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Maureen: Hi everyone. My name is Maureen Zeufack and you're listening to the I am GPH podcast. In this episode, I'm joined by Shahmir Ali, who's currently a PhD candidate at NYU's school of global public health, with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences. Shahmir, a Pakistani-American, cites his global background as a major inspiration and contributor to his passion for public health. Shahmir's past research and publications have been work in The US, China, Australia, where he spent many of his formative years, and Pakistan. As an NYU student, he has been involved with research on campus, such as the South Asian Health and Research or SAHARA initiative. Shahmir was part of an innovative team of researchers that conducted a study lying at the intersections of public health and technology. This study explored social media as a recruitment platform for knowledge regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in The United States. If you would like to hear more about his journey to pursuing the PhD and advice for prospective students or hear about his fascinating experience gathering information on COVID-19 as the pandemic progresses, then stick around. I'm here today with Shahmir Ali, welcome to the I am GPH podcast.
Shahmir: Thank you.
Maureen: First of all, I wanted to ask by asking about your background and what drew you to study public health.
Shahmir: Okay, my background. Well I think that as with every graduate student, particularly doctoral student, the journey to what we're studying has always been very complicated and meandering. I don't think I'm an exception to that. I began my journey with public health in Australia, which is where I spent most of my last couple of years. So I moved to Australia when I was, I think 14-ish, it was 2012 and I started 9th grade there. And then from there I finished my high school and we became Australian citizens. And I think Australia has really shaped a lot of what I am today and also much journey towards public health. I actually, during high school, the way in which high school works there is quite different. You do get exposed to a lot more different types of classes and even things like languages.
So Australia's where my journey with Chinese also began, in the sense of it being a language that I now fluently speak and I am engaged with many projects with China as well. But with respect to public health, I think that it came out of a desire to merge my very crazy and eccentric interests in different types of things into one. I didn't want to be funneled into anything and I just knew what I didn't want to do and that was basically it. I was like, I can't be a doctor, no thank you. I can't be a lawyer, no thank you. I mean like right? The things everybody looks for I was like nope, but I feel like I just realized that I like parts of the natural sciences, I like parts of the social sciences. I like all these different things and importantly, I think that they are all related to each other. I think that they all inform each other in how we both understand them and how we can apply them in our lives and in our work, which then led me, well in all honesty it didn't lead me to anything in the beginning.
When I finished high school I started a degree at The University of Queensland in Chemical Engineering and then I did Chemical Engineering and then also International Studies. So okay, I should say it led me to do these two very different things. I was the weird engineer in all of my international studies classes and that quirky IS person in my engineering classes. So basically, I was strange. So basically then I realized that I wanted to find a field where I can integrate that more reasonably, rather than trying to reach. I then did an internship with somebody I was connected with at The Griffith School of, it has a name. It's like Griffith School of Environment and Population studies, something like that and that was very interesting.
In that study, we worked with delegations from different countries in Asia. In Asia, Pacific, Taiwan, The Philippines and they came and did work with my advisor, Cordia Chu, at the time and she taught me a lot about public health and increased that interest and she gave me my first paper writing experience. I helped her. It was going to be a book chapter and it ended up being a journal article as a lot of book chapters become when you give up on them. And well in that case, it was a long story, but we basically went and we wrote that paper and she gave me the chance of being involved with that. And I liked research and my father is an academic as well and so then I chose public health and so when I applied for America, I was technically an international student, because I was applying from Australia, even though I was a US citizen as well. I got all the international student emails, it was funny.
But basically, I applied to Johns Hopkins and I did my undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins and Hopkins of course is pretty big with public health and so I got a lot of public health exposure there and it just grew and grew and grew. I did different projects and what I was most happy with is as my innate sense of not being able to pin things down, I felt that vibe with a lot of people in public health, because the field of public health is inherently one in which you have to meet the demands of the now. Whatever's happening now you do and you see that with COVID, you see that with any big health issue that comes up. AIDS. In the 80s, everybody had to sit down and think about the issue of AIDS or these other things that pop up during certain times or certain pressing public health issues.
So you are constantly shifting, constantly changing, applying what you learned and one connects to the other. And I felt that, because even at Hopkins I was engaged in various completely, you would think completely unrelated things. A water management and sanitation project. I did food security, food policy related issues with a team there. Then there was one on interpersonal violence, integration issues and then salt reduction. I did M-health. These random things that came up, but that didn't stress me and I wasn't bothered by that. In fact, that was what I enjoyed most, being able to be like, "Okay, I learned one thing from one thing. We can apply it from here and apply this there and that." So there's a lot of mixed learning that happens in public health, which is something I vibed with.
