Alumni Spotlight: Meet Amrish Baidjoe, EPIET/EUPHEM Graduate (2017), Field Epidemiologist/Microbiologist and Coordinator of the R Epidemics Consortium (RECON) at Imperial College in London and President of the EPIET Alumni Network
By Tina Rezvani, Communications Manager, TEPHINET
Amrish, thank you for agreeing to be featured in our series on the remarkable achievements of FETP alumni around the world. I always like to begin by asking: What was the most important thing you learned from your EPIET/EUPHEM experience?
Thanks for this feature. I was lucky enough to spend my fellowship at Institute Pasteur in Paris, a great institute among the many strong European Institutes that host both EPIET and EUPHEM fellows. What made my time at Pasteur unique is that although I enrolled for the EUPHEM program ([which focuses on] public health microbiology), I could utilize my epidemiological background to bring different disciplines of applied public health science together. A gained perspective that good solutions can’t come from one single angle of science was one of the critical lessons I have taken away from this all and something I apply in my day to day job these days.
What was the absolute highlight, however, was spending time with my cohort, and by doing so, almost passively connecting a network of highly capable strangers on a professional and personal level. In many ways I see FETPs as the bridge builders in public health, both within regions but also between regions. There is a clear co-dependency between all of us. These types of professional networks I utilize in my job as the R Epidemics Consortium (RECON) coordinator but especially as the current EPIET Alumni Network (EAN) president. A lot of our work in the field is built on trust, and that is something you build over time and while working together. I think this is one of the most underestimated strengths that comes along with field epidemiology training programs and something we should appreciate and utilize better.
What are some key activities being undertaken by the EAN now? Are you hoping to launch any special initiatives in the near future?
EAN has been built on the back of generations of highly motivated alumni and is coming close to its twentieth birthday. One of the things that makes our network unique is that even without external funding (other than member fees) we have been able to create and maintain a network that functions across different European members states and beyond. I think a large part of that success is attributed to those strong bonds that are forged during our fellowships. As EAN we hope to invest more into continued learning opportunities for FETP graduates and alumni and to achieve that I think it will be important to obtain new funding streams. Another important facet is to explore wider collaborations with other public health and FETP networks like TEPHINET and play a more active role in strategic discussions around curriculum and emergency responses.
Let’s transition to your role as coordinator of the R Epidemics Consortium (RECON). This is a really interesting project for creating and sharing open-source outbreak analysis tools using the R software. Can you tell us more about it?
The R Epidemics Consortium was founded in the wake of the 2015-2016 Ebola outbreak. What became evident during that crisis is how many challenges revolve around data and how central the role of data is in guiding a response properly. Starting at the collection of accurate data from different sources, sharing data in a way that primarily informs the outbreak, to merging data sets, cleaning data, analyzing and possibly most important presenting and informing advocates based on scientific findings. I know from experience how much time field epidemiologists spend on collecting, merging and cleaning datasets--especially since we deal with a quick turnover rate of people during field responses. Every deployed field epidemiologist brings in their own methods. In many ways, data forms the fundament of the way we guide an outbreak response.
A lot of the mentioned processes can be, at least in part, automated in the field, or in the least, we can introduce better consistency in analyses allowing us to spend more time on advocating based on scientific results and playing a larger role in informing a strong and solid response.
Good epidemiological tools are not always easy to use, nor are they freely available or open source and transparent in their backbone. The latter is essential to ensure the quality of tools that assist us on analyses. Developing fancy tools that nobody uses isn’t our goal here. That is why the consortium consists of over 70 professionals representing 35 different institutes and actors, consisting of field epidemiologists, programmers, mathematical modelers, epidemiologists and people more closely involved with advocacy and logistics during emergency responses. In March of this year, we managed to get a good number of representatives around the same table to discuss needs regarding tools for data analyses and how to train different groups of people in data analyses. At the moment, we are working on the development of tools and training with academia, FETPs, World Health Organization and probably most importantly Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
As a TEPHIConnect user, what do you hope to gain from this platform?
I see TEPHIConnect playing a role in linking different FETP graduates and associated actors in the field of outbreaks and surveillance. There is a lot of fragmentation in the availability of such networks and online platforms. I hope TEPHIConnect can play a unifying role while still safeguarding the activities of more regional networks. Connecting different regions with each other could be one option here. As EAN we hope to play a mutually supporting role here. We need to work together better and to make that happen we probably first need to meet each other and exchange some words.
What makes you most proud in your career?
I don’t feel that is something that makes me particularly proud. Most aspects in my career have made me more humble than anything. I am aware that where I am today is something I have only accomplished by the support of others. In many ways, I feel privileged that in my current job (coordinator of RECON) and my side-job (EAN president) I can connect people and initiatives in our arena of work, connecting our little Islands of work. Rather than reinventing the wheel at the different places I feel we could augment our efforts better, in support of a joint cause, to support vulnerable populations globally. If I can play a humble role in that, I think retrospectively, at an older age, I will be able to look back with some humble feeling of satisfaction.
In general, what advice would you give to other recent FETP graduates?
In my view, FETP graduates are a set of unique individuals because of their different backgrounds and common language (the field epi language). In addition to your previous background, at graduation you should be able to utilize a set of technical skills which allow you to analyze the epidemiological aspects of a public health event. But rather than solely basing yourself on solid numbers, generating graphs and tables, a lot of your job will demand recommendations to decision-makers who don’t speak epidemiology. Numbers will only represent a part of the picture, and it is good to be aware of that. As a field epidemiologist, it is your responsibility to use those numbers and place them in a larger perspective and to advocate on behalf of those numbers, even if that means going against political sentiment.
More than numbers and analyses, it’s important to listen to other colleagues, to see what doctors see in their clinics, to listen to what unusual events the inhabitants of a community report to you. FETPs are sometimes called disease detectives. A good detective uses all sources of evidence, not just a dataset. Ah, and lastly, do honor the “field” in FETP. Make sure you get to the field and get that experience. Before you know it, you end up behind a desk solely analyzing datasets, and that is a job programs like R will be able to do in the future.
Amrish is a member of TEPHIConnect. Other members can get in touch with him here.