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New Faculty Friday: Laura Forastiere, methodologist, statistician, world traveler

November 29, 2019
by Colin Poitras

The Yale School of Public Health proudly welcomes 13 new tenure track faculty this academic year. These individuals bring a broad range of research, scholarship, and teaching expertise to the school and will be instrumental in helping us address many of the public health challenges of the 21st century.

Today we spotlight, Laura Forastiere, assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics. Forastiere has a Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Florence, Italy (2015), and a M.S. in computer science from the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’, Italy (2011). After earning her Ph.D., she was a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Statistics at Harvard University and then in the Yale Institute for Network Science. Forastiere is also affiliated with the Yale Institute for Global Health, the Yale Institute for Network Science and the Center for Methods in Implementation and Prevention Science.

Q. Describe your primary academic focus or research specialty?

LF: I work at the intersection of statistical methodology and applied global public health research. My research is focused on methods for assessing causal effects of policies and programs for evidence-based research in both randomized experiments and observational studies. I develop experimental designs and inferential tools to address methodological issues that often arise in applied problems with complex clustered or network data, with `broken’ randomized experiments affected by non-compliance or selection bias, or with typical public policy data where treatment is assigned according to a cutoff rule (e.g. income or test score).

Given the complex systems in which interventions are implemented, the aim of providing evidence-based recommendations for better practices poses exciting challenges for statistical data analysis and opens a number of opportunities for statistical research to play a greater role. I am particularly interested in exploring the mechanisms underlying the effect of an intervention including causal pathways, peer influence and spillover between units connected in a social network.

With strong networks in low and middle income countries (e.g. Honduras, Brazil, India, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, China), I have applied advanced statistical methods in several program evaluations and research studies to address a wide range of critical policy issues in the fields of malaria, HIV, maternal and child health, nutrition, health insurance and health equity, microcredit and antipoverty transfer programs.

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

LF: I am very motivated to develop and apply advanced statistical methodology to help nonprofits and government organizations achieve more with their data, thereby improving their services, interventions and outreach so that they can fulfill their mission of improving the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations. I am eager to inform policymakers not only on the effectiveness of ongoing health and socioeconomic programs, but also on the best strategies that could achieve a higher impact by promoting beneficial components and preventing detrimental ones, and by targeting certain portions of a population.

I am particularly interested in exploring behavioral interventions that exploit social interactions among individuals to increase the spread of healthy behaviors. Information about the nature and the extent of peer influence would support decisions about how best to deliver the interventions to maximize adoption of healthy behaviors and can be used to guide public funds allocation. With my multidisciplinary network of collaborators, my mission is to develop and assess innovative cost-effective and sustainable strategies able to exploit social mechanisms of peer influence, but also cooperative and altruistic behaviors, trust and community engagement, with the aim of improving people’s lives and reducing inequalities. With the world being so connected, it would be a waste to neglect such important resources arising from social interactions.

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

LF: The most precious resource at Yale is the network of creative and brilliant researchers who are passionate about their research and are involved in many international projects for global public health. I feel privileged to be working in this unique and surprisingly collaborative environment, surrounded by exceptionally talented colleagues in many different fields. I see here many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations to address crucial public health issues around the world.

YSPH also offers a wide array of support for both internal and external funding opportunities that can help researchers achieve their goals. The body of well-trained and enthusiastic students is another invaluable treasure that motivates me to improve myself and inspires me to think bigger and strive to make the world a better place.

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

LF: I love traveling around the world! I have traveled in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. After college, I backpacked in South America for four months. I was still in high school when I traveled to Africa for the first time. I volunteered with an NGO specializing in malaria prevention. It took me few years to realize that, in addition to my smile and my enthusiasm in exchanging experiences and cultures, I could use my love for math for social good. Since then I have been what my colleagues call a ‘field statistician’, developing statistical methods in the field to be able to guide fieldwork under a statistical perspective and to better understand the collected data.

I learn so much by visiting places with a different culture than my own. I find that by understanding different cultures you can understand why the people are the way they are, but you also learn something more about yourself. It is this deeper understanding of others and of yourself that can help you find solutions to make this world better. This way of seeing social interactions as a resource for understanding the world and myself was is what got me thinking that social interactions could also be an invaluable resource to address social and health issues.

When I am not traveling and not working, I try my best to promote social justice and human rights….and, believe it or not, I still find time to be with my partner, my friends and my family, whose presence makes me feel at home, wherever I am.

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on November 27, 2019