And I was pretty sure by then that I wanted to go into academia, because I see the lifestyle of academics sometimes and it can be pretty nice if you have a certain type of interest or skillset. Like I like writing and I like doing these crazy, unstructured things, which is what oftentimes the life of an academic is. And so I was just like I think that this is probably what I will be doing. So I applied direct from my bachelor's degree to PhD. I didn't have many options. You see that in some fields, you see like a lot of my friends back at Hopkins, they were applying to Chemistry or Biology and then they could go straight to PhD, because that is, it's more common, well relatively more common.
Even that, people usually get masters and then apply. But very rare, usually in public health, they're like you have to get an MS in Epi or something blah blah blah. Okay, no. But I wanted to do that. This might come up later, but like social behavioral sciences is something that I was particularly interested in, because of the field of public health, I feel like this is the one that is the most really stretched with everything. People who are now in social behavioral sciences in their department with respect to any public health school came from psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics people you sometimes see and these people will interact with other fields of public health. Biostats, epi too but in particular this field I think, it's really webbed and interconnected.
And so I reached out to a couple of SBS departments and I really vibed with my advisor Ralph and a couple of other faculty I work closely with now, which at the time I was just meeting, interacting with and I liked it. And then, here I am.
Maureen: What a journey. You don't often see people who go directly to get a PhD in public health, so it's fascinating to see how you got here. What's been your favorite part about being a PhD student in the program here at NYU GPH?
Shahmir: Oh, many things. I feel like I am particularly thankful to a lot of the ways in which GPH runs and is structured. That people sometimes don't realize, when they... the inner workings of public health schools are very, very complicated and learning about how each of them can be facilitators or barriers to your academic journey is pretty important. And I think in the context of GPH, what I've seen is that there's a culture of collaboration, which you assume that is just innate, and that just that's just that way it is, that's how academia works, but not oftentimes. And more than just collaborations, interdisciplinary collaboration that I see is particularly strong at GPH in the sense of working with people from different departments. And I often laugh, like I'm in team meetings and we forget which department we're in, because half the people are from different departments. And I think this is the benefit of being in a smaller school, a newer school, where people are coming and it's growing and new ideas are constantly evolving and changing.
And the sense of involvement that you have and in the process of a school developing, of a school growing, of creating labs. I created actually a lab with one of my advisors, Niyati Parekh from the SAHARA, South Asian Health and Research group. We've been playing with that name a lot, it's been stressful. But basically the SAHARA group in which it's a group of researcher students who are all interested in a similar topic, which is South Asia related health. And the interesting thing is, it's not just GPH, just goes to show how interdisciplinary the energy is. We have people from the dental school, people from the social work school, people from Tandon engineering who collaborate with us, work with us, and are interested in working with us.
And I think that underpins why I feel like the specific ways in which GPH has enriched my academic journey, in that I feel like I am now more aware of the ways in which we can harness other people's knowledge and other people's skills and we don't have to do things on our own sometimes all the time and we don't have to funnel ourselves. And in that regard, I think Ralph is also really, big shout out to him because he and I have a very similar way of approaching research. He's also very similar to me in the sense that Ralph does so many things. He does so many, so many things and he likes that. He doesn't like to funnel himself and I really, really respect and appreciate Ralph in many ways. And I think that's something where you often have to look at the energy of a school, the energy of your advisors. The vibe, right? I say vibe a lot, but literally, it's about vibes.
Maureen: You speak a lot about the interdisciplinary nature and environment at the GPH program. Touching on the social and behavioral sciences concentration that you earlier spoke about, how has that framed your interests and aspirations for post grad?
Shahmir: I feel like I pinned down social and behavioral sciences before I pinned down public health. I feel like that aspect of the work in particular these names sometimes don't have... it varies from place to place, but what I see in this field particularly, is a strong emphasis on mixed methods. That is something that I think is so crucial in public health that is now gaining a lot of acceptance and traction.
There's been a whole tendency for very, you take a look at an NHANES paper, you turn on a couple of analysis and there, the end. Happy story. I couldn't do that, so I was like... it's also about what you, some people that is a calling. For me, secondary data analysis is sometimes something public health people have to do. And they really have to engage with these large, excellent national studies that are happening.
