Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor


PLoS – Sci Ed

Battlestar Pedagogica: Using Science Fiction to teach Science!

Science fiction is educational - SO SAY WE ALL! Picture courtesy BattlestarWiki
Science fiction is educational – SO SAY WE ALL! | Picture courtesy Battlestar Galactica Wiki

I’m a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. There are few feelings quite as impressive as when an author crafts a world that draws you in (See: Arrakis, Middle Earth, Westeros, LV-246, Hogwarts etc). Perhaps what I find most fascinating though, is how quickly science fiction can turn into real life. For example, the tricorder from Star Trek was a fictional device that could scan different aspects of the environment depending on the requirement, ranging from geological, such as mineral content of rocks, to metereological, such as air pressure and temperature, to biological, such as heart rate and blood pressure. While this sounded like a great dream in the 1960s (when The Original Series aired), we’re now, within a single generation (pun *totally* intended), able to turn this into reality. The new Samsung Galaxy S4, for example, is slated to be released with a suite of health apps (dubbed S Health), including apps to measure heart rate, blood pressure as well as track caloric expenditure. Even things as simple as being able to communicate without needing a bulky cellphone have now become a reality.

As teachers and educators, we suffer from a very real limitation when it comes to teaching. Either due to time, lack of equipment or other constraints we cannot teach some issues the way we would like. But even in the most well-equipped lab, sometimes we can’t teach a concept because the technology doesn’t exist. In those situations, we can use outlandish examples to discuss a concept, and then work backwards from there to discuss the limitations we currently face, a concept called a Thought Experiment. By imagining a scenario, we can push the boundaries of our understanding, discussing the issue from a “what about if X happened,” or “Would Y still occur if A and B happened.” There are many types of thought experiments, and it means different things to different disciplines. I’m going to be using it to refer the use of a metaphor to explain a concept, which corresponds to the “prefactual” type of thought experiment, ie. what outcome would we expect if we had conditions A, B and C.

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Science Heroes: Why Science Needs A Celebrity Spokesperson

We exist in a strange society these days. Jenny McCarthy is viewed as an authority on vaccines and people listen to the opinions of Ben Affleck and Sean Penn when it comes to politics. Yet people who study and have dedicated their lives to these causes remain out of the limelight and hidden from the public. While everyone knows about celebrities who campaign on issues, how many people can name a researcher who study them? One  problem facing scientists is the lack of communication between science and the public: we’re perceived as living in the ivory tower of academia and are totally out of touch, or worse, we’re in the pocket of Big Pharma/Food/The Umbrella Corporation/Evil Faceless Corporate Interest.

But in reality, scientists are just regular people with an interest in one specific part of our world, and we want nothing more than for everyone else to find out work as fascinating as we do. It’s something that Jorge Cham of PhD Comics discusses in his TEDxUCLA talk, where he highlights how he was hired to create a video (that you may have seen) about the Higgs Boson.

There’s a definite gap between scientists and the public, and three questions immediately come to mind: 1) Why do scientists not engage, 2) How can scientists engage and 3) How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?

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Mathematical Literacy: A necessary skill for the 21st century


My Grade 9 math teacher was a jolly British man, and probably taught me one of the most useful things I ever learnt in high school: how to do basic math in my head (or, since I was in the British educational system, it was Grammar School). Every so often we’d go into our math class and find little bits of paper on every desk. This was a harbinger of doom – it meant we were having a 20 question surprise quiz. And not just any quiz, a mental arithmetic quiz. He would read a question out loud twice, and then we’d have to do the math. He’d give us some leeway (you didn’t have to be exact), but man did I ever hate those quizzes. At the time, they seemed impractical and a colossal waste of time. In retrospect, they were incredibly useful.

Now, being on the other side of the divide, I see something that concerns me. I regularly TA undergraduate and graduate students in statistics, and I notice that many of them, while they have all the skills to do math, are absolutely terrified of it. And as soon as you fear a subject, or don’t want to learn it, you won’t. Your mind will shut down and every instinct you have will prevent you from engaging in the material. As a result, I spend the first hour of any class I’m teaching talking to the students and determining what it is they don’t understand to tailor my sessions accordingly. But the comments generally involve variations on:

“I just don’t get math.”
“I’ve never been any good at math.”
“I don’t like it.”

