Science communication in public health, with Neal Goldstein, Epidemiologist and author of Pandemics for Babies

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Neal Goldstein to talk about his career as an infectious disease epidemiologist and author. They discuss Neal’s career from working as an engineer to becoming a public health expert and his experience writing a book designed to explain complex scientific ideas to younger audiences.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • The importance of communication skills in the public health field
  • Tips that Neal has for developing or practicing communication to different audiences
  • Neal’s experience going from working as an engineer to an infectious disease epidemiologist
    • What skills he took from his previous career were useful in his current career
    • What new skills he needed to succeed in his current career
  • What the book  “Pandemic for Babies” is about
    • How Neal and his co-authors came up with this book idea
  • Neal’s experience as an academic and researcher writing a book targeted to younger audiences
    • Neal’s process for distilling complex topics so they can be understood by children
    • Surprises Neal discovered about communication when writing for different audiences

Today’s Guest:

Neal D. Goldstein, PhD, MBI is an Assistant Research Professor of Epidemiology. With a background in biomedical informatics, he focuses on computational approaches in complex data settings, especially electronic health records and disease surveillance, to understand infectious disease transmission among vulnerable populations. This has been demonstrated through his work with blood borne pathogens (HIV and hepatitis C), COVID-19, vaccine preventable diseases, and healthcare associated infections.

Featured on the Show:

Other Resources:

Episode Transcript

Neal 0:00
Let’s talk about your dissertation, or let’s talk about some paper we’re reading or method you learned about, how can we explain this in a way that totally shows that you understand what you’re doing, but the voids the jargon.

Sujani 0:18
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Hey Neal, welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Neal 0:40
My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Sujani 0:41
I was telling you right before we started that this is kind of a special podcast episode for me because I was introduced to your book when I became a new mom and have been reading this to my son ever since the first month. So super thrilled and excited to be sitting down and speaking to one of the authors of this book. So again, just very special for me.

Neal 1:00
Yeah, that’s fantastic. Congratulations on your baby. And this is exactly what we hoped would happen, you know, parents pick up this book, maybe as a gift. And not only is it you know, entertaining for the little ones to look at, but educational for the parents as well.

Sujani 1:14
Absolutely. And we’ll we’ll get a bit more into the details of how this book came to be. But thinking about your background and who you are, from what I understand, you’re not only an epidemiologist, but also a writer, you know, you’ve done scientific writing from your research, you also write quite a bit on your blog, and you have this book and a number of other books as well. So I’m curious. So when someone asks you, Neal, what do you do? What do you call yourself? Like, what’s that elevator pitch that you give people?

Neal 1:41
So I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist, you know, before the pandemic, I may not have put it so technically, I guess. But now that everybody is familiar with an epidemiologist, I just say that I’m an epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases, that actually makes it easier to talk about what I do, believe it or not, now that we’ve had so much coverage of public health and epidemiology,

Sujani 2:02
Absolutely. And so do you ever, you know, throw in the word author in there too? Or is that something that naturally will come up later on in a conversation?

Neal 2:10
You know, not normally, I describe myself also, as an academic epidemiologist, sometimes I say, I’m an applied methodologist. And we can get into the weeds if you want of what that means. But I don’t usually lead in with I’m an author, or I’ve written books, or you know, that I publish on my blog. I guess it kind of follows the conversation.

Sujani 2:29
And is there a specific reason for that? Or is it mostly, you know, you identify yourself as an epidemiologist, and then these other mediums of communication are things that you’re discovering throughout your career? So you’re not necessarily labeling yourself as a blogger or not there for example?

Neal 2:45
I guess I’ve never actually reflected on that before. I think what you’re saying is right, that I- I’m an epidemiologist, first and foremost, that’s what I get paid to do. You know, honestly, I would like to write more, I would like to write more popular press style books and articles. The scientific part of my job is it comes with the territory of being an academic epidemiologists writing articles and doing presentations and so forth. But it’s, it’s a lot of fun to write for popular press. And it’s also something that I admire in a lot of other scientists who are really gifted in communicating very complicated topics and straightforward way. I wish I was, in fact better at it. And maybe this children’s book was my first foray into- into this area.

Sujani 3:27
Yeah, you’ve done an excellent job in this. And you know, with a pandemic, we’ve seen how important it is to really like take these complicated concepts and break it down and communicate it to the general public. So they really understand what it is that the professionals are getting at through these scientific research pieces.

