Epidemiology at 49: It All Depends On What You Want to Know

LSHTM logoSo I’m gradually approaching the exam segment of the second year of my pursuit of an MSc in Epidemiology. It feels like someone has been speaking Greek to me for months (otherwise known as EPM202 and EPM304) and – all of a sudden, I can understand (at least a little more) what is being said.

How do you decide on the best strategy for answering a research question?

Newsflash: It depends on what you want to know!

I know this will come as a shock to all those epidemiologists out there…But that phrase the tutors have been patiently repeating for months is (deep breath)…true.

If you are a public health official trying to figure out how many people in your region may come down with, say, Awful Disease X, what you care about is how well you can PREDICT that number. You are interested in (drum roll) independent risk factors in general. You don’t much care whether Awful Disease X (or ADX to those in the know) is caused by, say, working late on weekends, but you sure do care whether people who spend most of their free time at the office have higher odds of getting the illness.

If on the other hand you are a researcher trying to find a way to reduce incidence of ADX, it may not help you much to know that weekend workers have a greater tendency to succumb. What you care about is understanding the CAUSES of ADX in your region. Let’s hear it for … causal factors and their uninvited but always-pushing-in cousins, The Confounders (sounds like a bit like a rock band…). Researchers want the purest picture of any relationship between possible causes and Awful Disease X, so they are less interested in any risk factors other than the bothersome confounders, which must be done away with via the mysterious process known as “controlling for them,” leaving behind (in theory) a nice clean association (or not).

The bottom line is that, depending on who you are and what you want to know about a particular health outcome, you will be interested in different types of variables, analyze their relationships differently, and choose to highlight different points in your conclusions.

It strikes me this is a lot like the rest of life. Getting the strategy of analysis right depends on what you will use your results for—just as the “right way” to do anything depends on what you want to do. What should I study? Where should I live? How should I earn a living? More serious questions too: Whom should I follow or lead? What should I endure and what should I fight against?

By chance, the daily “Moment of Happiness” quote (see Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project) this morning was from Thomas Merton, who pointed out that “Thinking about monastic ideals is not the same as living up to them, but at any rate such thinking has an important place in a monk’s life, because you cannot begin to do anything unless you have some idea what you are trying to do.”

Epidemiologists may not all be monks, but Thomas has a point.

Susannah is studying the MSc Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine through the University of London International Programmes. She lives in the USA.

6 thoughts on “Epidemiology at 49: It All Depends On What You Want to Know

  1. It is very interesting Susannah.
    I am thinking about applying for the next edition of the distance learning master.
    I would like to ask you a few questions, could you email me to jdiezperezj@gmail.com
    Best wishes,
    Javi

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  2. Hi Susanna,

    I am also planning to apply for the distant learning MSc clinical trials program. But I am in a real dilemma, since I am a clinician and working hard. How much time do you spend on the program daily ? I ll be also glad, if you can mail me. dserdarbaris@gmail.com

    Thanks

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  3. I’ve read this post several times, but today it all seems so clear to me. I’m considering the distance MSc Epi and therefore, enjoy reading all your posts. How is the end of the second year so far?

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  4. Hi Thank you for your comment. It is nice to know that others enjoy reading my posts. I am sorry I haven’t posted in so long. Life gets in the way. The end of the second year is going well. I sat three exams in June and don’t get the results for another few weeks, but I think they went okay. Exam prep was exhausting–pretty much 6 weeks straight of studying–but I hope it was effective. And it is always fascinating how much I feel I learn during the exam prep period. I am now trying to finish the assignment for my fourth class. It is a really interesting assignment but rather time-consuming. It is a little hard to concentrate since I am really more focused on the looming start of the third and (for me) final year. I am eager to begin thinking about my project. Family circumstances have also intervened. My younger sister died suddenly last week and we are very sad. Life is so short and unpredictable. I think the distance MSc epi is a wonderful program so, all else equal, I would heartily recommend it. But, like I said, it all depends on what you want to know (or do) (or be). All the best to you, Susannah

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  5. Hi everyone,
    Great to see your interest in the programme and that you’ve enjoyed Susannah’s posts. If you want advice about what it is like to study the MSc Epidemiology, you can also contact our Alumni Ambassadors at http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/community-support-resources/alumni/alumni-ambassadors/subject. If you want to give the programme a try by taking an individual module, please note that you should apply by 31 August. If you have applied and been accepted, make sure you register by 31 August too.
    The University of London team

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  6. Thanks for your response Susannah and am sorry for your loss.
    UOLBlogger; thanks for the link to the alumni ambassadors. I will contact them as I am currently registered and quite apprehensive :)

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