against nature. Model calibration methods that test what model parameter values (e.g., values of R0) are more or less consistent with data (e.g., case surveillance of diagnosed cases). Sensitivity analyses quantify how much the final projections of a model (e.g., the effect of an infectious disease intervention) depend on the starting model inputs.
Putting these pieces together, models provide a virtual laboratory to test different hypotheses about the often complex and counterintuitive relationships between inputs and outputs. This virtual laboratory not only allows for estimation of projected future outcomes, but also testing of counterfactual scenarios for which complete data may not be available.
How Are Models Built and Analyzed?
There are many classes of mathematical models used within epidemiology. Three broad categories are: deterministic compartmental models (DCMs), agent-based models (ABMs), and network models. DCMs divide the population into groups defined, at a minimum, by the possible disease states that one could be in over time. ABMs and network models represent and simulate individuals rather than groups, and they provide a number of advantages in representing the contact processes that generate disease exposures. DCMs are the foundation of mathematical epidemiology, and provide a straightforward introduction to how models are built.
Take the example in the figure below of an immunizing disease like influenza or measles, which can be characterized by the disease states of susceptible (compartment S), infected (compartment I), and recovered (compartment R). Persons start out in S at birth, then move to I, and then to R. The flow diagram, kind of like a DAG, defines the types of transition that are hypothesized to be possible (and by an omission of arrows, which are hypothesized not). Movement from S to I corresponds to disease transmission, and the movement from I to R corresponds to recovery. There may be additional exogenous in-flows and out-flows, like those shown in the diagram, that correspond to births and deaths.
The speed at which transmission and recovery occur over time is controlled by model parameters. These flow diagrams are translated into mathematical equations that formally define this model structure and the model parameters. The following set of equations that correspond to this figure. These are differential equations that specify, on the left-hand side, how fast the sizes of the compartments change (the numerators) over time (the denominator). On the right-hand side are the definition of the set of flows in and out of each compartment.
One flow, from the S to I compartment, includes the λ (lambda) parameter that defines the “force of infection.” This is the time-varying rate of disease transmission. It varies over time for the reasons shown in the epidemic feedback loop diagram, shown above, and formalized in the equation below. The rate of disease transmission per unit of time can be defined as the rate of contact per time, c, times the probability that each contact will lead to a transmission event, t, times the probability that any contact is with an infected person. The last term is another way of expressing the disease prevalence; this is the feature of the feedback loop that changes over time as the epidemic plays out.
The overall size of transitions is therefore a function of these model parameters and the total size of the compartments that the parameters apply to. In the case of disease transmission, the parameters apply to people who could become infected, or people in the S compartment. Once all the equations are built, they are programmed in a computer, such as the software tool for modeling that I built called EpiModel. To experiment with a simple DCM model, check out our Shiny app.
More complex models build out the possible disease states, for example, by adding a latently infected but un-infectious stage (called SEIR models). Or they add another transition, by adding an arrow from R back to S in the case that immunity is temporary (called SIRS models). Or they add extra stratifications, such as age groups, when those strata are relevant to the disease transmission or recovery process. By adding these stratifications, different assumptions about the contact process are then possible; for example, by simulating a higher contact rate for younger persons or concentrating most of the contacts of young people with other young people. These additional model structures should be based on good theory, supported by empirical data.
How Have Models Been Used to Understand COVID-19?
Mathematical models have been used broadly in two ways in the current COVID-19 global pandemic: 1) understanding what has just happened to the world or what will soon happen; 2) figuring what to do about it.
In the first category, several models have estimated the burden of disease (cases, hospitalizations, deaths) against healthcare capacity. The most famous of these models is the “Imperial College” model, led by investigators at that institution, and published online on March 16. This is an agent-based model that first projected the numbers of deaths and hospitalizations of COVID in the U.K. and the U.S. against current critical care capacity under different scenarios. In the “do nothing” scenario, in which there were no changes to behavior, the model projected 2.2 million deaths would occur in the U.S. and over 500,000 in the U.K.
