Welcome to this week’s “Ask Me Anything.” The goal of these posts is simple: We want to humanize research and science by creating a platform where people from all backgrounds can come together to learn more about the world of scientific discovery from the people who work in it.
In each post, you’ll hear from scientists who will share their triumphs, disasters, expertise, and advice. We hope these posts will be motivating for those who do science on a day-to-day basis. We also hope these posts will be inspiring for people who are scientists at heart. And the best part of all of this is that YOU have a say in what questions are asked. If you could ask a scientist anything, what would you ask? To submit questions, nominate a researcher, or learn about these posts, engage with us on Twitter @ErinDunnScD.
This week, we sat down with Dr. Jaimie Gradus, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. Jaimie is a psychiatric epidemiologist studying the longitudinal effects of trauma and risk for suicide primarily using data from the Danish national healthcare and social registries.
You're a psychiatric epidemiologist. What does that mean exactly? What do epidemiologists do?
Epidemiology is the science of public health. Epidemiologists are trained to identify risk and protective factors linked to a given health outcome and to determine how common those factors are within a population. Psychiatric epidemiology specifically is the study of the “who, when, and how” of psychiatric disorders within a population – who is being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders; when are they being diagnosed (both in terms of an individual’s life course but also related to reactions to specific events); and how do disorders occur (e.g., what factors increase and/or decrease risk).
How did you become interested in epidemiology?
Great question! After graduating from college with a degree in psychology, I was unsure about what I wanted to do next. After some work and volunteer experiences I decided that a clinical psychology degree was not for me, but I still was not sure what *was* for me. Around that time, I started working at Massachusetts General Hospital on a national, 20-site study of bipolar disorder called STEP-BD. It was in the course of working on that project that I first heard about epidemiology. I decided to take a class to learn more about it and I was immediately completely in love with it. Truly enamored from the first class. The rest is history!
What do you wish you knew earlier in your career about being an epidemiologist?
I wish that I knew how many managerial skills are required to be an academic epidemiologist, and maybe even specifically took a course or two about this. Managing time, people, teams of people, budgets -- these are all skills that you do not learn in graduate school that are now critical to my day-to-day work.
If you could change one thing about the field of epidemiology, what would it be and why?
If I had to choose, it would probably not be about epidemiology specifically, but about the sometimes frustratingly slow pace of science in general. I had a grant idea in 2014 that was funded in 2016, with the first paper from that project now under review in 2019. This is actually a pretty quick time line for an idea to move to a publication when funding is required. But this pace can sometimes feel like we are not making progress on addressing critical public health issues quickly enough.
What does longitudinal mean and what kinds of trauma present the most risk for suicide?
Another great question! Longitudinal means over time. Studies have shown that people who experience sexual trauma have the highest probability of experiencing some type of mental health issue following their exposure. Sexual trauma is also one of the few traumatic events that is also associated with suicide even after you take mental health into account. In other words, for many traumatic events, it is subsequent psychopathology that leads to an increased risk of suicide, but for sexual trauma, we see a unique association that does not have to do with psychiatric diagnoses (at least the ones that are assessed in the studies that have examined this).
What is your favorite thing to do outside of work?
My favorite thing to do any time is to be with my 7-year-old daughter.
What is your proudest career moment so far?
Winning the 2009 Lilienfeld student prize from the Society for Epidemiology Research for my dissertation work. Finishing graduate school is a time of uncertainty. Winning this award at that critical time really gave me a boost of confidence about my ability to succeed in this challenging career.
Who inspires you to be better?
My mentor from graduate school Timothy Lash, who knows more about epidemiology than I could ever know and always operates with a model level of integrity. The Dean of Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), Sandro Galea, who has an inspirational passion to improve health and works constantly to call attention to critical public health issues. Many of my stellar colleagues at BUSPH and others I have met throughout my career. And of course, the people who live every day with the consequences of trauma and the symptoms of mental illness. At the end of the day, I do this because I would like to help anyone who has been affected by trauma or mental illness to live a happy, healthy life.