Donna Spiegelman wins award to develop effective public health interventions

Donna Speigelman

October 6, 2014 — Donna Spiegelman, professor of epidemiologic methods at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), has received a Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of 10 researchers honored, Spiegelman is believed to be the first epidemiologist and biostatistician, and the first faculty member from a school of public health, to receive the award.

The five-year $2.5 million prize recognizes “individual scientists of exceptional creativity, who propose pioneering, and possibly transforming, approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the NIH website. Recipients, along with other awardees in the NIH Common Fund High-Risk High-Reward program, will be honored at a symposium held December 15-17 at the NIH.

Spiegelman intends to use this opportunity to focus on the development of new methods needed to advance the field of implementation science — an area of research that seeks to establish through rigorous quantitative methods which public health interventions directed at achieving the same goal are most effective in the real world.

She will develop a software and data platform for monitoring and evaluating large-scale disease prevention projects in real time. The methods in this toolkit will be general enough to be applicable to a variety of types of interventions, such as those aimed at preventing obesity, reducing maternal mortality, and increasing the use of cleaner cooking stoves in developing countries. In addition to publishing academic papers and a book or monograph on the new methods for study design and data analysis she is developing, Spiegelman will create a short course on best practices in implementation science.

“Cost-effectiveness is a key element of the implementation science toolkit,” Spiegelman said. “Two interventions might be quite similar in their effectiveness, but if one is substantially less costly to roll out and sustain, the population-level benefits are clear, particularly in this era of shrinking resources both domestically and globally.”

Throughout her career, Spiegelman has worked to develop biostatistical solutions to problems that arise in epidemiology. She is the statistician for several long-running studies based at HSPH: the Nurses’ Health Study 2, the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, and the Harvard PEPFAR site in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in addition to a host of studies that have grown out of these efforts. On her HSPH website, Spiegelman shares free software that helps researchers implement non-standard methods useful in epidemiologic research.

“Winning this award is a tremendous honor,” said Spiegelman, who holds appointments in the School’s departments of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, Nutrition, and Global Health and Population. “It demonstrates a great deal of confidence in the work I’ve accomplished so far and that what I’m proposing to do is really worth the investment by the NIH in this very competitive and contracting funding environment.”

Read NIH release: NIH Common Fund announces 2014 High-Risk, High-Reward research awardees

Amy Roeder

Photo: Emily Cuccarese