Public Health

Carolina skies and dissertations

October 7, 2008


This morning

I am writing this on a magnificent Carolina blue Sunday morning, the morning after a winning Carolina football game. Walking back from the gym, I noticed the intensity of the sky and the clear contrasts with the many magnificent purple and yellow flowers planted throughout the neighborhood. Pumpkins look great and remind us that another magnificent Halloween celebration is just around the corner. For those of you new to Chapel Hill, get ready. There is nothing even comparable to a Chapel Hill celebration. There is a lot of evil in the world, and the economic situation in the U.S. is frightening, but right here, right now, it is a beautiful morning. While I have been known to criticize Carolina blue for not being intense enough, today, I get it.

Last week

Thanks again to the several people who helped me prepare for a keynote talk last week at the National Human Genome Research Institute (mentioned last week). Preparing for the talk made me even more aware of the many disciplines that now contribute to understanding genomics. We in public health should continue to anticipate how we can apply genomics to improve public health.

One of my students, Jennifer Gierisch, successfully defended her dissertation last week. Congratulations to Jennifer and thanks to HBHE Interim Chair Jo Anne Earp, ScD for chairing the committee and being a great mentor and to Cathy Zimmer, MA (Odom Institute), Celette Skinner, PhD (University of Texas Southwestern), and Noel Brewer, PhD (HBHE), for serving on Jennifer’s committee along with me. In her remarks, Jennifer said that it takes a village for a student to complete a dissertation. It’s true. It is not just the committee, but the student’s colleagues, family, faculty outside the committee and more. Observing Jennifer made me think about a few of the characteristics that helped her complete the journey successfully. Here are a few observations for the benefit of other students.

  • Master the discipline: Of course, one has to know the basic theory and skills of the discipline one is studying. That’s obvious. But there are related disciplines as well. Students who stretch to acquire critical 21st century skills, such as new statistical methods, will get more from the experience.
  • Be disciplined: The dissertation won’t write itself. I remember getting up at 5am every day when I was a grad student and writing at least something. Students have different ways of dealing with timelines, but the ones who finish in a reasonable period of time seem to have clear timelines and interim deadlines.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: A lot about the experience of a dissertation is solitary. One has to write the chapters. It seems to me that students who know when to ask for help and seek it actively do better. There are a lot of people in our School who want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Work at writing: Everyone can become a better writer. It’s one of the most important skills of an academic. People criticize me sometimes for the multiple drafts I go through to write papers, speeches and the like, but for most of us, good products don’t happen in a single draft. Subjecting one’s writing to scrutiny by others can be painful, but our products usually improve through the process. There is little I write that doesn’t go through review.
  • Feel the passion: It’s hard to stick with something you’re not really excited about. Living the dissertation every day requires real passion. I was impressed by Jennifer’s enthusiasm about her topic. It takes that to keep at it.
  • Get beyond your comfort zone: Whether it is pushing at the gym or learning a new statistical method, doing the dissertation is a great time to get beyond one’s comfort zone, to learn new skills and to get comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing everything. It’s good life skills training.
  • Have a life: When he was recognized a couple weeks ago as our newest named professor, the Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology, Professor Bob Millikan, PhD, DVM, MPH, talked about the fact that Barbara had asked him about his music and other interests early in his time at Carolina. No one can exist fully happy or satisfied with work alone. Family, pets, art, music, gardening, athletic interests, travel are just a few of the activities that drive our lives. Don’t give it all up to be a student, but keep it in balance.

Congratulating other students

I was thinking this morning as I walked along that I know when my students defend their dissertations, but I don’t know when other students defend successfully. It’s an accomplishment to celebrate, and I’d like to talk with our chairs about how to communicate this information to the School.

September 26th, one of our HBHE students, Dan Cothran, sent me an email about an event sponsored by UNC and Duke that was to occur at Duke the following Monday. He said, “Both you and Dr. Gillings emphasized the importance of local work with a global impact; the group hosting this event, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), is committed to the encouragement and facilitation of local-global connections. Specifically, UAEM works to ensure that medicines and technologies produced in whole or in part by UNC are available and affordable in developing countries; UAEM also seeks to increase the local effort dedicated to neglected diseases and to redefine research success.”

“The event, Advancing Global Health: Making University Innovations Available in Developing Countries, is a panel discussion about technology transfer at Duke and UNC, and how our universities might do more to improve global public health. Eminent UNC faculty members—Dr. Myron Cohen, Dr. Robert E. Johnston, and Mark Crowell, MRP—will be speaking at the event. ” Several Duke faculty also spoke, including Drs. Robert Cook-Deegan and Michael Merson. My husband and I attended the symposium. I was really impressed by the full auditorium of mostly students. Naman Shah, one of our MD-PhD candidates, also is one of the leaders of the UAEM, and it was good to see him there. Listening to Bob Johnston talk about his efforts to develop alternative models to discover and disseminate vaccines made me even more grateful that we are funding Bob and Ralph Baric, PhD to test some of their hypotheses and allow them to move forward. More of our students may want to get involved in UAEM.

I did leave with one question though. It seems as though more and more people in the U.S. cannot get medicines they need. Could the global efforts be applied locally as well?

Next week

Next week, Sunday October 12th, is University Day. Join the celebrations. Holden Thorp, PhD will be installed as Chancellor in a formal celebration. One of our own, State Health Director and Director, Division of Public Health, NCDHHS, Leah Devlin, DDS, MPH will be recognized as a distinguished alumna.

Have a great week. Happy Monday. Barbara

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.