The model also included scenarios of large-scale behavioral change (an example of the second category of use, what to do about it), in which different case isolation and “social distancing” (a new addition to the lexicon) measures were imposed. Under these scenarios, we could potentially “flatten the curve,” which meant reducing the peak incidence of disease relative to the healthcare system capacity. These changes were implemented in the model by changing the model parameters related to the contact rates; in this case, the model structure and the contact rates were stratified by location of contacts (home, workplace, school, community) and age group.
After these models were released, the U.S. federal government substantially changed its recommendations related to social distancing nationally. There was subsequent discussion about how long these distancing measures needed to be implemented, because of the huge social and economic disruption that these changes entailed. One high-stakes policy question was whether these changes could be relaxed by Easter in mid-April or perhaps early Summer.
The Imperial College model suggests that as soon as the social distancing measures are relaxed (in the purple band) there will be a resurgence of new cases. This second wave of infection was driven by the fact that the outbreak would continue in the absence of any clinical therapy to either prevent the acquisition of disease (e.g., a vaccine) or reduce its severity (e.g., a therapeutic treatment). Particularly concerning with these incremental distancing policies would be if the second wave occurred during the winter months later this year, which would coincide with seasonal influenza.
An update to the Imperial College model was released on March 30. This model projected a much lower death toll in the U.K. (around 20,000 cases, compared to over 500,000 in the earlier model). This was interpreted by some news reports as an error in the earlier model. But instead, this revised model incorporated the massive social changes that were implemented in the U.K. and other European countries over the month of March, as shown in the figure below. Adherence to these policies were estimated to have prevented nearly 60,000 deaths during March.
This is just one of many mathematical models for COVID. Several other examples of interest are included in the resource list below. There has been an explosion of modeling research on COVID since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China in early January. This has been facilitated by the easy sharing of pre-print papers, along with the relatively low threshold in building simple epidemic models. With this explosion of research, much of the world has become interested with modeling research as the model projections are very relevant to daily life, and fill the gap in the news coverage in advance with clinical advances in testing, treatment, and vaccine technologies. Because pre-prints have not been formally vetted in peer review, it can be challenging for non-modelers (including news reporters and public health policymakers) to evaluate the quality of modeling projections. We have seen several cases already where nuanced modeling findings have been misinterpreted or overinterpreted in the news.
As the adage by George Box goes: all models are wrong, but some are useful. This applies to mathematical models for epidemics too, including those for COVID-19. Useful models are informed by good data, and this data collection usually takes time. These data inputs for models may rapidly change as well, as was the case for the updated Imperial college model, so earlier model projections may be outdated. This does not mean that the earlier model was wrong. In one sense, models prove their utility in the absence of bad news if they stimulate public action towards prevention, which may have an effect on the shape of the future epidemic curve. In the short-term, public consumers of models may not be able to fully determine the technical quality of that research. But it is important to understand that priorities of newspapers and politicians, and what they find useful in some models, may differ substantially from strong scientific principles.
There are many resources for learning more about modeling, including my Spring Semester course at RSPH, EPI 570 (Infectious Disease Dynamics: Theory and Models). We use the textbook, An Introduction to Infectious Disease Modeling, by Emilia Vynnycky & Richard White, that provides an excellent overview of modeling basics. We also have open materials available for our summer workshop, Network Modeling for Epidemics, that focuses specifically on stochastic network models.
In addition, here is a short list of interesting and well-done COVID modeling studies:
Samuel Jenness, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. He is the Principal Investigator of the EpiModel Research Lab, where the research focuses on developing methods and software tools for modeling infectious diseases. Our primary applications are focused on understanding HIV and STI transmission in the United States and globally, as well as the intersection between infectious disease epidemiology and network science.