Neal 3:44
You know, I would love to take credit for this. So there are two wonderful co authors on this book, one of which Joanna Sudder is my wife.

Sujani 3:52
Oh, wonderful.

Neal 3:53
I wasn’t sure if you’re aware of that.

Sujani 3:54
Yeah. No, I was- I was trying to make the connection because I read that she was a public health attorney on the back of the book, which is super cool.

Neal 4:01
Yeah. I mean, we’re definitely a public health household for sure.

Sujani 4:04
Oh, that’s amazing. We might have to get her on the podcast too to, you know, hear a bit about her journey in her career.

Neal 4:11
She is literally downstairs right now, you know, with us both working from home quite a bit. We’ve had to kind of fight over office space. So right now she’s in the kitchen, and I have the office.

Sujani 4:20
Oh, perfect. So maybe in the future, you’ll have to switch spots, and then I’ll be chatting with her.

Neal 4:25
I am definitely in the kitchen more so than I am.

Sujani 4:29
Okay. So, you know, just stay on the topic of writing for early professionals, would you recommend that it’s kind of an important part of building their career, whether it’s scientific writing or maintaining a blog or just getting into any sort of writing?

Neal 4:45
Communication in general is so important in our field. Right? And I think that the pandemic has, in some ways exemplified that that there are people in our field, public health and epidemiology, who do a wonderful job of communicating and there are those who don’t do as good of a job as communicating. So one thing that I like to really emphasize to my students that I teach is that you need to practice as much as possible. And it’s one of those things where we don’t have formal coursework, in how to communicate, we don’t have, you know, like, here’s how to be a good writer, especially not a good general writer, forget about scientific writing. But we certainly don’t have any courses, at least where I work on, here’s how to communicate with the media. So it’s almost trial by fire in a way and the more practice you have, the better. That’s, in fact, part of why I started the blog was I just wanted to become a better writer. Initially, the blog started out very much like scientific articles, it was a way for me to just really be able to express what I was working on, almost like documenting my thought process at the time. But then as I grown the blog a little bit more, I’ve wanted to just do more popular press writing. So I do that. And I also reach out to a variety of media sources that I work with just for the practice, but that’s what I encourage everyone to do. You know, it’s just a case of, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. And you have to be receptive to feedback. And you also have to have a thick skin in this world.

Sujani 6:11
Yeah, no, absolutely. And so when your students come to understand the importance of it, and they kind of agree with you and say, okay, I’m gonna get into writing, what is it that you recommend is their first step into getting into writing?

Neal 6:12
Well, part of it is their coursework. I mean, the coursework itself requires writing, I encourage them to have writing groups, I mainly work with the doctoral students, I work with a handful of masters, but mainly the epidemiology PhD students at my institution. So I encourage them to have writing workshops together. Another thing I like to do to help emphasize this skill is on the final project. And one of the classes I teach, I require not only the students to do just a traditional scientific manuscript, but I require them to also do like a lay audience abstract at the top.

Sujani 6:55

Neal 6:55
And this is, for a lot of them, their first time trying to write in such a way to explain their work to friends or family members, you know, so I really just give them the practice, given the space to do this. And I encourage them throughout the process, you know, even outside of my class, this is a good skill to have, regardless of where you end up in this field, you are going to be doing some kind of communication. I mean, that’s part of being an epidemiologist and public health practitioner right now is the ability to communicate really uncertain science and complicated science to people. So the more practice you can get, the better.

Sujani 7:31
Absolutely. And I know, early on in my career, the way I practice was trying to explain what I’m working on at work to my mom or my boyfriend who were not in public health. So that’s also helped me because I needed to really, you know, break it down to the basics to help them understand what it is like I did outbreak epidemiology for some time. So, you know, explaining that in lay terminology, and then also in a different language also helped me.

Neal 7:57
Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. And this is something that I’ve struggled with my whole career, I wasn’t always doing epidemiology before this, I was, in fact, an engineer, I worked in health IT for a number of years, trying to explain what I was doing in that job to like family members or friends was very difficult. So we struggled with in some ways, I wish I had just an easier job to explain, like my wife, she’s a lawyer. And that’s all she has to say, you know, one word, I’m a lawyer. So I’ve always gravitated, I guess, towards positions that are difficult to understand.