But I wanted to supplement that with something and I realized that a lot of social behavioral sciences works through qualitative methods or mixed methods, in which you will work with small populations, you will engage in a more in depth way looking at behavioral determinants, looking at the background behind them, the drivers behind them. And I feel like that is something I saw a lot of research expertise in this sub-field of public health and hence I thought that, supplementing, which I also do secondary... You cannot be a public health people basically if you... most public health people do some sort of secondary exploration of data, especially large things like NHANES and stuff. I feel like a lot of people just do that, because that's what's there and it's also good training, these methods and epidemiology methods and biostats, but it wasn't spicy enough, basically. I was looking for a little bit of spice and that's what I felt was here in SBS. I have been thankful that through this network of expertise, I've been able to branch out and explore new things that I haven't done before.
I think about like qualitative methods, I've done a lot of interviews and focus groups and that happens and that's a classic qual methods, but again spice. So I was like what can we do more? And so it was very great to, now I'm working with both my advisor Ralph as well as Alexis Merdjanoff, who's also professor in SBS and me, Ralph and Niyati Parekh, all three of us are working on some new methodologies of qualitative data collection during COVID, which really adds the extra jalapeno in everything that goes with methods in anything, including qualitative work.
So I feel like that type of innovation in terms of the ways in which you can engage with the human experience with respect to health through various different ways, I see that pretty well developed and well explored in social and behavioral sciences.
Maureen: So on the topic of branching out and exploring new things and that dash of spiciness, can you tell us about your COVID project that you worked on this summer and the overall goal, how you came to be a part of the team and what you were doing?
Shahmir: Right, so this goes to the life of somebody in public health. You just have to see what's happening around the world and how can you help. In what ways can you provide your expertise and certain types of methods and certain ways of analysis to inform the greater good and that's basically what happened.
We were sitting, it was in January, I forgot when, early in the year. When it started to happen, okay we're like okay there's a first couple of cases in California. Okay, things are starting. We're hearing News in China about things happening and we were realizing that fears were beginning. That was in the early days, when people were like, okay... I remember I tried to get a mask in January and they were all sold out by then.
So we were thinking we should eventually start surveying these changes and behaviors, the knowledge about Coronavirus, because it was rapidly changing and importantly these behaviors, knowledge, attitudes have a real life implication, as we're seeing now in the constant debates about mask wearing and stuff.
So we realized that and we realized it's important to both survey that also identify associations in order to inform, right? Data driven effort. People want to see numbers. They have ideas, they have things they think about. Right? Like I'm pretty sure you watch certain news channels, you’re probably thinking this thing or you want to see the numbers. That's something that's important in academia and in research, showing numbers to ideas.
So, we developed this project, it was with a couple of PhD students. Have had a post doc as well, two or three professors. We sat down and we developed a survey. Long, long survey, but the blessing is that people are interested in COVID, so they want to answer it. So once we developed the survey, what we then did was, we thought of how to implement it, which goes into how COVID brings up a lot of both new opportunities and new challenges to research in general.
But I'll tell you with respect to this project, we decided to use social media based advertising. Now this was something, this was my first exposure to this. Social media is commonly used in public health research, but oftentimes I see it used more informally. What I mean by that is people will share a survey that they're doing or part of their research study to friends and to network. So we'll share it and that types of usage, rather than actual advertising. In the sense of you know you might see ads on social media? Like Trump ads or Biden ads or things like that. We did that. We basically created an ad for our project. So that was new to me. I had to figure that out. It's both a beauty and a very stressful thing, to go and basically teach yourself how to use Facebook, the mechanisms of Facebook. Oh my God, I don't know how Mark Zuckerberg does it.
So we did that, we figured out the money, the cost-wise and we learned that using social media based advertising, particularly for COVID related stuff, but in general, is very cost efficient. We were shocked. The survey was like, some people took 30, 40 minutes to do it. The cost per full response was I think 15 cents or 15-18 cents. So it was very cheap.
That's something that in academia you have to look for. Ways to maximize bang for buck, because sometimes you're working off grants, then you have to think strategically. But I think there's a lot of factors that played into that, because people want to answer questions about COVID, that helps. But we did encounter a lot of troubles and issues, with respect to algorithms. Like women were answering it a lot. Women answer surveys very excellently in the sense of they will answer them. That itself for public health research, you just want people to answer it. Whatever they answer, you want to get their unique perspectives, but you want them to answer it, so men were not. We're like what do we do?
And this is something that happened across survey research. If you take any survey class, it will tell you that women answer surveys more than men. Generally, generally speaking. But what happens when you use things like these new methodologies like advertising and stuff, is that algorithms, like Facebook wants to maximize cost, right?