So much has happened in the last 5 weeks in the US (longer for other parts of the world, to be sure) and for each of us. We have watched an epidemic unfolding before our eyes. When you are in school studying epidemiology, this is both a movie happening in real life and the core of the very reason you decided to pursue a career in public health. Epidemiologists are making headlines everywhere and your parents, grandparents and friends who were never quite sure what we did (and asked you repeatedly at Thanksgiving dinner) now can talk at length about the work epidemiologists are doing. According to the New York Times on 3/9/20, with regards to COVID-19, epidemiologists are the new rock stars of our current era.
“Epidemiologists, in the main, are assuming it can no longer be contained, and that we should all be responsibly thinking about next steps so that hospitals don’t become overwhelmed. Many of them are worth following on Twitter. Epidemiologists are the new rock stars.”
– Jennifer Senior, Opinion Columnist, New York Times
So let’s talk about what life has been like as an epidemiologist, or one in training, since the end of February. You have had at least one semester considering the ways epidemiologists work, think, and produce data to protect populations or reduce risks. Our thoughts are filled with ideas about how to make the human experience better, either through improving safety, reducing risks, diminishing inequities, or calling out harms. We spent the fall considering the awful side effects of vaping and how epidemiologic data were used to rapidly change policies. That seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic to happen during your graduate training. Who knew that late winter would give us a much more formidable opponent?
COVID-19, the illness that comes from SARS-CoV-2, was named a pandemic by WHO on 3/11/20. By that time, it had ravaged much of China, having only been first reported on 12/31/19 and named COVID-19 on 2/11/20. Epidemiologists sprang into action taking a wide look at conditions and the myriad of influences that need to be examined.
One of my favorite parts of epidemiology is that it sits at the intersection of politics, social justice, human behavior, and science.
Conditions are influenced by human behavior, travel, and our climate and these issues needed to be considered immediately. Our singular aim is to improve conditions and keep people safe but epidemiologists found themselves at odds with much of the information being presented by leadership in the US. As the public health world set out prevention measures, they were questioned as being too vast, hard to follow, and invasive to our lifestyle. Epidemiologists were asked to prove they would work, but that is not how this is done when we are talking about a brand new, rapidly spreading pandemic. Here is the interesting thing about enacting changes, particularly prevention measures. You cannot prove that prevention measures work after the fact, precisely because they worked.
Much of public health is about making changes to better human life, but without much attention. It is impossible to determine the number of lives saved from epidemiologic research, yet it is unquestionable that our discipline has saved millions from infectious and non-communicable diseases through the implementation of interventions and preventative programs. In fact, the CDC credits epidemiologists with adding 25 years to the average life expectancy of people living in the US since the early 1950s.1 This alone, a truly unfathomable accomplishment, is mostly forgotten as evidenced by the 21st century rise in the anti-vax movement. Yet, in our work, the forgotten past and the unrealized outcomes are our principal indicators of success. Long, healthy lives, not fanfare, signal our victory.
And yet this week the New York Times has called us rock stars and a new article from the Atlanticon 3/25/20 suggests that this pandemic could elevate public health to the centerpiece of foreign policy while the next generation of kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. This is not the kind of attention we normally get, but since February, I have answered more texts, phone calls and messages asking for interpretation of data, opinions and travel/health advice than I normally get in a year (or a decade).
Our training to understand and use data to protect our communities has not been needed more in my lifetime…
and you are joining our profession at an incredible moment. It is our responsibility to use our current platform thoughtfully and to own what we do not know, because there is a lot about COVID-19 we are still learning daily. Let’s use our skills wisely, and in a steadfast way that does not bend to the whim of politics, but instead affirms what we know, loudly if needed, and names what we still need to determine as quickly and accurately as possible to protect our world. If we do so with disciplined science and ultimately succeed in preventing a much worse outcome, it is likely the world will scarcely remember our contributions. I do believe, however, we are showing a new generation exactly what it means to make a difference in the world through epidemiology.
