• Question: When studying diseases, do you sometimes find it hard researching things that have killed loads of people or do you just feel like you are making a difference about it?

    Asked by Clint to Liz, Beccy on 22 Jun 2017.
    • Photo: Liz Buckingham-Jeffery

      Liz Buckingham-Jeffery answered on 22 Jun 2017:

      Good question. Most of the time, I feel like I’m making a difference and that is nice. But sometimes I do find it upsetting.

      The first project I worked on when I started being an epidemiologist was about HIV in South Africa. I had a data-set and each row of data related to one person. Seeing rows and rows and rows that each corresponded to a person with HIV was difficult. I did spend one evening crying quite inconsolably. But I had to pull myself together and get on with the work, because I knew the results would be helpful.

      (I’d also recently read the book The Three Letter Plague to learn more about HIV for that project. The book was very interesting and well written, but again a bit upsetting. I’d recommend it though.)

    • Photo: anon

      anon answered on 22 Jun 2017:

      If a disease is killing lots of people, then I have even more motivation to try and help. When I was home less during the Ebola outbreak, my 8 year old (at the time) asked why I had to do so much Ebola work. I told him to think about the 8 year olds in Ebola areas and how much they needed help from everyone who could contribute.

      I don’t see patients because I am not medically trained but I can picture in my mind individuals that appear in datasets I work on. Sometimes you stop and see data on a child who died of a disease, and then see that the parent also had the disease and start to build up the timeline in a more personal way. It can be very affecting, but it’s still different from watching the real people – I remember stopping my Ebola work to watch a BBC documentary about the Ebola treatment centres, the patients and the staff. Extraordinary people – so sad but also so amazing that the medical staff are there on the front line doing all they can. (My husband found me in floods of tears on the sofa.)

      When I was a kid, there was a man named Mr Rogers who had a children’s TV show. He said that when you see something bad (in person or on TV) look at the helpers. The Grenfell Tower fire was horrific but the firefighters and volunteers are inspiring. It is similarly inspiring to see the work of those directly treating Ebola patients or risking their lives to vaccinate children for polio in war-torn regions.