Like cost effectiveness. So it will then send it to more women and then send it to more women and then it was spiraling, because it was learning that women are answering more. Why don't we send it to more women? They were thinking it doesn't matter to us. It does. So we had to then think of ways in which we intervene in that. We had to create a supplemental male ad and that helped it a bit. In short, at the end, through these and this was all done during... COVID was happening by then. This survey was implemented in March and we were all so like, it was a weird time for all of us. I'm sure everybody can remember March. It was like everybody's leaving. I fled New York. I remember I was home with family for just a weekend and they were like, "Wait, things are getting bad there. You should not go back."
And I was like, "No, it'll be fine." Then Sunday hit and I was like “okay” and then Monday hit and I was like "Okay wait, maybe you're right." So I just stayed. And I didn’t return. This is the life of many people.
So basically, we then implemented it, it went well in the sense that we got lots of sample size. We got about 6000 in the first round and then we basically did it again in April and we added a couple of questions, we changed it up, because with public health in general, rapid, rapid, rapid. New ideas, new knowledge related concerns, right? So we added questions on mask wearing, essential workers, we added things on loneliness, all these different aspects of the COVID experience that we sought to examine.
And then basically, over the next couple of months, we started writing papers. So I was able to write the first two papers of our project. The first was the methods paper. Basically the struggles of the male versus women thing I was telling was all within that methods paper.
And then the second one was the first data paper, which was on information sources, which is the one you probably saw. That got a lot of traction. Even more so than I thought ever... I was a bit scared, actually, because I was getting interview requests and everything and I've never done that. I'm like, oh my God, I'm not that important. Like wow. But it is important, because people realize I think that the research is important and that's what you realize in public health, is that you...
What I love about this field, let me tell you, is that people know what you're researching. What I mean by that is when I have a conversation with somebody, I can tell them I'm learning about the different types of knowledge people have about COVID and how this impact- information sources they use and how this impacts what knowledge they have or beliefs they have. I don't have to say I'm learning about lipoproteins and this sort of extraction and beta T-cells and they won't usually understand that.
That is also important research, but I do find it a unique blessing of public health is that you can talk to people about your research and they will understand it. They will know what it means and they will know how it affects them. So yeah, a meandering answer, but basically that was the journey with this COVID project and now we're all of us in the team, six, seven of us are writing papers. We have a couple still under review and a couple that are about to go in submission, so stay tuned.
Maureen: That's fantastic. I think it's so interesting to think about doing a study on a pandemic during the pandemic. So with that, you touched on it a bit earlier with the different stages of new questions and surveys, but what role did timing and restrictions or were there any restrictions in this process of getting this work done?
Shahmir: Yeah. Certainly. I think that even though everything we were doing was online, I do feel like people's circumstances were changing. This is something we often forget is that we remember the participants' circumstances and their life changes and their effects on research, but researchers have their own circumstances and a lot of us were also fleeing. We were going home or we stayed home.
Only a couple of us ended up staying in New York at that time and getting used to Zoom, we finally, I remember at the start, I was still getting used to Zoom. Like how do you send an invite and I was sending the wrong invite or I would accidentally do... you know send an invite and it's like waiting for the host to join and I forget I'm the host. I'm like oh my God. What do I do?
So even those things, they make a difference. You have to learn and we're all learning through this right? We're all learning about Zoom and about Webex. Now everybody's understood it. Like I'm sending Zoom invites every other second. Like before this call, I sent another Zoom invite to somebody. So just everybody is getting used to it but at the time, that itself was a barrier. I also think about the ways in which what we found was that it's a very heated topic and you find that in a lot of heated topics, especially social media based advertising is that we were getting a lot of heated comments. And we had to, Facebook has this annoying thing where you cannot close the comment section. You have to keep the comment section on. I'm sure a lot of viewers or whoever has on Facebook or on social media, they know comment sections are not rainbows and sunshine. So basically, that was a very big stress, is that three of us in the research team were in charge of monitoring the comments section. And we had to keep manually hiding comments, so that they don't influence the participants to respond or not respond.
Some were positive, some were vicious and you just have to keep going at it. And I remember there would be times at 2:00 AM and I would be like, "Oh no, is there a comment still up?" Because we had one team member who was in Australia, so thankfully he was able to help us with some of those late night comments, but in the mornings we were just checking and checking and it was stressful. I'm not going to lie, it was stressful.
And then the second we could close it, we were like, oh we can close the ad finally. But yeah, that's how it was.
Maureen: The study was primarily on Facebook, right? So do you think that had any role or impact on the demographic, not only gender, but age-wise of the people you were asking questions to?
