Ph.D candidate, Epidemiology
Atif Kukaswadia, Mr Epidemiology
Atif spends his days doing science, and his evenings and weekends communicating science
by Sharday Mosurinjohn,
Atif Kukaswadia – AKA Mr. Epidemiology – is here to help you understand the science that’s important to your life. As a PhD candidate in Queen’s Department of Public Health Sciences and a science writer for the Public Library of Science (PLOS) blogs network, Kukaswadia is immersed in creating and reporting on scientific knowledge of direct relevance to the public, and he wants to share the wealth.
Kukaswadia moved to Canada in 2002 with his family from the UK. He started his undergraduate degree in Biology at Carleton University, where he focused on ecology and studied caterpillars, butterflies and mud shrimp. The thing Kukaswadia most enjoyed about ecology was how “everything was interconnected – you never study one squirrel in isolation. You study the whole environment and how elements of the environment interact.”
While he enjoyed Ecology, he realized that studying butterflies and caterpillars wasn’t for him. So he started a second degree in Health Psychology. Using his background in ecology, he began looking at humans the same way he had been trained to look at non-human animals and, specifically, at how the environment affects humans. This combination of interests led him to Queen’s, and the Department of Public Health Sciences.
During his MSc, Kukaswadia worked on obesity and bullying (you can read the research publications here and here). He enjoyed the mentorship of his committee so much that he chose Queen’s for his PhD in order to continue working with two of them, Dr. Will Pickett and Dr. Ian Janssen. Describing his present research, Kukaswadia says: “Using a combination of the Population Health Approach and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Social Determinants of Health, I investigate how environmental and social factors influence health – specifically, obesity, physical activity, and violence among youth.”
Kukaswadia not only writes for the PLOS Public Health Perspectives blog and Sci-ed blog, he also maintains his own personal site, named after his professional alter ego, Mr. Epidemiology. With the aim to educate and entertain, his eponymously titled blog drily explains: “Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean I’m a skin doctor. Epidemiology is a broad field that encompasses methods and techniques used to address issues that affect populations…In short – Epidemiologists study who is getting sick, what is making them sick, and how sick they are getting. You can replace ‘sick’ with any health outcome there, and there’s an epidemiologist looking at it. We do other stuff too, but that’s a story for another day.”
That’s an apt way to leave off the description, because Kukaswadia is a prolific content producer, and above all, one invested in the educational power of a good story. Last year, in an effort to tackle one item on his bucket list, he submitted a proposal to TEDxQueensU and was invited to give a talk on storytelling in science. He brings the same ethos to lending a science student’s perspective on grad life in his writing for the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies student blog, Gradifying.
Social media is also part of his professional and research practice. Recently, while presenting his study “A Cross-sectional Analysis of Immigrant Status and its Relation to Physical Activity Among Canadian Youth” at the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) annual conference, he live-tweeted the conference. “I was there to present one of the studies that make up my PhD as a poster, and to hopefully meet some new people. I was not disappointed! There were around 1000 delegates present from all over Canada, and I had a chance to talk to many of them about their work and what they’re doing.” A number of these connections were in fact made through tweeting about his conference experience as it was happening.
As Kukaswadia puts it, he spends his days doing science, and his evenings and weekends communicating science. But outside of this, he also manages to find the time for athletic and creative pursuits. He is loves playing ultimate frisbee, weightlifting, and is an avid photographer. His writing and photography gleams with a comedic dimension of cleverly placed film and TV references – notably, to Star Wars – that also belies a wider love of well-crafted media.
In the future, Kukaswadia is “aiming for a career where I can take research from those who produce it and put it into the hands of those who can use it.” He is interested in “Knowledge Translation,” which refers to “taking scientific findings, and making those findings widely available, for instance, to healthcare professionals or educators.”
He’s certainly on his way. One of his studies, which found that obese children were more likely to be bullies, was picked up by the Globe and Mail. (It’s worthwhile to note that Kukaswadia also volunteers with the Canadian Obesity Network). With recent articles appearing in venues as divergent as the Huffington Post, and the Canadian Public Health Association Student Corner, Mr. Epidemiology, like a tongue-in-cheek superhero defending public health, is poised to become a potent advocate for science in the public sphere.