“No, those are dermatologists…”
As the semester is winding down, we will all head out in different directions over the coming weeks. Many of us will find ourselves sitting across the table from family and friends – some of whom have never even heard about epidemiology, much less know what it is. We’re a passionate (and nerdy!) bunch – and often feel most comfortable rattling off the nitty gritty details of the exciting work that we’re doing. Unfortunately, not all grandparents or college friends care to learn about the awesome macro we wrote, or how we’re working through several methods to quantify potential bias in our results. The holidays present a great opportunity for us to practice our soft skills of communicating our work and its value in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.
“We use math and critical thinking to figure out who gets sick and why”
When talking to people outside of our field, my go-to way to describe what epidemiologists do is that we use math and critical thinking to figure out who gets sick and why (and no, we don’t study skin – those are dermatologists). I’ll often follow-up with a few classic examples of things that we’ve learned through the hard work of the epidemiologists who have come before us (the link between smoking and lung cancer is always a good one!).
“No matter what we study, there are always individuals who are sick, suffering, or dying – and we’re all trying to do our part to reduce the frequency of those negative outcomes”
When I first started studying stillbirth, I always struggled with the question “so, what’s your research about?” because it was always sure to put a quick damper on the conversation. As I thought about it, I realized that nearly all of the work that we do in public health is difficult – no matter what we study, there are always individuals who are sick, suffering, or dying – and we’re all trying to do our part to reduce the frequency of those negative outcomes. Over time, I found a good lead-in to help describe what I do, and put it in context: “My research focuses on maternal and child health, and specifically stillbirth. Stillbirth is far more common in the US than most people think – in fact, it is 17 times more common than Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” This helps to start a conversation, and eases the tension when talking about a difficult and sensitive topic.
No matter where your passion lies – whether it’s vaccination, genetics, cancer, or diarrhea – I encourage you to think about why that topic matters to you, and how you can talk about it with those who might be less familiar and convince them of its importance, too. One additional piece of advice that I’ll leave here is to think carefully about which of these topics are best left to discuss until after your holiday dinner!
“The work that we do can take its toll on us, and it’s important that we don’t forget to take care of ourselves when we’re off trying to save the world”
Whatever you do this holiday season, I hope that you will find some time to relax and recharge. The work that we do can take its toll on us, and it’s important that we don’t forget to take care of ourselves when we’re off trying to save the world. We look forward to seeing you back in January – ready to tackle all that the new semester and decade (!!) have to offer.