New Faculty Friday

Donna Spiegelman: Biostatistician, hiker, avid reader

The Yale School of Public Health proudly welcomes a large number of new tenure track faculty joining us this academic year. These individuals have widely varied interests and excel in research, scholarship, innovation and teaching. They complement and expand the expertise already available at the School of Public Health and will be instrumental in addressing many of the health challenges of the 21st century.

Today we welcome, Donna Spiegelman, the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Biostatistics. Donna leads the Center for Methods of Implementation and Prevention Science (CMIPS) and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Statistics and Data Science. The Center facilitates the translation of research into practice. Donna is also affiliated with the Yale School of Medicine, Yale Cancer Center and Yale Institute for Global Health.  She has an ScD in biostatistics and epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health (1989).

Q: Describe your primary academic focus or research specialty?

DS:  I use statistics to solve public health problems. To do so, I take advantage of the rich set of analytic methods already available as well as develop new ones when needed. Developing new analytic methods requires a firm grasp of advanced mathematical and computing skills, plus a strong dose of common sense. For example, I am working with colleagues at Kaiser Permanente to investigate the impact of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (a.k.a. Obamacare) on colorectal cancer death rates in California. Colonoscopy, a form of screening for colorectal cancer, is known to substantially reduce mortality rates, but is very expensive. Now that it is covered by the ACA, we can evaluate the extent to which the ACA saved lives, if at all. Strong computing skills enable us to manage and extract information from a very large complex database. But the existing methods do not fully permit the analysis we need to do to get a firm answer on whether there has been a decrease in mortality, so we develop new methods too.

Q: What are your long-term goals in public health?

DS: As a methodologist, my goal and the goal of my new center, the Center for Methods on Implementation and Prevention Science (CMIPS), is to contribute to the prevention of diseases and the promotion of health where the interventions to do so are well known. Only 17% of proven interventions are widely translated into practice – we wish to increase this number considerably.  For example, in Nepal and Mexico, we are working to improve the types, preparations and quantities of food options available in workplaces as a means of reducing risk for diabetes, hypertension and heart disease and evaluate the impact of doing so. In Swaziland, we have worked with YSPH Dean Sten Vermund to complete a study of the impact of early access to antiretrovirals, the medications that have been shown to greatly increase survival and improve the quality of life among those with HIV infection and AIDS, on patient outcomes. Each of these studies involves the application of novel methodology or has led to topics for further methodologic innovation.

Q: How will the resources available at the Yale School of Public Health help you achieve your goals?

DS: In addition to the amazing cadre of faculty and students at the SPH, the medical school, and across the Yale community who are interested in implementation and prevention science, I am hiring four new faculty to form the creative nucleus of the CMIPS. Because implementation and prevention science methods are often best approached in an interdisciplinary manner, the current plan is to hire two biostatisticians, a social scientist, and a health economist.    

Also, we expect to engage up to seven faculty who are specialists in particular fields, and have already identified two: Dr. Luke Davis, of the YSPH Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases Department, and Professor Rafael Perez-Escamilla, of the YSPH Social and Behavioral Sciences Department. Dr. Davis and I are working with colleagues in Mongolia - a country with one of the world’s highest levels of tuberculosis (TB) - on an approach to evaluate and improve Mongolia’s implementation of the worldwide Zero TB initiative. Professor Perez-Escamilla is an international expert in maternal and early childhood nutrition with whom I am developing an intervention, in Mexico, to promote healthy pregnancies and healthy babies through improved nutrition during pregnancy.

Q: Tell us something about yourself away from public health? (E.g., hobbies, interests, pursuits, etc.)

DS: I have two daughters, age 22 and 26, who I love to spend time with whenever I can. One is an environmental educator and forest ranger in the California national parks system, the other is a Yale senior. When they were growing up, we spent a lot of time hiking, backpacking, cross country skiing and bicycling together. I continue to enjoy these activities and once in a while, I even get to go hiking with them still!

I also began studying Spanish a few years ago, in part, because my work takes me frequently to Mexico. I am proud to say that I am at an intermediate level now, able to carry on long conversations and even participate in meetings conducted in Spanish. Being Jewish, I recently celebrated my first Christmas with a Mexican family in Playa del Carmen while visiting there. During our Christmas karaoke activity, I sang “Imagine” in English at the family’s request. It was the perfect choice of a song, expressing hope and friendship between people and nations in these challenging times.

Finally, I love reading novels, especially those that take me to different times and places. I formed a book group in my apartment community to replace the one I left behind in Boston. It’s great fun getting to know my neighbors and discussing interesting books, most of which I would not necessarily have chosen on my own.

This article was submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on January 30, 2019.

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Donna Spiegelman

Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Biostatistics