Alumni win 2016 Kenneth Rothman Epidemiology Prize

John Jackson and Sonja Swanson with their awards
John Jackson and Sonja Swanson with their awards

June 28, 2016 — John Jackson, SD ’13, and Sonja Swanson, SD ’14, are the winners of the 2016 Kenneth Rothman Epidemiology Prize. The award is given annually for the best paper published in Epidemiology in the preceding year, and was announced in the journal’s July 2016 issue. It was presented June 23 at the Epidemiology Congress of the Americas.

Jackson and Swanson’s winning paper, “Toward a Clearer Portrayal of Confounding Bias in Instrumental Variable Applications,” appeared in the July 2015 issue of Epidemiology. Instrumental variable analyses are widely used in epidemiological studies to estimate causal relationships—such as exposure to air pollution and lung cancer incidence—when controlled experiments are not possible. When doing these studies, researchers must account for additional factors such as differences between the exposed and unexposed populations that could result in a distortion known as confounding bias.

“In our paper, we introduced intuitive graphical plots that more accurately represent potential bias,” said Jackson, who is a Yerby Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Epidemiology. “These sorts of tools are critical for readers of published studies, especially when they are charged with making public health decisions that affect the lives of millions.”

Jackson said that it was a “tremendous honor” to be awarded the Rothman prize for a paper that he and Swanson co-authored as postdoctoral researchers. “In many ways, the paper was a first step towards research independence,” he said. “For it to be selected is truly amazing. Moments like this reaffirm my decision to pursue an academic career path and make the journey well worth the effort.” In September, Jackson will join the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as an assistant professor.

Swanson, who is an adjunct assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard Chan and an assistant professor at Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, said that she was “absolutely elated, and humbled” by the award. She called her paper with Jackson “a lovely example of fruitful collaboration where the whole was truly more than the sum of its parts.” She said, “I am incredibly grateful to our mentors for fostering an environment that supported John and me as we pursued and developed our own research ideas.”

Eric Tchetgen Tchetgen, professor of biostatistics and epidemiologic methods, was a runner-up for his co-authored paper “Instrumental Variable Estimation in a Survival Context.”

Other Harvard Chan School faculty members who have won the prize in previous years include Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology (2011); Miguel Hernán, professor of epidemiology (2005), and Dean Designate Michelle Williams, Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health (1996).

Kenneth Rothman, MPH ’70, DrPH ’72, is a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, and a former founding editor of Epidemiology.

Learn more

Watch a video of Jackson recorded as part of the Harvard Chan School Why Public Health? student video series in 2013.

— Amy Roeder

Photo courtesy of Sonja Swanson