Epi ‘in the middle’

I was an invited guest speaker for a course in the joint Master’s degree program between San Diego Zoo Global and Miami University of Ohio (learn more about the Masters Degree Program here).  The students were tasked with helping me describe and communicate “the middle” of an epidemiologic, or “epi”, investigation.  

An epi investigation starts with a question focused on understanding patterns of disease and health in a population; it ends with tables and graphs describing the findings.

In the middle of this scientific process, however, is where I spend weeks and months of data cleaning, coding, and churning to turn raw information into something understandable. ‘The middle’ involves a series of complex problem solving tasks that lead to an answer. It is interesting and cerebral; however, its challenging to describe.  

I tasked our students to help me describe “the middle” of the scientific process to different audiences varying from young children to aged adults. Here are a few of their ideas:

 “The mystery dish” – some ingredients you know and others need to be discovered. You can taste-test to try and discover the ingredients, but it will take a lot of work and tweaking of recipes before you can recreate the mystery dish (i.e. find your answers).

 “The volcano” – there is always more going on underneath the surface…i.e., cleaning data, analyzing data. Once the right pieces come together, the results can “explode”.  

“The puzzle” – science is like a puzzle. You know a picture is there, but you don’t know what it is. There are a lot of pieces and some of them could be missing. It takes a lot of time and patience to assemble the puzzle (i.e., analyze and understand the data).

“The Sandwich” – conducting scientific research is like creating the perfect sandwich…it’s the middle that matters!  And sometimes it takes a lot of tries in swapping out ingredients (i.e., evaluating data) before we get the perfect sandwich.

So, the next time you eat a sandwich, think of it like science. The ingredients ‘in the middle’ are what makes it complete, transforming two simple pieces of bread into an entity that is more complex, interesting, and perhaps tells a story. Assembling those ingredients can be involved, but it is what makes the sandwich – or science – good!