Behind the Scenes With a Social/Spatial Epidemiologist

by Gaia Yun

Steve J. Mooney’s epidemiology career started with a bus ride in 2002.

The Microsoft programmer felt powerless and angry in the face of the imminent Iraq War; switching commutes was, however, something he could control. The bus rides allowed him to save gas and increased his quality of life. Upon reflecting on the availability of public transit, a chain of thoughts followed: “it was only possible because the infrastructure was there, and that led me to transit advocacy, which led me to trying to understand the built environment, which led me back to how the built environment affects health, like my mental health as a bus commuter.”

Prior to this spark of new interest, Dr. Mooney had studied computer science as an undergraduate at Yale University, and had been a programmer for twelve years. In 2012, he received his MD for epidemiology at Columbia University and stayed there for this PhD. Today, he works in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health as an assistant professor. Dr. Mooney chose to solidify his career as an epidemiologist because he wanted to work in research, and he appreciated the moral compass of public health - “if what you're doing is actually benefiting public health, it's pretty unlikely it's a bad thing.” His area of expertise is contextual influences on health, specifically on how cities and their infrastructure impact civilians. He also focuses on pedestrian injury and physical activity.

When asked to describe a typical day at work, Dr. Mooney responded that it involves a lot of interacting with both students and faculty, writing, reading papers, and some statistical analysis on a good day. His schedule also depends on whether he is teaching that quarter and whether he has projects to work on. According to him, his field is most definitely interdisciplinary, often involving sociology, urban planning, nursing, medicine, criminology, computer science, and statistics. “We have so much to learn from other people,” he added.

What’s especially cool about Dr. Mooney is that his projects often involve epidemiological methodology, the study of how exactly public health data is collected and analyzed. He terms himself as a “methods geek,” because “any good project leads to skepticism that anything we learn is actually true, which in turn leads to methods research.” His work in this area involves “a lot of reading and thinking and writing to try to convince my peers that the ideas are right. It's not actually very glamorous work - it's mostly: What if we did X? Would that work? Could we interpret the result as Y if we did the analysis as X? Hmm. From first principles that sounds right. and stuff like that. It's fun, in a nerdy sort of way, especially with good colleagues.”

Dr. Mooney’s current projects include building a “spatial microarray” tool, which works like gene sequencing, but instead collects measures about the social or infrastructural environment from publicly available data. Using the tool, he is looking into the “spatial equity” of bike share programs. He’s also creating software that will automatically compile information about neighborhood context from anywhere in the U.S. The process of building such software for public health processes is “mostly about sewing together things someone else has already made - so I'm trying to make use of freely available software, like R for statistics and Docker to host web services, to make it easy for people who aren't specialist in geospatial code to get neighborhood context measures.” In the past, Dr. Mooney has collaborated with other epidemiologists on the Neighborhood-Environment Wide Association Study (NE-WAS), which focused on how the neighborhood affects physical activity among older adults.

By now, it’s probably clear that Dr. Mooney works extensively with data. One of his many interests include how the Open Data world, or publicly available data, can inform scientists. GPS data is also often key to his research; using GPS devices and accelerometers, it is possible for Dr. Mooney to figure out where people are walking, which streets need to be made safer for pedestrians, and how the environment can help increase pedestrian activity. “Encouraging walking (and not dying in a collision with a car while you walk) is probably one of the more cost-effective public health interventions.”

Though Dr. Mooney occasionally builds computational model systems, it hasn’t really been a major part of his career. He emphasizes that many other epidemiologists do extensive modelling, especially concerning infectious disease. However, he, too, has recently been learning about pathology in hopes of helping with the COVID-19 effort; he’s also working with other researchers at UW to figure out who is more likely to contract the Coronavirus from a public health standpoint.

In fact, Dr. Mooney has recently been quoted in The New York Times and UPROXX concerning the spread of COVID-19 and the possibility of re-starting collegiate and professional sports. He’s very humble and gently humorous about his knowledge - “It's not obvious to me how I ended up as a press contact; I think maybe I tend to say things that work as sound bites?” - but he does observe that “While I often know little more about COVID-19 than anyone else, I know how epidemiologists think about disease in general - populations are more than a collection of individuals - and try to communicate that to the press.” He finds value in informing the public in a way that “includes not just the information but our relative certainty about it.”

Dr. Mooney’s career as an epidemiologist seems incredibly versatile; it’s certainly data-driven, but also is influenced by his knowledge as a programmer, requires a lot of creative problem-solving (especially in methodology), and involves intersection with many other fields. You can find read more about him on the UW faculty sites and links below.

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