Shahmir: We did a lot of analysis in the beginning to see who and what platform we wanted to use for recruitment. Now in public health, there is a couple of these really standard, online survey platforms such as MTurk and these other ways in which you can pay certain participants to answer your survey questions.
And they will try to find it, or there's even some platforms that will create semi-representative samples for you. They will find ways to help you do good research. The question becomes cost. And I think to your earlier point, that's probably the biggest barrier we faced. Money was cut off for everybody in research at the time. We were all like, "Oh my God, wait, what's happening?"
All the research institutions around the world frankly, money suddenly got really complicated. They were only funding research for COVID clinical research and we were doing COVID research, but we're not doing that. So we were looking for grants as well to help us at the time and that was becoming an issue. So we had to self fund. We actually had to self fund the initial project. Thankfully we got reimbursement at the end, but at the time they were like, "We can't afford..." Some of these other survey platforms, they're more expensive in terms of the cost per participant and the sample size will be 2, 3000. We had a big idea, so we wanted to get a good sample size. So we thought of the idea of social media based and actually, we were going to do Google too, but Google is really complicated.
So we were like Facebook is a little bit more straightforward. In terms of your question about the representativeness, so the good thing about Facebook is that older people use it. You get the Karen types, they all use it. Everybody uses Facebook. Except younger people. That's the only limitation. We do realize, but this is the beauty of Facebook based advertising, is that you can send it to all these, so we sent it to Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Facebook affiliated platforms. People have asked us what does that mean? That basically is referring to sites that Facebook partners with, in which they will post their advertisements on there, so third party sites. So that's the beauty with Facebook, which is that you could spread it out. So given that Insta could cover a couple of the kids and then we get the oldies on Facebook, we got a pretty... and that's the thing.
What we wanted to do in our methods paper is look at representativeness and we did that. We actually compared the demographic characteristics of participants with US census data and it was pretty representative, in general. There were a couple of key exceptions. Race. Unfortunately, we were not able to get a good sample of racial and ethnic minorities and that was a real bummer for us, because we know that a lot of COVID disparities are very disproportionately affecting many racial and ethnic minorities in The United States and wanted to get that insight. We couldn't. And we tried different ways to enhance that, because similar to male versus female based recruitment, you can also do sampling. You can target an ad towards certain, so Facebook doesn't collect data on race or ethnicity, but it collects information on, it can guess and it's a little bit weird, but it's also somewhat problematic, but in the way in which they guess what ethnicity you are based on things you like on Facebook, right?
Or posts you might like or if you like a lot of Spanish language posts, they will assume and that coupled with many other factors, Facebook is very secretive about how it does it, it will help you. But it didn't help us, because we didn't get an uptake in any racial and ethnic minorities. So that is something we call upon. On each paper we say we need more research on racial and ethnic minorities to see whether or not these are generalizable to The US population, which at the moment it's not. This isn't a nationally representative sample. It is a national sample, it is a large sample and it is representative in some respects, but not most respects for it to be nationally representative.
Maureen: You spoke about having to adapt to overcome the barriers and obstacles that COVID presented. How might this new knowledge that you've gained from this study serve you in the future?
Shahmir: Oh, a lot. I think about the ways in which I learned about the power of social media based advertising. It's cheap, effective and once you figure it out, it's easy to use, but you have to figure it out a bit. Which goes to the fact that I'm really looking forward to Gen Zs coming into academia. I'm Gen Z myself, I'm 22, so I'm in that wave, the first wave of Gen Z academics. We need more of us, we need more of us to figure it out, because then you have to explain to people, like why Insta people use it for certain things and what's an Insta Story, for example. These things, we need people. We need younger people's representation in academia, which will come, eventually. I'm waiting for all these people to get their masters and join. I need the help.
Wait, I forgot your question. I think yeah, basically oh how it informed... yeah. And I learned about collaborative, quick paced research. I'd heard so much about it, even when Ebola happened and these big health crises, people really quickly have to do things and innovate and try to figure out we can't do this because of this or we don't have money or we don't have this. What can we do? Plan B, Plan C. What do we have to sacrifice now? Money was a sacrifice at the time, but we also had to sacrifice things like representativeness. We could have found a different platform that would help us get a more representative sample, but it wouldn't have given us a large enough sample, then maybe to do some very more intricate analysis with some of the specific questions.
So thinking about what you can sacrifice, thinking about working quickly and working when you have your own personal barriers and own personal changes is a skillset that can be applied anywhere, I think. And I do feel like this COVID project taught us all a lot on how we have to adapt and the power of our research. We got a press release first by NYU. We're like, "Oh okay. Wow, look at us." And then I got a news reporter who asked me like oh we had some more questions. I was telling Ralph, like oh my God. This is a little bit big. I didn't think it was that big, but we are that big.