Let’s take a poll: What is it called when you perform tasks at home that are normally accomplished at your company’s office or the library?
a) Working from home (WFH)
b) Working remotely
d) Digital Nomading
e) Pajama Executive
In English, we have a few different ways to say it, but ultimately they all mean the same thing; and represent a practice that many of you are just now trying for the very first time as workplace standards of the last 100 years suddenly, maybe irreplaceably, get upended by a global infectious disease pandemic.
Working remotely means a lot of different things. While you have probably spent an hour at a coffee shop catching up on email, or taken a conference call from home once or twice when sick, it’s more likely that a permanently remote scenario is new to you. Personally, I’ve been fortunate to travel and work remotely in some capacity for several years, but have been fully remote for the last 11 months – now residing semi-permanently in Medellin, Colombia while continuing multiple jobs from afar.
During this time, I’ve either encountered, fallen victim to, or narrowly avoided many of the classic pitfalls of the Pajama Executive, and today I would like to share some suggestions to help you transition into your new situation. While it may seem disruptive at first, my opinion is that remote work – if designed well – can provide enormous opportunities for professional growth and increased productivity. My hope is that by the end of this article, you, like me, will find more upside in your newfound situation than downside.
You’re going to be spending a lot of time here for the foreseeable future. In public health, a common approach to behavior change is to make good habits as easy as possible to accept and maintain. Designing your workspace involves some of the same principles: make your space as comfortable and easy to work in as possible.
Get your technology in order: Identify a dedicated workspace (ideally not in your bedroom, if possible) and arrange your setup with the goal of returning to the same spot every day. The idea is to mimic the conditions at your actual desk in the office. Position your laptop to give you the most ergonomic functionality and appropriate angle and background for video conferences. Test out your call/video conference stability over your wifi network. If your wifi isn’t very stable, do you need to upgrade your internet service? Now is a good time to set up the appointment with your service provider. Strong reliable internet will improve your productivity and, by doing so, ultimately pay for itself. This is why organizations tend to invest a lot in their in-office connectivity. If you are not already required to by your school or employer, consider using a VPN to protect your internet traffic and test any existing connections you might need to access files on the internal servers (Click here for information on Emory’s VPN access).
Routine: How do you normally start your day? Workout, shower, eat a meal (read: drink coffee), get dressed, etc. Repurpose your normal routine to the new context of remote studying or working, and stick to it. Obviously, its reasonable to make more use of your casual wardrobe while working remotely, but for some of us, overdoing it on the casual attire leads to an overly casual disposition – the Pajama Executive might be prone to falling asleep on the job. The best approach, I have found, is to strike a balance and work in clothes that I can feel at least moderately professional in, even if I’m at home.
Food: Working or studying from home can present another insidious challenge – sticking to a healthy diet. At the office or at school, there are socially acceptable times to eat. To break this routine would be difficult, which makes it easy to maintain consistently when you’re in public. However, at home, the (dining room) table is turned – culinary discipline is now 100% in your hands. There are two easy ways to avoid over-snacking, or eating lunch at 10:30am. First, skip the snack foods at the store, and stock up on the healthy stuff. You can’t eat what you don’t buy. Discipline in the store creates discipline in the home. Second, if possible, build your primary workspace somewhere away from the kitchen, and stock it with the essentials you’ll need for the day. We pack our lunch when we go to the office, so why not do the same at home. Ultimately, this strategy works because the less you walk near or through the kitchen, the less likely you are to be tempted.
Design Your Day
Be deliberate about how you want your days to look. How much time can or should you really dedicate to work versus play. How can you design a situation that will maximize your productivity?
Work hours vs. non-work hours: Working remotely can be tricky because your work notifications can go off at any time, even if your work day is over. Most of us now get work email directly on our phones, so this isn’t new. The difference now is that you will have to decide when it is appropriate to respond. Keeping steady, dedicated work hours (communicate them to your superior and your team) can help set the right expectations for you and everyone you work with. Experiment with your “on” allotment and break times, and commit to NOT logging on when you are not scheduled to. This will ultimately help you remain the most efficient when you’re on and the most relaxed when you’re not. The same goes for classwork and studying – make a schedule and stick to it, then maximize your relaxation time when the workday ends.