Sujani 8:27
And I guess it’s like you were saying, you know, the good part, if you want to call it that of the pandemic is that people know what we do now people can see what public health does so less of a challenge explaining our job to the general public nowadays.

Neal 8:41
I agree with you. And there are, in fact, you know, a few silver linings to the pandemic, that being one of them, but also thinking back to the start of just how much we didn’t know and know how uncertain things were, and trying to communicate that. I mean, that’s part of what it very early on, eroded. I think a lot of people’s trust in public health establishments, was just that one day, we’d say one thing, and the next day, we’d say the other thing, and it wasn’t because we were trying to mislead, right? It was just the science evolves this way. And another silver lining, maybe to this pandemic is that I think the public is starting to get that to some extent that, you know, this is how science works. It’s not just we know everything, right off the bat, we’re going to be wrong, right? And we’re going to have to then update our opinions over time. And this is this is the way it should work.

Sujani 9:31
And I think, you know, at least kind of when I reflect on my journey. This was a battle that was being fought on the inside talking to policymakers or decision makers or management. We often had to explain how research worked. Now we’ve just had to bring it out into the public and having to do that same role more out in the open, if you will.

Neal 9:51
Yes. Yes. Agree.

Sujani 9:52
You mentioned something interesting, which I don’t know if you could take us back a little bit and talk about your career path. You mentioned that you were in engineer at first. So from engineering to epidemiology, how does that happen?

Neal 10:05
Oh, sure, I’m definitely not the traditional public health epidemiologist, you know, a lot of my colleagues, they knew from a very early age, what they wanted to do, and this is how to get to this field. And I started out really into computers and technology, and I got an undergraduate degree in computer science, figured out that I hated programming. So I better do something else with it. Just by chance, I wound up working at a medical device company, doing validation of digital mammography systems, that led me into the whole field of informatics, which was bridging the technology part of things with the healthcare field, you know, and so I worked for them for about a decade, and one of the roles that I was doing was interconnecting our systems. So we had a digital mammography system, we were interconnecting that into the healthcare enterprise. And that’s when I started to, you know, learn about things like electronic medical records, various digital systems employed in the healthcare environment, I was very interested, very fascinated by that. But what took me to epidemiology and public health was, in fact, the clinical trials that our company was involved with. So as an FDA regulated industry, we needed clinical trials to establish the efficacy of our digital mammography system. Well, that just, you know, naturally led me into what is a clinical trial all about, I took some courses in epidemiology, decided I liked it, and then wanted to proceed with the doctorate as just a way to learn as much as possible about the field. And when I went into this, I didn’t even have in mind that I wanted to be an infectious disease epidemiologist, I thought I wanted to be kind of like a data scientist with specific training in epidemiology. But once I started really diving into the field, I just became fascinated with infectious diseases, because that’s like, you know, that’s the origin for a lot of our work. And that led me to working with my advisor, during my doctoral studies, who’s one of the well known HIV epidemiologist from like the 80s, are very early on in the epidemic here in the United States. And ever since then, I’ve just had this really, you know, curiosity about infectious diseases, and using my data science skills, to try to be like a computational sort of epidemiologists be very rigorous quantitatively about what I’m doing.

Sujani 12:25
That’s fascinating. And so, you know, when you think about your previous career versus your current career, and I’m just going to label it as that, apart from the quantitative skills, what other skills do you feel like you were able to bring into the world of epidemiology that you had developed, you know, as an engineer?

Neal 12:43
Project management skills, would say, first and foremost, that’s what I learned at my job for those number of years. And what that meant was, when I was starting my doctoral studies, for example, I knew how to design a project, I knew what needed to be done, I knew how to collaborate with others, assemble a good committee, you know, make sure that the project was within scope. And then after I finished my degree, those same skills, just time and time again, really pay off. And I don’t think it’s anything particular to working in information technology or engineering. But I think that anybody who has like, on the job experience or somehow is involved in what it takes to put a project together and see that through just really excels, especially in a PhD program.

Sujani 13:30
You talk about project management, of course, it’s kind of a key skill to have across any role in public health and other jobs. I don’t know if you’ve had any specific training in project management was that skills that you’ve developed on the job.