And also, don't ever underestimate yourself. That's what we learned. That's a good lesson. Don't underestimate yourself, because we were then, there was an Indian newspaper that wanted to share [it]. There ended up being 13 news outlets.
And so yeah, that was exciting and I think that it's confidence, it builds some confidence in you too, because we had to churn out those papers very quickly. And I remember some nights I was up until 3, 4:00 AM writing that paper.
Whenever you read a paper, okay, I'll just put it out there. Don't forget those people are writing, it's their blood, sweat and tears into each word, each “the”. I know my friends cringe, but each of my papers is like a child for me. You see their growth and then they graduate. It's like oh, yeah.
Maureen: So you touched on the intersection of public health and media. Are they more interrelated than we think? Public health and social media?
Shahmir: Oh yeah, very good question, because I feel like we knew this... Okay, let me tell you. I feel like a lot of things in public health we kind of feel. Like oh I'm pretty sure those people who listen to, like in our study you found Fox News was associated with certain beliefs about COVID-19. We feel that. We kind of have an understanding about the way in which media influences health, but numbers, numbers, numbers! That's what the world was lacking and that's, we gave some of the first numbers to show that.
Importantly though, the relationship between media and health is more complicated though. There is for example, a perception that social media based information seeking. If you get info from social media, it's bad. It's always unreliable. Everything you see on Facebook is bad. That's the old way of thinking. It's not that simple.
You find that nowadays, a lot of these very esteemed, like the New England Journal of Medicine has an Insta account, right? I actually just discovered that. And you have these things that are using social media and media based platforms to communicate, because that's going to be the issue, is the divide in which certain media platforms have been, you know when you write papers, you just send it to the academics and like oh, sitting in your ivory chair, whatever, but then there's the perception vice versa, that everything that's being disseminated on other media platforms is subpar.
People at the top are now, I'm very happy to see, are making efforts to integrate that a bit, in the sense that reaching out to these various types of media platforms, engaging with them. I bet New England Journal of Medicine will open a TikTok account soon, just watch. They will try to engage and in a way that's good, because it allows one to connect with, feel more close to reputable sources. There's certain perceptions on certain types of sources. There's certain types of media platforms too. Like what people think about Facebook versus what people think about Instagram. A lot of it is warranted, in terms of the way in which Facebook and Instagram work in propelling certain fake news, for example. Some of it is not.
So we found in our case that social media was not only associated with the use, okay so using social media and I have to double check, was only associated with just a couple of the knowledge indicators. No, in fact, it might have been trust or one of them. In short, the key thing was that social media was not like if you trusted social media, you were likely to have very negative or problematic beliefs about COVID-19 or you'll likely get all the knowledge questions wrong. It wasn't that simple. It's become integrated and that's one of the key things we're telling people who are asking us about our study too, is that the way in which we seek information through media sources and in general has become very integrated and you think about I brought New England Journal of Medicine, but even things like CNN, they're have a TV show. They will have a social media platform. I bet they have a podcast, I'm not sure. Like this. This is also a source of information and these all play a different role or they interact with each other.
Which is why we allowed participants in our survey to select multiple sources that they use, but then also identify which one they trust the most. So lots of interesting disparities in that paper we found.
Maureen: That's a great point you make about using social media for the accessibility to larger sources of reputable information. So how have the findings of this study, although we're still sort of in the heyday of the pandemic, how have these findings helped you better contextualize the COVID-19 virus and society's adaptability to it. How can this help others?
Shahmir: Right. It did teach me a lot. Like I feel like just about humans sometimes, right? And that's what I like about social behavioral sciences as well is that the way in which behavior and certain social forces or certain knowledge or attitudes, the relationships are oftentimes very different from what you might think. What affects what, what is associated with what and what is not, that's why in this field you'll see tons and tons of very innovative and interesting theories in which to understand behavior change, understand how knowledge, attitudes work and we use like for example the Health Belief model was what was used to inform a lot of the questions of our current survey.
And we found some associations that is kind of what you would expect, with respect to perceived severity, perceived risk. We're still analyzing, so we don't know fully yet, but I think that basically you have to realize that the way in which COVID-19 has really brought out the complexities of behavior, right? I think that's one of the key things. The way in which human behavior works is one of the most complex phenomenons on earth and it's sometimes completely unexplainable, but that is okay, in the sense that it doesn't have to be rational and you have to acknowledge when it's not rational, based on your current understanding.
