Opportunistic Research Opportunities

by Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

On the Brink addresses topics related to data, analytics, and visualizations on personal health and public health research. This column explores current practices in the health arena and how both the data and mathematical sciences have an impact. (The opinions and views represented here are the author’s own and do not reflect any group for which the author has an association.)

Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MA, MS

A favorite saying of mine is you do analysis with the data you have, not the data you wish you had. I’ve mentioned this paraphrasing of Donald Rumsfeld’s quote in a previous blog, but it is a powerful sentiment about doing research in real world settings. Rarely do we have the ability (and funding) to collect just the right data from the right sources and in the most controlled settings and can apply the appropriate scientific and statistical rigor to get unbiased solutions to challenging problems.

Most times we have to take what we can get.

Today’s On the Brink highlights a handful of research studies that fall into the latter category, instances where researchers parlayed a unique opportunity into interesting research insights.

The Nun Study

In the mid-1980s, epidemiologist Dr. David Snowden began exploring a cohort of 678 nuns to look at a variety of health features. The Nun Study is now a long-term, longitudinal study that has revealed a slew of important health information especially in the areas of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and breast cancer. The combination of homogeneous lifestyle and meticulous record keeping allowed researchers to separate out environmental versus genetic risk factors in a way other studies just could not allow. Snowden also deeply embedded himself in the lives of these nuns and eventually published Aging With Grace in 2001 to detail some of the research and personal stories he had gathered since the start of the study.

The Great Smoky Mountains Study

More recently, researchers at Duke University started following a cohort of children and adolescents that live in the western portion of North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains Study started in 1992 and focused on both physical and mental health indicators. A unique feature of the study is the large number of American Indian youth that were followed. Many of these youth belong to the Cherokee Nation, and their families began enjoying royalties from reservation casino profits. Many families received only a few thousand dollars a year, but the research showed that those families whose income was near the poverty line before the casino royalties began saw great reductions in poor health outcomes and increases in education outcomes versus families who lived in the same area and had similar incomes but did not qualify for such royalties. One conclusion was that a simple and small boost of income could be a powerful tool in combating disparities.

The Fracking Boom

Earlier this year, the Freakonomics podcast profiled work by Maryland researchers who followed a group of non-college educated men who were working oil rigs during the recent fracking boom that has occurred in the Dakotas. These men saw dramatic increases in pay when compared to national statistics for their age and education. While the focal point of their paper is income and marriage, there is an interesting set of results that showed increased income was tied to an increase in both marital and non-marital births (which dovetails with historical research) but that there was not an increase on marriage rates, which runs counter to previous research and signals a potential shift in cultural norms.

I find it amazing that science is so often taken for granted, even among scientists. I recently listened to a science podcast where a researcher discussed the challenges of exploring the causes of obesity. The researcher stated, “It isn’t quite as easy as something like the link between smoking and cancer. We all know that link is well-defined and unequivocal.” Even though scientific research into the smoking/cancer link began in the 1940s and did lead to a 1965 congressional bill that cigarettes carry a label that says Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health, it would take several more decades of public health research and advocacy to get a label that says Smoking Causes Cancer. Today, more than 45 million people still smoke. If this is the pace of well-defined and unequivocal research, then we need to take every research opportunity that presents itself.

Do you know of a cool or unique research cohort that has been studied? Please share with me on Twitter, @DrJasonBrinkley.


Jason S. Brinkley, PhD, MS, MA is a Senior Researcher and Biostatistician at Abt Associates Inc. where he works on a wide variety of data for health services, policy, and disparities research. He maintains a research affiliation with the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and serves on the executive committee for the NC Chapter of the American Statistical Association and the Southeast SAS Users Group. Follow him on Twitter. [Full Bio]

Previous posts by this author:

One comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.