Neal 13:45
I would say on the job, and I would say through being lucky and that I had really good colleagues and mentors at my various jobs, you’re not going to come out of the gate, knowing how to do these things, you’re going to do more things wrong than right. But it’s the ability of a good mentor to help you recognize it, and how to move forward and improve those skills. And also, for someone working in our field, right, they have to also be receptive to criticism. We touched on that, you know, a little bit ago, but I think this is a quote that I’ve heard before them to restate here, but the hallmark of a good scientist is someone who’s willing to change the mind.

Sujani 14:21
So you know, along that same topic, would you say there were new skills that you had to develop to do you know, epidemiology that you, I guess, necessarily didn’t need as an engineer?

Neal 14:32
Yes. So I needed to have some idea of physiology and pathophysiology of diseases and that’s what separates us in some sense from like a health data scientist. I believe that epidemiologists really need to have some good foundation in biology and anatomy and physiology.

Sujani 14:49
It when- we’re thinking about more of the you know, quote unquote, soft skills, would you say some similar skills were needed or did you you know, because you were working in more of an academic setting had to develop other skills there

Neal 15:01
In terms of like grant writing stuff or scientific writing?

Sujani 15:06
Yeah, or I guess like, yeah, communication maybe? Did you need more of it in your epidemiology role versus your engineering role? Or would you say that’s kind of yeah, yeah.

Neal 15:16
I mean, always, it’s communicating in a different way, when I was in the engineering role, like communication was with other technical colleagues, sometimes with customers. Now in epidemiology role like communication, first, where I work with students, I get to mentor students, still communicating with colleagues, but in a totally different area. And then as we were talking about a little while ago, the whole communicating with the public via media, you know, that’s a very different style of communication than I’ve been used to. And for me, that was doing this as much as possible and kind of getting better at it along the way, I didn’t come out from my doctorate, being able to talk to the media about research. That’s something that I’ve had to learn over the years, and I’ve had some very good mentors and colleagues who have helped me in that area.

Sujani 16:03
Going back to your book, Pandemics for Babies, as an academic or a researcher, what was your experience, like writing this book? And, you know, was this idea something that was brewing even prior to our current pandemic? Or is this something that just came up after we kind of declared a pandemic?

Neal 16:20
No, it’s an idea that’s been brewing for a number of years. So my wife and I have a young son, he’s four and a half years old now. When he was a baby, somebody gave us a book by Chris Ferrie, I think it was called Bayesian Probability for Babies, you know, something very nerdy sounding. So it really appealed to me. And that led us into this whole baby university series that he has, and he’s written with other authors as well. So the whole idea of, you know, taking complex science and making it approachable and fun for young readers. So when we were looking through the titles in this baby University series of books, we didn’t see anything that was public health or epidemiology related. My wife is a lawyer, but she works in public health, she represents the Division of Public Health in our state. And naturally, we wanted to do something in this area. So this was probably about summer of 2019, we threw in a pitch to the publisher. And that’s something that I would also encourage readers to do, you know, the way that people get published frequently is just by pitching an idea to the publisher. Most if not all, major publishers have on their website, some contact information to send them a pitch. So we did that. And our idea was not pandemics for babies, I think it was like epidemiology for babies, or maybe even more broadly, public health for babies. So we sent it in and it was kind of this black hole, we had no idea what would happen. And then I would say in January, we were on vacation in New York City, and we got an email from the publisher. So it was a matter I think of timing. And once we got the email from the publisher, they said, you know, I saw that you sent in an idea on public health, do you want to do anything about COVID-19? That, of course, led into the idea of doing a book pandemics for babies. And the first draft of this book, we were so excited when we’re on vacation, you know, this email, we’re gonna we’re gonna have a children’s book, we wrote the first draft of this book, kind of in our hotel room, and at the bar.

Sujani 18:20
No way.

Neal 18:20
No, yeah, I mean, it just, it flowed, it flowed quite well. But gosh, the original version of that draft really appeared in the book. But nevertheless, we wanted to get our ideas down. And we were just so excited about it.

Sujani 18:33
So it sounds like the process of distilling these complex topics and concepts that you explained in the book came very easily to you. Could you tell us a bit about how that way?

Neal 18:43
Maybe. So we wrote this draft, right? And then we sent it into the publisher, and the publisher came back and was kind of like, huh, let me put you in touch with Chris Ferrie. So we’re all excited about that, you know, he’s like a hero in our house. So when we started chatting with him, he really helped us through all of his experience to really distill our ideas, make them as clear as possible. And then the three of us really arrived at the final text and Chris very contributed the images, all the- all the illustrations that you see in the book, because neither myself nor my wife are artists. And we often laugh when we try to like draw something the only person that think that’s impressed is a four year old.