Of these, the first two concern me. The third I can’t help – I don’t need my students to love math, but I do want them to understand enough to pass the course and feel comfortable interpreting statistical analyses. There’s a culture among schoolkids to dislike math and the perception that it’s largely useless. While in chemistry you can see stuff blow up, and in biology you can dissect animals, math is a largely abstract concept. That perception then manifests as a lack of interest, which results in poorer performance, and that puts people off math.

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#overlyhonestmethods – Reaching out with humour

For a week and a half, I was a minor internet celebrity!

Science has an awkward relationship with the public. There’s a perception that we exist in an ivory tower, and the common media perception (as is evident by shows like The Big Bang Theory) is that we’re somewhat socially inept, with a lack of people skills and an inability to talk about our work in a way that others can understand.

So I was thrilled when #overlyhonestmethods became a thing. There have been many little science in-jokes floating around the twittersphere; one of my favourite was the hashtag #middleearthpublichealth which came out right before The Hobbit released in theatres. Tweets like “Craving the ‘Precious’: Gollum, a case study of the public health impact of severe ring addiction, Lancet 2010” abounded, and they illustrated public health rather nicely (for more, check out Brett Keller’s blogpost). However, they only catered to a niche audience: public health professionals, and public health professionals who got the Lord of the Rings references.

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New Post on PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed: The Power of Words

Words are powerful. Photo courtesy ManchesterMonkey

In public health we’re faced with a dilemma. We want to help people – that’s our goal, that’s why we do what we do. But at the same time, we also need to be careful how we approach public health concerns – the last thing we want to do is further stigmatize the very people we’re trying to help. One of the most subtle, but most powerful ways we can either empower or belittle others is in the language we use.

One area at the forefront of this is the field of mental health research. The “traditional” language would be a “X person,” where X refers to any mental health issue. But this isn’t the best language to use. For one, it defines the person by their illness – not by who they are. They have X, first and foremost. Not their interests, their personalities, their hobbies. They’re labelled and defined.

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New Post on PLOS Sci Ed: Unintentional Benefits of Open Access: The broader impact of making publications free

The Carleton University Library. I spent many hours here, studying, photocopying, sleeping. Photo via Emilybean

When I was in undergrad, we would photocopy articles down in the basement of MacOdrum library at my alma mater, Carleton University. You’d have to find the call number of the journal, head down into the basement, find the right row, then bookshelf, and finally discover someone had already taken the journal to photocopy it. I learned quickly to check the photocopy room first to see if someone already had the article rather than looking for it first.

But now we’ve moved into a world where everything is done electronically. Through the power of PubMed, Google Scholar and numerous others, you can obtain PDFs of many articles via your institution. And now, many of those articles are available under Open Access rules – so anyone can access them, regardless of academic affiliation.

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Mr Epidemiology is moving to PLoS Blogs!

Super exciting news! As of this week, I’ll be a PLoS Blogger!PLoGGer! Or a PLoGster! Yay!

This is very exciting, and I’m looking forward to moving onto the PLoS network. For some perspective, I’m going from my blog (3-5k visits/month) to PLoS Blogs (>200k visits/month). I’ll be writing for their brand new Public Health blog and their Science Education blog, together with some incredible writers, including the very talented Viet Le and Beth Skwarecki on Public Health, as well Jean Flanagan and Cristina Russo on Science-Ed, as well as others (including frequent Mr Epidemiology guest, Lindsay Kobayashi!).

The blogs go live tonight (so if the links don’t work, check back later), and will be available at: and

I’m going to continue to use Mr Epidemiology to aggregate my work on these sites and Gradifying, and will continue to update Mr Epid with other posts and thoughts that don’t fit those three blogs.

As always, I welcome your comments, and hope you’ll join me over at PLoS! And above all, thank you all for your support!

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