University of Illinois epidemiologist Rebecca Smith jokes about how much of her day, even now, is spent staring at a computer screen and not in a lab coat or using nifty equipment like some might expect.
Despite the lack of laboratory action shots, her workdays are anything but dull thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and her additional duties at the University’s Urbana/Champaign campus. Covalence caught up with Smith as she was preparing to speak to students via Zoom for a February 9 faith and science event organized by St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center that gathered students from various faith communities eager to discuss the public health initiatives.
In addition to work as a professor, Smith is also a member of the critical SHIELD team, which is a community of scholars with a science-based approach that uses the latest published research from scientists from across the globe. The team’s goal is to “Target, Test and Tell” by combining these insights with recommendations from the CDC and local health officials to keep the campus community safe.
They have been charged to monitor the research daily and make changes as more information emerges about COVID-19 and its effects. The University of Illinois, which has more than 44,000 students, has protocols in place for all students to be tested at least twice per week.
Smith is also a member of St. Matthew’s Church in Urbana, Illinois and worked into her remarks for the students not only the science but also some quotes from her favorite theologian, Paul Tillich. She also offered a look at the social justice issues emerging as a result of the pandemic.
Covalence: Rebecca, what is your day-to-day work at the University and how has it changed due to COVID?
Smith: Normally, I spend about 80% of my time on research. That involves a lot of writing and programming, working with data, and lots of mentoring trainees.
These days, more than half my time is in COVID response — meetings to plan, meetings to review outcomes, speaking to different groups on campus and off about what we know and what we need to do. I’m also in charge of the human subjects protection for our campus-led COVID efforts, so I spend a lot of time checking that we’ve put the proper safeguards in place and that we’re documenting everything appropriately. Lately, I’ve been working on COVID control in K-12, so that’s more meetings to work out the logistics. I still try to meet with each of my regular teams every week, and I have a seminar class that gives me a lot of joy!
Covalence: What drove your decision to work in epidemiology?
Smith: I stumbled into it, but basically a combination of my love for medicine and my love for math. I also liked that there were no emergency hours, but look where that got me (only partially joking). The more of it I did, the more I loved the problem-solving work it requires, and the fact that it requires collaboration across so many fields. As the statistician Tukey said, “you get to play in everybody’s backyard.”
Covalence: What are the ethical concerns within epidemiology?
Smith: Myriad. Our work drives policy, which has the potential to affect many more lives than a surgeon or an oncologist, for good or for bad. If a surgeon makes a mistake, one person suffers. If an epidemiologist makes a mistake, entire communities suffer. This is not just theoretical – in the past, epidemiology has been used to hold up racist, discriminatory policies.
Covalence: What can/should people of faith do during this time of pandemic to promote scientific fact?
Smith: I don’t ever recommend trusting scientists unquestioningly (I certainly don’t), but it’s important to know where your information is coming from. Is it someone trained in that field? Is it someone working for a non-partisan institution? Are others publicly disagreeing with the information and, if so, what is the background of those people? I rely on experts in other fields (virology, immunology, etc) to guide my understanding, and the best thing people of faith can do is to find those experts and promote their messages.
Covalence: It has been said, recently by Dr. Deborah Birx, that the individuals questioning the science may be doing that due to some of the conflicting messages given in the early days of the pandemic. Would you agree with that statement and what should we in the public expect from the scientists?
Smith: Unfortunately, that may be true, but I’m not sure all of science is to blame. Two things are happening here.
1) This is an emerging situation, so people are watching science happen in real time. That means we change our minds, we get new facts, we adapt. That doesn’t mean conflicting messages, just scientific method.
2) Science has an unfortunate tendency to jump onto the current big thing, and that has been exacerbated by the seriousness of the pandemic, leading to a fair amount of epistemic trespass. I’ve certainly seen it in my circles – some scientists are working hard to understand epidemiology and infectious diseases and lend a hand, others are just jumping in. I’ve seen many studies that got a lot of press but that are based on misunderstanding the data the analysis was based on.
Covalence: What does that mean for non-scientists?
Smith: They need to vet their sources! Ask who is making the announcement, where they are coming from, what other scientists are saying about it. Don’t trust the media to do that for you; some are very good (I highly recommend Ed Yong, David Quammen, and Maryn McKenna), but others may not have the background and training necessary. I personally rely on science Twitter (really!) to keep me up to date on the new studies coming out and what they mean.