Sujani 19:24
Wonderful illustrations in the book for sure. And when you think back to this process, would you say there was something that surprised you along the way, whether it’s the publication process, or even just being able to break down these topics into just simple words and trying to communicate it to a child?

Neal 19:43
I think what surprised me most was how long this actually took write for a book. That’s I think, 24 pages or there abouts. And the manuscript, like I said, that we banged out in a matter of an hour or two, the amount of time it took to refine that and you know laboring over each and every word in there that was that was different for me, I don’t think we have that attention in scientific writing kind of get our ideas down there. As long as the general message is okay, a lot of times we don’t kind of nitpick on word choice, grammar, vocabulary, that kind of thing. But that was really important in this book, as well as the iteration of the images. You know, it’s not just like we had the image appear. I mean, there’s so many versions, and that’s what the readers don’t really get to see is all the different versions that happened behind the scenes. So I think that part, it surprised me. And it resulted in the book not coming out, like, for a little while into the pandemic, and I was concerned that was going to hurt the sales of it, because we were waiting so long. But as the pandemic has demonstrated, it’s going to go on for a little while. So fortunately, the book was still well received.

Sujani 20:51
And I think I see the date here. The production was February 2021. So at the very beginning of this year,

Neal 20:57
Oh, yes, you must have a let me see my book. So I’m looking at the books that we received when we first published in minority November 2020. So I think that’s when the first ones became available. There abouts.

Sujani 21:07
Yeah, it’s a long process for you know, you mentioned 20 pages, and almost just one to two sentences on each page. So about, let’s say, 30 sentences.

Neal 21:15
And this was all started in January of 2020. So yeah, it took almost a whole year.

Sujani 21:20
Oh, wow. How has the reception been like by the book so far?

Neal 21:24
It’s been wonderful. We’ve really been surprised by the reception of this. I’ve published one other book before. And it was a technical book meant for researchers and as a textbook, and in graduate school, the reception of that is kind of lukewarm. At best, you know, you never really have a good idea about these things. But as soon as this book hit, we started getting media requests from not only like local media, but also national coverage of it. And it was- it was really a fun experience to be on some of these interviews that we’ve done. My wife and I did a few of them together. And it was, it was really fun to be part of that and just see how well the book was being received. I mean, we would get emails, we would just follow it on Amazon, right? Because you want to see like, like, and to get one star reviews or anything. And we when we started seeing the first few reviews on there were they were good reviews, right? And we’re convinced no, this is just our friends or family, then the numbers started ticking up. And we’re like, oh, my goodness, this can’t just be friends and family. There are people who really liked this book. It’s been fun. And I could never have anticipated at the start that perhaps what my work is best known for right now is writing this. Post all the other methods work by doing that field.

Sujani 22:38
Would you say that a lot of the buyers of the book have been fellow public health practitioners or are you seeing quote, unquote, the general public is also buying this for their children?

Neal 22:49
Both so word of mouth, from family and friends. And then I would have colleagues approached me saying, you know, oh, so and so just had a baby, I’m gonna get them. This is a copy of that. But no, there’s been total people that have nothing to do with public health at all. But we’re just interested in learning about some of the terms and concepts being thrown around on the news. So that’s, you know, another purpose of this book is to introduce that vocabulary and really break things down in that very intuitive fashion.

Sujani 23:17
Oh, that’s so good to hear. I- my assumption was going to be that it was going to be, you know, a book that other fellow epidemiologists can nerd out over with their kids.

Neal 23:27
Yeah, and I was, I was definitely nervous. I’m more so nervous about the epidemiology and public health, the readers of this book, as opposed to the public because I just, I’m always concerned that we got some kind of concept wrong, and there’s a companion book to this, Pandemics for Babies was the first but then there’s Germ theory for Babies where we really talk about how communicable diseases spread. And for that one, for sure, I was certain that like an infectious disease physician was going to hold our feet to the fire on it, but it hasn’t happened. And, and I’ve given the book to several infectious disease colleagues of mine physician colleagues, and they’re like, nope, you did a good job, you gotta write.

Sujani 24:05
Okay, it’s yeah, it’s always you know, I feel nervous even though you know that you know, your stuff. When you put it out into the world. There’s always that hesitation.

