What drew me to epidemiology was how broadly the discipline touches on every aspect of our understanding of health and disease, and at the same time is intimately attuned to having an impact on people’s everyday lives. While it employs scientifically rigorous tools to investigate the complex intersection of biology, psychology, and the environment, the purpose of epidemiology is not to pursue knowledge for its own sake, but in the service of the greater public health. It is this aspect of epidemiology that I wish to promote as an educator to both students and the public. It is this aspect of epidemiology that I believe excites student motivation and curiosity to address an important issue of health.
The goals of an epidemiological education should, therefore, foster an orientation to view health and disease through the unique lens of epidemiology as a population science, approach public health questions from an epidemiological perspective, cultivate students’ ability to clearly communicate epidemiological ideas and findings to their peers, and develop their higher-ordered critical thinking skills to critique epidemiological research and generate novel areas of inquiry. Attainment of these goals will benefit all students pursuing epidemiology or other health-related career fields.
Enactment of these goals will be a challenge, but I believe it is essential to adapt my teaching strategy to a variety methods because students learn in different ways and will benefit from them. In my personal experiences as both a student and teacher, a combination of traditional lecture-style instruction, interactive discussion, and applied exercises are the keys to a well-rounded course curriculum. For example, when lecturing in front of students, I have come to realize that interest and engagement can be enhanced by first focusing curiosity on a question or problem, then honing the message, repeating key points, and using a diverse set of examples and visuals. However, I feel good teaching should not be a one-way form of communication. For example, I had the pleasure to serve as a “coach” for a team of bright, high school students in St. Johns, Michigan who participate in an inter-school completion called Science Olympiad. One event tests student understanding of epidemiologic concepts and skills in an event called Disease Detectives. I did not simply want them to memorize a list of terms or learn the rules for calculating an odds ratio, but through questioning and discussion, probe them to think about how these concepts fit together and why they are used. Epidemiology is like having a set of special tools, but it is insufficient to know only what the tool does, but why this particular tool is needed and how to use it effectively.
Assessment of student performance is another key component of my teaching, which will help me gauge my effectiveness as an instructor. Exams and quizzes are the traditional means of trying to quantify student learning, and they can be an effective tool for providing feedback. However, I am a big proponent of learning by doing, which means giving them assignments and projects that will more closely resemble the types of ways they will be assessed in the real world. For example, this means assigning projects that might require students review the literature on a pubic health issue, design an epidemiological study, or generate analytical results that must then be communicated in writing or orally. Making these type of assignments a group effort further aids in learning as a social activity, while preparing students to navigate issues of leadership, coordinating towards a common goal, resolving conflicts, and collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds. I believe mastery of these skills will ultimately serve students better in ways that cannot be quantified by an exam.
Enactment and assessment of these learning goals can only be achieved if students feel safe and respected within an inclusive learning environment. As a teacher, respect should be earned from students by being clear and explicit about what they can expect from me, which includes starting class on time, setting an outline of learning objectives, being open about grading and exam procedures, fairness when resolving conflicts, and providing opportunities for both in-class and out-of-class time for students to express questions and concerns. As a teacher, there are many ways I can promote inclusiveness. For example, arranging classes that allow for students to face one another, as opposed to everyone facing one direction, in order to help students feel less anonymous and encourage discussion. Promoting inclusiveness also means acknowledging diversity through examples in my lectures, assigned readings, and guest lectures that touch upon important health issues affecting people of different genders, races, cultures, and sexual orientation. As a teacher, it is also my responsibility to set and lead by example the ground rules for discussion, including treating others with respect, avoidance of name calling, accusations, or other personal attacks, allowing people to speak without interruption, and keeping the discussion focused on the topic, not the individual.
Below you’ll find more detailed examples of my teaching and mentorship activities. As a pre-doctoral fellow, I worked with local high school students and guest lectured to other graduate students. As a post-doctoral fellow, I continue to provide mentorship advice to graduate students and guest lecture.
While at Michigan State University (MSU), I had the pleasure of “coaching” students from the nearby St. Johns High School. These students participate in an incredible, team-based inter-school competition offered in K-12 schools called Science Olympiad. One of the events used each year, called Disease Detectives, is sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Disease Detectives challenges students to learn and apply basic epidemiological principles and methodologies to understand health and disease. During our “practices” I helped students competing in this event by explaining the more difficult concepts, answering their questions, working through calculations (e.g., attack rates or relative risks), and directing them where to find resources for self-learning (e.g., highlighting YouTube videos that further explain concepts or provide historical background to issues of health).
As an MSU graduate student, I was invited to present lectures to students to illustrate topics related to my ongoing research into marijuana and psychiatric disorders. For the course, Drug Policy from Asia to America, I introduced undergraduate students to recent and historical perspectives of marijuana prohibitions in the US and elsewhere, effects and potential therapeutic uses, and public health problems related to its use. For the graduate course, Behavioral Health in Society, I discussed my dissertation research on marijuana blunt smoking (i.e., Being Blunt about Blunts) and its potential implications for the experience of cannabis use disorders. In 2014, I presented a form of this lecture to faculty and students at the University of Vermont, Dartmouth, and at the Society for Prevention Research (SPR) in Washington, D.C. A copy of these two presentations can be found on my Presentations page.
In 2014, I also had the pleasure of traveling to Lima, Peru in order to mentor international students who were working to finish their Ph.D./MS degrees in epidemiology. I spend a week there helping students with their statistical methodology and English writing. To the group of students working there, I presented and discussed how they could utilize latent variables and structural equation modeling in their public health research by giving them an overview of the method and examples from my own dissertation.
In 2015, now as a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), I’ve had opportunities to further share my methodological expertise and research with students and faculty. For example, I have guest lectured for two graduate level courses that introduce students to the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a publicly-available data resource that can be used to conduct and publish novel epidemiological research related to drug abuse issues. Most recently, I gave a lecture to students and faculty on my research related trends in medical marijuana use in the US for the JHSPH Centennial Seminar Series in December 2015.
Over the past year, I’ve tried to expand my public outreach for epidemiology and drug abuse issues via new technological platforms, such as WordPress and Twitter. I see these as new ways of interacting with students and the public. I regularly try to use my expertise to comment upon epidemiological research in the news related to marijuana and drugs in order to provide a perspective that is perhaps missing from the conversation.