Because then you have to innovate. You have to think why is that person, why are this population doing this certain thing? And it's not linking to this, which is what one theory might say it should link to, it's not linking to that. Investigate. This is why qualitative research has a lot of power in public health. Use focus groups, do interviews, which is why I think in a lot of our papers we do call for more qualitative research and I do see that happening in a lot of cohort studies now, which is that they do these large surveys, right? They find some interesting findings, but then they complement that with interviews of particular populations that they might have found to be either at risk or a displacer in behavioral characteristics. That's what's important with mixed methods, is one, you can't just do both in isolation of each other. They have to be integrated in a strategic way.
Maureen: What advice do you have to students who are considering applying for a PhD in public health? And when applying, is there anything they should be considering when making that decision?
Shahmir: Good question. I think that now a lot of people have actually been interested in public health in particular. I feel like every university will have a public health school that will pop up after COVID. It’s a thing. And with that, there's come a lot of interest into graduate level research and public health, through institutions such as GPH.
So when you're considering a PhD, there's many, many things and this is a whole story on its own, but I think that the key things you want to consider and what people forget about is why. Why do you want to do a PhD?
And I think that that central question often, people, they really ask for now in interviews and personal statements, right? So understanding the whys of the PhD, what it means to you and what it means for your academic journey.
So in my case I was pretty sure that research related fields and research related interests were key for me and that's something I wanted to do and I knew and PhD is an important step in that, in reaching that goal.
So making sure you have your goals in mind before you apply to a PhD, because it's a journey to say the least, to do a PhD. Hopefully you learn from some things in what I was saying that it can be a pleasant journey and for people who enjoy this type of research, who enjoy research, full stop. Who enjoy unstructured living, which is the case of many PhDs, who enjoy living on the edge, which sometimes PhDs have to do. This project has come up or you need to do a grant. It's not a piece of cake, to say the least. I don't know what the opposite of a piece of cake metaphor is, but it is that. So that's something to consider.
If you're interested in research in your future, PhD will be a big asset. So basically, ensuring that if you have a research oriented trajectory, which is something like faculty position maybe in academia, but not necessarily. This is something you have to consider. I don't know where I read or I was hearing that now industry has almost surpassed academia in hiring public health PhDs. So thinking about the ways in which other PhDs in your life, or that you see in different institutions or different places you might work for. I heard like Google or something has a social and behavioral sciences department too now.
They really can use expertise of people who’ve gained knowledge with respect to a certain idea in the context of public health- they can be used. So there are many you can apply PhD knowledge. Thinking about that, but then also remembering the idea of the vibe, right? So that's something I feel like looking at the vibe of both the institution but also the people and the advisors that you work with. Because I think that's one of the biggest jumps I felt, going from undergrad to PhD, is first you get a huge bump in respect. I feel like before it’d be like, "Let's pass it to the undergrad." Now I can say that. “Let's pass it to the undergrad.” And I'm laughing. I used to be that undergrad. So it's reflective on the hierarchies that come into academic institutions, but don't let those hierarchies define you either. That's something especially, I feel like in GPH is that it's so chill. The vibe is always chill. You can be yourself. Go for a place where you feel like you can thrive, where you can do what you want, you can be who you want and I think that's important, is looking for the right people.
When you apply for a PhD, make sure to have a couple of people in mind when you apply to a certain institution and that's another thing. I'll give a good example of myself. I'm very interested in lifestyle, behaviors, chronic disease management, non-communicable diseases and Asian-American populations, cultural adaptations, that sort of stuff. That kind of general genre. I'm still developing that a bit, but Ralph, for example, has various different experiences, most of which actually have no relation to this. But, the key thing you have to think about is the idea of methodology versus content. You might have people who you'll be able to connect with, with certain content expertise, whereas others might have methodological experiences that you want to learn from and then apply in your own area of content interest and that's my case with my great dynamic I have with Ralph.
His experiences and community-based interventions, family-based interventions are very interesting and although may not have been on Asian-Americans, they are very easily applicable or adaptable in collaboration with others who might have more content expertise in Asian-American health or diet, nutrition. So understanding that it's oftentimes a network of people that you will be interacting with and you'll be engaging with.
Think about that from the get go, because that can often give you some leeway too, because once you get into a program, if you apply and you go in, you have some flexibility as you adapt and shift your goals, shift the methodologies you're interested in, because that's going to happen.