Neal 24:13
I don’t feel as nervous about scientific works being disseminated as I do with this. I don’t know why- I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been doing this for a few years now to feel more comfortable with my scientific work or what it is, but maybe like, also, it’s just that hardly anybody’s going to read my scientific work for us. This is a much broader audience.

Sujani 24:32

Neal 24:32
That’s part of the the anxiety that I was talking about.

Sujani 24:35
Or even you know, you feel responsible that you’re teaching like a large population concept, and you want to make sure that you’re getting it as accurate as possible, because you know, they’re going to be most likely transferring this knowledge to their family members or friends and who may not have public health background and I think there’s that sense of responsibility perhaps.

Neal 24:56
Oh, very true, and some of the concepts in this book at the time we were writing them, we were kind of speculating about how things may play out. And fortunately, they- they matched what we were speculating, for example, on the vaccination thing, you know, again, at the time we were working on this, there wasn’t any vaccine available, there was only talk of like, preclinical work being done, you know, so we, we said, no, we’re going to make the point to say that a vaccine will become available, and that’s going to take time. Fortunately, that’s borne out to be the case and that we have a highly effective vaccine.

Sujani 25:28
Yeah, I’d say that’s probably my- one of my favorite sections, where you kind of say that, you know, research takes time that vaccine is going to take time, but then in the meantime, there are things that we can do. And then we talk about social distancing, and hand washing and good hygiene. So I’d say that kind of transition in that book was my favorite part.

Neal 25:45
Oh, cool. Good to hear.

Sujani 25:46
Yeah. When you talk about, you know, being fearful of releasing this out into the world reminds me of a time when some of our readers of the PH SPOT blog, talk about career advice, and we share many people’s journeys. And I remember reading a comment on one of the posts where a lot of people had talked about taking some time to work in the field before going to grad school, and somebody had commented, okay, this makes sense. I think I’m going to pause my grad school enrollment and take some time to work. And that’s when it kind of hit me that people are actually making life decisions based on the advice that they’re reading in this blog. So you do have that sense of responsibility.

Neal 26:25
Yeah, for sure. I mean, what starts out is just kind of a fun project, and then to be very influential. And that’s a very real concern to have that- that weighs on you.

Sujani 26:34
Yeah, absolutely. So you know, your experience writing this book, I’m sure you’ve had many lessons that you were able to transfer to your students around writing and communication and curious to hear if there was anything you could share with our listeners?

Neal 26:51
Oh, gosh, lessons from this as a translates to writing and epidemiology? Well, if you can’t explain a concept simple enough, for somebody who’s not in the field to understand, I don’t think you know, the concept well enough. And we encounter this all the time in our field, right? In the classes I teach one of the classes a is a doctoral seminar, and we read these scientific articles that some of which just leaves us scratching our head over, like, what is this person saying, and I’m sure there’s like a gem of a really good idea, but the ability to communicate that, like it just wasn’t there. Whereas other writers, they just have a gift. And they can write things beautifully. They have eloquence to them. And and that’s the ones that like, we often say, why are these so successful? What is it that they are just tackling concepts that aren’t as difficult? Or do they just really have a gift? So I think that’s the lesson learned for me from this that I tried to impart on the students is just let’s talk about your dissertation or let’s talk about some paper we’re reading or method you learned about? How can we explain this in a way that totally shows that you understand what you’re doing, but the voids the jargon, and I think part of my interest in this area was developed when I was doing my postdoctoral work because I was working at a hospital in a neonatal intensive care unit, and the ability of the physicians that I was working with to really communicate what was happening to very concerned parents like that. That is also something that takes time and a very good skill that I think some of the more successful physicians will learn that skill and be able to hone it, whereas some of the less successful ones will lack that. And I see the same in our field. You know, when when I’m looking at scientific writing.

Sujani 28:46
And you mentioned this a bit early on in our chat, you know, you talked about how we don’t get hands on training when it comes to communication or writing in our field. And for some of our listeners, who may have influence within academic settings, any, you know, thoughts you could place into their heads to perhaps even consider adding something to the curriculum.

Neal 29:10
Well, I think there’s something with the American schools of public health I forget what the exact acronyms.

Sujani 29:16
Association of Schools of Public Health.