Daily To-Do list: Distraction starts with not knowing where to start on your work. To-do lists are an excellent solution to this problem. However, one major mistake with to-do lists is forgetting to stop when you’ve finished your list. Sometimes you don’t want to stop the roll you’re on, but it’s better to stick to the list you made a priori because burnout can sneak up on you fast when there is no one else setting the agenda for you. It was the classic American author, Ernest Hemingway who said, “Stop when you’re going good.” He is describing a common existential fear, among authors especially, that if you are on a roll that it won’t last until tomorrow, or that if you don’t take advantage you’ll miss out on some crucial productivity that won’t last until the next day. I personally find this the hardest to do well when I am performing programming tasks. Either way, try not to get sucked into this notion. Hemingway’s approach is based on the idea that if you are in the middle of a productive session towards the end of your day, leaving that inspiration on the table gives you the opportunity to pick it right back up in the morning tomorrow. What inspired your initial productivity will probably inspire subsequent productivity, especially if you return to it with fresh eyes the next day.
Single-tasking: Two weeks ago, ADAP Farah Dharamshi authored an outstanding analysis of multi-tasking and it’s shortfalls. This wisdom is especially relevant for the remote student or employee. Of particular importance, is the idea of single-tasking. Close the tabs on your browser that aren’t immediately necessary for the task at hand, and commit yourself to a single, attainable objective, over a shorter period of time. You will almost certainly notice an improvement in productivity once you start to practice a more focused approach to individual tasks.
A good employee is…
How would you finish this sentence?
… is productive.
… is a team player.
… answers emails promptly.
These are all correct answers, all of which are necessary, but probably not by themselves sufficient, to describe a “good” employee. So, let’s try to redefine what this means in the context of remote work. Ultimately, being a good employee doesn’t mean you’re never distracted, or you respond to every email immediately – it means you do your job well and help make the team feel like no one is really remote.
Over-communicate: Being remote means we have to compensate a little for the reduction in face-to-face interaction. Be a little more detailed in your emails. Prioritize phone calls over emails, and video conferences over phone calls.
Independence: For better or worse, you are probably now going to be asked to perform tasks with less explicit direction than you were used to getting when you worked in the office. This isn’t universally true, because some managers naturally expect more or less independence from their employees. However, this provides a huge opportunity to take on more responsibility for your tasks and remove roadblocks to your success through resourcefulness and determination. This is the kind of initiative every manager dreams of, and will help you become a more productive, low-maintenance employee at home or in an office in the future.
Be Flexible: Working or studying at home will inevitably lead to more variability than you may be used to. Expect variability, and roll with it. Your work hours and your co-workers hours may not align perfectly. Everyone is transitioning now, so some people may face challenges that are different than yours. There is a learning curve for everyone, so you might as well embrace it!
WFH: A new normal for the 21st century
It’s hard to say what exactly the workforce of the post-COVID-19 era will look like. Remote work has been popular for the last 15-20 years among a group of backpackers and travelers who coined the term “digital nomad“. This isn’t necessarily what remote work has to look like, but it’s the very first blueprint we have to compare against. Ultimately, as COVID-19 pushes huge swaths of the economy into the home office, it’s very possible that we could be seeing the beginning of a more mainstream revolution in the relationship employees have with their employers and their workplace environment. If this is the case, then now is the time to embrace the new normal and master the WFH lifestyle and workstyle. Either way, this experience is likely to teach you a lot about yourself, your ability to self-manage, your discipline, and your needs as an employee – knowledge that will help you better understand your own strengths and weaknesses going forward.
If you are interested in doing a deeper dive into WFH tips and tricks, take a look at some of the articles below: