Off the Cuff: Letting data tell the story

Professor Donna Spiegelman
Donna Spiegelman

[ Winter 2015 ]

Donna Spiegelman, Professor of Epidemiologic Methods, Departments of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Nutrition

This fall, Donna Spiegelman won a prestigious Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health. Spiegelman is believed to be the first epidemiologist and biostatistician, and the first faculty member from a school of public health, to receive the five-year, $2.5 million award.

Q: This award recognizes “individual scientists of exceptional creativity, who propose pioneering, and possibly transforming, approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.” What do you feel is transformative about your work?

“I develop statistical and epidemiologic methods to identify which public health interventions work in real-world settings. My scientific questions are wide-ranging. For example, is second-line antiretroviral treatment for people with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa beneficial and cost effective? Can we reduce rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in India by offering work sites a package of interventions—more physical activity, healthy traditional diets instead of unhealthy Western diets, disease screening—and if so, does one element of the package have a stronger effect, or must they all be applied together? By increasing the cost of unhealthy foods and decreasing the cost of healthy foods, can we develop a budget-neutral change in the price structure at the Kresge cafeteria that incentivizes healthy eating at the School?

I have nearly 600 publications. I’ve produced a great deal of original methodological work and collaborated on a vast number of topics, and there have been some surprises. Our hypotheses are not always confirmed by the data. So I prefer to work on methods that make it possible to use data to tell us what’s really going on. That’s my philosophy about my work. I’m very empirical. Let’s see what the data have to tell us.”

Madeline Drexler

Photo: Emily Cuccarese / HSPH