Neal 29:19
You got it. So I want to say it part of their accreditation requirements include some component of certain like writing style, so there may be part of it already required through accreditation, but I don’t know that I have anything particularly insightful to add to this other than to connect students, you know, if there is the opportunity for formal coursework in there in this area, that’s wonderful. If not, if there’s like a media office or PR group or person that can come and spend some time and maybe do a lecture or do a seminar or host a roundtable discussion with the students. That’s also something that we’ve done at my institution to have the person who has like this is their full time job right connecting to the media and tell us when we are doing an interview or we’re going to communicate with someone, what do we need to know? What can make us do a better job make the interview more effective, as well as avoid any kind of misinformation along the way, which unfortunately, also plagues our field.

Sujani 30:19
I guess something else that you mentioned, and it’s, I would assume is quite easy to do is integrating these pieces into assignments for coursework, you know, you mentioned that you encourage your students to write like abstracts and lay terminology. So those assignments kind of also allow students to practice that skill.

Neal 30:38
Thank you for reminding me of that. That’s an excellent example right there. So if it can be integrated into the assignments, such as doing the late abstract, or when you’re doing a talk, you know, have somebody do a slide just on what is the message you would have for the media? You know, give me a 30 second or one minute soundbite something that you would want played back during an interview and use this as the opportunity to practice that?

Sujani 31:01
Yeah, that’s a great idea too, or maybe even do a mock up of something else for babies based on the topic that you’re teaching.

Neal 31:10
Yeah, definitely. I mean, we could do something like quantile regression for.

Sujani 31:14
Yeah, there you go.

Neal 31:16
Definitely will be a lot of readers for that.

Sujani 31:18
Oh, yeah. I’m going to open it up a bit to you, Neal to see if there’s anything else or anything fun or interesting that happened throughout the book production process that you wanted to share that we hadn’t talked about, or even you know, a bit about where people can find your book, maybe I’ll just leave those two questions for you to tackle.

Neal 31:36
I did mention the other book, there is Germ Theory for Babies. That was the follow up companion to this because we wanted to do something that was specific to infectious diseases and really communicable diseases and how do they move around. And we wanted to establish that we wanted to talk about here’s what germs are, there’s good organisms that are in the environment, and there’s bad ones. That was the follow up to that. And it’s weird because the pandemics book is the one that’s definitely more widely known and available, and probably what our reputation is built on. But the germ theory one, I liked a little bit more when I was writing because it was more towards what I knew better, like the pandemics one is rather general. So the germ theory one, I liked that one, I would say a little bit more to be honest, although it doesn’t get quite the reviews that the pandemics one deaths, I would like to do a follow up one also to this one to just maybe do like an ABCs book, because those are great for kids to know. So ABCs of public health, for example, or maybe even ABCs of, of epidemiology. In fact, I have on my computer just a start for a manuscript in this area already. But I still need to figure out all the letters because-

Sujani 32:46

Neal 32:47
For like, X, you know, from having a kid, right? I mean, when you see x, it’s gonna be like xylophone or X ray, there’s always something to this area. So that’s some of that- some of the letters are still challenging the books themselves. So you can- you can get those carried in bookstores, you got them through the publisher source books, what I usually recommend is just going on Amazon. But if you want to give your local bookstore some business as well, they can order it. We did an author signing day at a local bookstore for us in Delaware, at the beach, there’s a bookstore down there, they ordered a bunch of books, we’re always going back and forth to the beach. So we did like we did assigning down there. And that was that was so fun. So neat to do that. And then to see your book, like displayed up there by know some of the heavyweights in the field. It’s kind of humbling.

Sujani 33:31
Yeah. Well, congratulations to you know, Chris, yourself and Joanna on this amazing book. And I know it’s going to be a hit amongst our listeners as well. And just talking to us about scientific communication and the importance of it. And I really hope this episode inspires our listeners to see if they can tackle some complex topics and try to communicate that to the different populations that they work with.

Neal 33:55
Oh, my pleasure. Thank you again for having me on, Sujani, I really enjoyed it.

Sujani 34:02
Hey, so I hope you enjoyed that episode. And as always, if you want to get the links and information mentioned in today’s episode, head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about our hands on intensive training program that empowers early public health professionals, recent graduates and students with the mindset skills and tools required to land a public health job, advancing your career and become future public health leaders. So if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about building your dream public health career, then we can help you through this program. And right now you can join the waitlist at And we’ll notify you when the next cohort opens up. And so until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight, and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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