The Boring History of EmoryEPI

The Boring History of EmoryEPI

Category : PROspective

No one wants to sit through a boring lecture. If given the option between teachers, at least in undergrad, it was common to check around and see who was “the best.”  When I arrived at Emory for my masters, my first class in epidemiology was taught by our department chair, Dr. John Boring. It was a constant source of amusement for us that someone who taught with such an infectious and passionate style carried the name of what no one wants from a teacher.

He walked into the room on the first day and we realized quickly he was, in fact, not boring at all. Instead, we were in the presence of a storyteller and a gifted teacher. His gifts in the classroom were many, as he spread his love for epidemiology across Emory’s campus teaching both at Rollins and at the School of Medicine. He was completely delighted when he saw us comprehend a concept or ask an insightful question and would exclaim, “Yes, yes yes!” He received (and deserved) many accolades in his 46 years of teaching at Emory including the Rollins School of Public Health Professor of the Year 5 times, the Thomas F. Sellers Jr. M.D. Award for being a role model, and Emory’s highest faculty honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award.

Where it all began

Our department, and our entire school, exists in large part because of Dr. Boring. He taught at Emory for 46 years – more than 4 decades of inspiring clinicians and then public health practitioners to save the world. Beginning in the mid-1970s, he taught in the master’s of community health program. After Rollins was established as a school in 1990, Dr. Boring chaired the Department of Epidemiology. Under his guidance, the curriculum evolved, the doctoral program was formed, and enrollment grew. Also under his guidance, the importance of mentoring students was modeled, established, and developed into the culture of the department we still have today.

The 4 C’s of Mentorship

I know how much I have benefitted from the model of mentorship Dr. Boring put in place. By definition, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor.” To me, that definition doesn’t really describe the full importance of what a mentorship relationship can mean. There are also the three C’s of mentorship that add color to the mentor/mentee relationship, consultant, counselor and cheerleader. I think students are looking for, and need, all three when they reach out to faculty for advice and opportunities. But if I could add a C to that list, I would add connection. I love talking about epidemiology with students, supporting their goals, providing advice when asked, and always cheerleading. The fundamental component to all of that for me is connection, whether in the classroom or while mentoring, and is one of the reasons I find academia so fulfilling. I also think these relationships have influence beyond their structured time together.

The Science of the Denominator

Dr. Boring taught the first epidemiology class I ever took, the one I now teach.  As recently as 2016, Dr. Boring gave the opening lecture of EPI530 for my students. Many years after the first time I heard him give that lecture, I was still inspired. It took me back to that class where I first learned about our science. Even as a guest lecturer, he still exuded that same excitement about what he was sure epidemiologists could do to make the world safer. He still was passionate about denominators (“This is the science of the denominator!”). And he told my students, the ones I was only teaching because he inspired me so, “Persistence. You collect data- all of it. And you keep looking for evidence. Keep at it because you can save lives.” I wish I could punctuate that last sentence the way he said it. I can hear it in my head and it was filled with such conviction, belief and hope.  You will save lives. 

An Enduring Legacy

Dr. Boring passed away at the age of 90 two weeks ago. He left an indelible mark on our department and the world of epidemiology. He taught, mentored and inspired generations of fledgling epidemiologists. To me, he was the best teacher I ever had. I was privileged that this man who always taught in a blue shirt and tie, with his huge smile, booming laugh and his left sleeve rolled up, became my friend. We texted often but I did not get to see him this year due to the pandemic. His love of epidemiology and teaching changed the course of my life.

The continued influence of my mentors such as Dr. Boring really cannot be overstated. When I shared the sad news of his passing with a former colleague of ours, the comment was, “I carry some of him with me.” How simple. How profound. I hope I do, too.



1 Comment

Barbara Otte

February 5, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Beautifully written article! Dr. Boring’s enthusiasm and passion for the subject have spilled over to you!

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