Michelle Williams, Chair, Department of Epidemiology; Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health; Photo: Kent Dayton

Michelle Williams, Chair, Department of Epidemiology; Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health; Photo: Kent Dayton

Off the cuff: Michelle Williams

Winter 2012 ]

Is epidemiology a beautiful science?

“I started to see beauty in science as an undergrad, looking at embryonic development. There is nothing more beautiful than watching a single cell turn into an organism. It contains all the signals needed to dictate which cells become a wing, which a thorax, which an eye. The beauty is the apparent simplicity hiding an enormous complexity.

Epidemiology might seem dry to most people—but it’s just turning the beauty of biology into numbers. When epidemiologists get together, they might look at a table or a graph and say, ‘We’ve distilled this down to its essence.’ One of the most beautiful charts I’ve seen has two graphs, each representing a 50-year time span, overlaying each other. One graph shows the declining number of hours that Americans are sleeping at night—its line is going down. The other shows the percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese—its line has the same slope and curvature as the sleep line, but it’s going up.

The beauty of this chart is its simplicity. It encapsulates two important trends that we can’t deny are occurring. We have to be careful that we’re not oversimplifying their connection, but it begins the conversation. That’s why I think it’s beautiful.”