When in Rome, learn about epi!

Written by Julia Bryson At the tail end of the summer I had the exciting opportunity to attend the annual congress of the International Society on Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) in Rome, Italy. The title of the conference, “Old and new risks: challenges for environmental epidemiology,” set the tone for what was to be a productive meeting of researchers, experts, policy-makers, public health professionals, and students coming together to discuss the identification and mitigation of environmental hazards to health, from past to future.

Upon arriving, I was quick to notice that the proportion of students amongst the attendees was quite low. Needless to say, as an undergraduate student in a crowd of seasoned experts and renowned researchers, I felt decidedly ‘out of my league’. However, I came to realize that everyone was there to learn, and while I had more of that to do than others, my participation and abilities were not to be discounted by my relative lack of experience. With this in mind, I tackled the three packed days ahead.

Over the weekend, I was happy to discover that the conference featured several parallel sessions and posters on the impacts of climate change on human health; these provided me with valuable information and perspective as I pursue my systematic review investigating the influences of climate change on the neglected tropical diseases in East Africa. Many of these researchers have faced the same barriers that I am dealing with, including the dearth of research in populations of low socioeconomic status and the sometimes lacking quality of data collected in unstable, resource-poor populations where conditions are hard to control. It was encouraging to see others working through these obstacles and forming important conclusions that may help to shape policy for future.

It came as a surprise to me, but the discussions around policy and ethics in environmental epidemiology were perhaps most engaging and valuable to me as a new student in the field. These talks ranged in topic from the role of the epidemiologist in the justice system, to the ethics of data sharing and communication with the public. Provocative questions were posed that I had never considered, such as ‘How do we reconcile the definition of “significant” in the field of research (often set at a level of 5% or 1% probability that results are due to chance), with that of the legal system, where a 51%-49% split or ‘more probable than not’ is the accepted standard?’ and, ‘How do we balance the demands of policy-makers and the public for results now with the reality that epidemiological studies often take years to complete?’ These questions forced me to think critically about the issues at hand and they exposed me to new philosophies and challenges within epidemiology. It was also reassuring that for these questions everyone in the room was having trouble coming to a solution! Some fascinating debates resulted.

Without doubt, I came away from ISEE will many ‘big ideas’ about this field of research. I learned that in epidemiology, there is always the need for more research as populations and exposures change. I learned the importance of understanding how to convey risks transparently and with context when your ultimate audience is the public. I learned how significant community health policy partnerships are to ensuring that research is able to facilitate positive change, which often happens outside of the lab through the courts or government. My attendance also helped to highlight areas for growth, particularly my understanding of different epidemiological methodologies and analytical models. A stronger foundation in these areas will help me to improve my comprehension and appreciation of others’ work, and better understand how I can strengthen my own research.

In the end, it sometimes seems like I left this conference with more questions than I arrived with. But in many ways, that was one of my aspirations! I attended ISEE 2016 to expose myself to different areas in epidemiology, to challenge myself with new concepts, and to be inspired as I move forward with my research. I am happy to say that my attendance accomplished these goals and more. I have no doubt that what I have learned as a result of this experience, and what it has encouraged me to learn about in the future, will be of great value. And with that – Ciao, Roma, e grazie mille per tutti!


Photos by Moreno Maggi (http://www.morenomaggi.com/en/) and Julia Bryson.