Interview with Maia Majumder: "The cultures of engineering and public health are fundamentally interwoven"
Today's interview is with MIT grad student Maia Majumder, a long time Twitter friend and collaborator. Be sure to check out her blog.
I also enjoy exploring novel techniques for data procurement, writing about data for the general public, and creating meaningful data visualizations. By working at the intersection of two separate but surprisingly similar disciplines (engineering and public health), I hope to (in whatever way I can!) improve the way we respond to outbreaks as they happen.
Your background is in engineering. How did you become interested in public health? How does public health differ from engineering?
When I started as an undergraduate at Tufts in 2008, our freshman year required reading was Dr. Robert D. Morris' The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink. Because of this book, I learned how Dr. John Snow - one of the fathers of of modern day epidemiology - and his study of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London changed the way we understood disease transmission. Given that cholera is endemic in Bangladesh (my family's home country), I became fascinated with public health - and thankfully, there were several classes in epidemiology offered through the Civil & Environmental Engineering department. Something that I learned very quickly at Tufts Engineering - which also reflects what Dr. Morris emphasized repeatedly in the Blue Death - is that engineers are critical to the public health of any given society. This ultimately translated into a university-funded, 4-year-long research project in Bangladesh. Between 2009 to 2013 (when I received my MPH from Tufts Medical), I spent several months each year at the ICDDR,B (International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh) working on cholera in the field... And because of these experiences, I perceive the cultures of engineering and public health to be fundamentally interwoven.
Outreach has been a big part of your work so far. Why that is important to you?
In my opinion, science communication is an integral part of public health practice. This is especially true for novel pathogens research. Unknowns are scary, and emerging infectious diseases are chock-full of unknowns! As is the case with other sexy topics, EIDs are frequently the subject of sensationalized (and often scientifically inaccurate) news media reports. By making myself and my work accessible to the general public (via Twitter, email, and my blog), I hope to mitigate some of the fear and confusion that tends to ensue during an EID outbreak. I've found that most of the people who choose to engage with me (and other scientists!) on these topics respond very positively to having their questions and concerns addressed one-on-one... And that's precisely what makes outreach worthwhile!
Why do you think computational methodologies are a good way to approach epidemiology? Why did you choose that over more "traditional" public health?
In my view, digital disease surveillance and traditional disease surveillance should be practiced hand-in-hand. The former can provide critical, near real-time insights in under-resourced regions where the latter simply isn't an option. That said, traditional disease surveillance generally provides far deeper understanding with regard to a given disease of interest; however it requires infrastructure that isn't always available for data collection to occur. Given that novel pathogens often emerge from under-resourced regions, digital disease surveillance is extremely useful in my particular line of work - especially in the context of rapid response in the early days of an outbreak.
What do you see as the future of epidemiology? What are your hopes for public health in the next 10 years?
As I mentioned above, my hope is that digital and traditional disease surveillance methods will eventually be utilized simultaneously during an ongoing EID outbreak, with an increased emphasis on public participation. In reality, this is happening already... But I believe a formalized protocol that maximizes on the advantages of both kinds of surveillance would likely aid in reducing costs and improving efficiency.
Epidemiologists changing the future of public health.