You're going to think about different things. There was one day I'll say that I was thinking, maybe, what about epidemiology? Do you think I want to do that? And I just go and spoke with the epi people I'm very close with and epi professors and I was like no. But, it's okay, because I learned because I was able to talk with the people and learned about the different types of work that's involved in people who do epidemiology related public health right? And the vibes that are in that context.
And so, thinking about the networks, thinking about the whys of PhD and remembering this is almost like a job application in the sense that it's very intimate. It's very personal, the way the application process works, as well as the way in which you will experience a PhD. They will need you and that's what I appreciate particularly about small schools is that you're wanted, you're respected, you're needed.
And looking for that level of respect, level of value, them valuing you. That can be crucial, because when you're in a PhD, there's some things you have to really look for. You have to look for publications, doing enough publications, keeping that publication record. Because it's a certain time of your life, especially in funded PhDs, which is something you should also always remember. Money. How does the money structure of the place you work in, what's these benefits, that sort of thing. They will put a lot of value into you in these certain types of settings. And when you are in a very stable environment with good support, both financially, materially and socially. All these types of support matter.
You contrive these things that are really important in an academic journey, which are publications, grants and teaching. So getting those opportunities while you're in a PhD or thinking about them when applying, seeing what the institution has to offer will be helpful, I think.
Maureen: And my final question is, aside from that motivation to have that title of doctor, what motivates or inspires you to put in the hours and do this work?
Shahmir: Oh boy, that's so true. I feel like a lot of you will just go for the PhD for the big D-R. Like, want to put it on their Twitter, like doctor. I feel like when I get to that, maybe I'll do that too, but I'm just thinking this out. I may or may not do that. I don't know. But anyways, to your question. What inspired me to, was it to get into PhD or to get into public health? Can you remind me, you were saying?
Maureen: What inspires you to put in the hours and do the work, as either a public health practitioner or as a PhD student?
Shahmir: I see, the hours, the effort. Right, that is so key. Interest. I think that I'm actually interested in some of the things in the research and also the power of data. I think this COVID study really taught us that, is that you are helping people. Never forget that and always remember that when you do research. How does this help someone? What is the impact? Both the whys as a PhD and the whys as a researcher. Often, that's the central part of grants too. You have to keep that in mind, but remembering to myself what impact this can have for communities, especially in community health related research. That pushes me. This data, nobody's doing this yet and we have this. Wow, this could find some really interesting thing.
With that in mind, I also vice versa. If there's a study that I feel like either in terms of my interests, my methodological type of areas where I want to explore and develop more, that they don’t align, that I was suggested to join or I was given the opportunity, saying no. Maybe not. I do appreciate that opportunity or maybe you get started and you realize you're putting way too much effort on something that it doesn't give you meaning a lot as well, because you have remember the impact both for your own journey as well as for others.
Because it could give meaning to somebody else who's more interested in that type of methodology or that type of field or that type of content. So I think remembering those things in mind have really helped me and made me more willing to put in the hours, because hours are a lot. Like I do meeting after meeting, project paper after paper.
I think that one thing I'm blessed with and something that I will put a big disclaimer is, you have to like to write, because writing is involved a lot in grad school in general, but particularly with PhD work. You have to like to write or you have to be willing to write. You don't have to like it. In any job, there'll be things that you like to do and things you don't like to do and you have to balance, but I thankfully enjoy it.
I find them interesting, I can find it cathartic, I can find it, I will write one paragraph, then I'll watch a series. Like I watch that Chinese TV series I was telling you, that court drama, Qing Dynasty. So I watch one episode, then I'll write the background section. Then I'll watch the other episode, I'll write the first part of the methods section. Integrating it into your life in a healthy way. Finding that balance.
People find different ways in achieving a balance. For me, I like the Australian style, which is another thing. Sorry, this goes back to the question about how each country has shaped me. I've learned different types of working styles. Each country has its own work culture and I learned so much from them. From China, working in Chinese office. I worked in a research office there. The culture of that and then there's working in Australia, I worked in an office as well when I did some public health work. I like the whole idea of integrating leisure as you go, right? Not like the whole nine to five and then doing everything on the weekdays and then doing nothing on the weekends. That didn't work for me.
Because it wasn't satisfying enough, because then I feel really stressed during the weekdays and then I was like oh my God, why couldn't the week end? So I usually do days in which I work during the day and then during late nights is where I chill a bit.
So always integrating leisure and finding that pace of life, finding that pace of leisure will make you thrive, whether you do a PhD, grad school, anything. I think that's just a general thing. You just kind of have to find the energy.
Maureen: What a great note to close on. Thank you for coming onto the podcast Shahmir.
Shahmir: Thank you, I appreciate it.