Emory Report
February 27, 2006
Volume 58, Number 21


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February 27 , 2006
Making fun of epidemiology

BY Elizabeth Elkins

At the end of most every school year, David Kleinbaum gets a very special gift from his students: a multi-colored (and arguably obnoxious) Hawaiian-print shirt.

The gift is a tradition for Kleinbaum, professor of epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health, that has its roots in his days as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina. It was there he realized that the best way to interest students in epidemiology was to make class light-hearted.

While at Chapel Hill, Kleinbaum began dressing casually and incorporating jokes and humor into his lectures. Soon after moving to Emory in 1993, he became one of Rollins’ most requested professors; word spread quickly about the gray-haired, bespectacled funnyman who gave entertaining lectures and made a point of getting to know each student personally.

Kleinbaum’s student course evaluations began reflecting his popularity, and he won Teacher of the Year at Rollins in 1998 and an Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award in 2000.

“In my fall Epidemiologic Modeling class, I have a contest,” he said. “I say to the students, ‘I’ll wear a different Hawaiian shirt every day, and if I have a senior moment and slip up and wear the same shirt twice, the student who points it out gets a prize.’

“I don’t believe I’ve ever slipped up. Perhaps once.”

Even if no one gets a prize, those colorful shirts are a good icebreaker. When checking the microphone before short-course lectures at the CDC (where he has been a visiting scientist/consultant since the late 1980s), Kleinbaum steps up, clears his throat and asks, “Is it loud enough?”

It’s a great approach since epidemiology—the study of health and illness in human and veterinary populations—is a discipline dominated by math and statistics, concepts often dreaded by less quantitatively minded students. It might be considered a dry field, but Kleinbaum’s engaging wit and enthusiastic love of the subject matter make his courses not only popular but fun. His students even follow him off campus to see their professor perform on stage as a flutist for the Moonlighters Jazz Trio.

“My personality allows me to be funny, which relaxes students and lets them know they don’t have to suffer through the class,” he said. “I want students to listen and learn, rather than just copy down information. One of the greatest things I learned in public-speaking courses was how to talk to a large group as if you are talking to a person, rather than talking to them like you’re making a pompous speech. This allows me to relate to students much better.”

Kleinbaum also is an advocate of healthy skepticism in the field.

“It’s important to me that students get an appreciation of how complicated epidemiology is,” he said. “If you give the same data set to 40 different people, you might get 40 different answers because there are so many decisions to be made.

“There is an art involved in these decisions; it’s not simply a science,” he said. “I want to emphasize the science of the art.”

A cursory glance around Kleinbaum’s sunlit office offers two clues to some of the most important facets of his career: a sprawling cartoon map of Manley, New South Wales, Australia; and a picture of African-American baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

The Australia map is a reminder of Kleinbaum’s extensive travels around the globe—from Down Under to Germany, India and Brazil—as a lecturer and short-course instructor for government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and research institutes. (“I got pick-pocketed in Rio,” he recalled with a laugh, “but it was worth it.”)

The Robinson picture reminds him of his childhood in New York, where he grew up a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan. That early love of Robinson and his team sparked an interest in diversity, which Kleinbaum now incorporates into his research and teaching. He also was instrumental in early efforts to attract minorities to predominantly white graduate programs.

“I grew up during the early civil rights movement, watching black and white baseball players on the field together for the first time. As an educator, I always felt it was very important to make sure minorities were well represented in fields like statistics,” he said. “Some of the most rewarding moments I’ve had as a teacher have been when I’ve helped a student from a less-privileged background get an A in my course.”

But Kleinbaum’s popularity is by no means limited to his students. His five textbooks (including Applied Regression Analysis and other Multivariate Methods, Logistic Regression: A Self Learning Text and Survival Analysis: A Self Learning Text) have become international standards in the field. He is also the creator of the innovative “ActivEpi” text, an electronic textbook in CD-ROM format that uses video, animation, narrated expositions, interactive activities, Web links and his trademark humor to provide a unique approach to teaching epidemiology.

Kleinbaum’s 35-year career was honored nationally in December, when he was selected as the winner of the first Association of Schools of Public Health/Pfizer Award for Teaching Excellence—an impressive feat, considering there are more than 7,500 public health faculty members in the United States.

But there’s no vanity in this victory. Instead, Kleinbaum hopes his increased visibility will help him fund new teaching projects and raise awareness for ActivEpi on a global scale (including translation of the CD-ROM into various languages). The software is already in wide use, but its author believes it has even more potential.

“I thought instructors everywhere would drop what they were doing and switch to ActivEpi,” he said. “But, like the old Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way,’ people want to use or develop their own course materials and are reticent to change. It’s important to me that ActivEpi gets translated into many languages so it can be used around the world.”

Kleinbaum’s frustration springs from a genuine desire to help people learn. ActivEpi is almost like Kleinbaum saved to disc—one of a kind, easy to understand, incredibly effective at teaching, and just a little wry.

“I love to explain [difficult] things to people and see the light go on when they understand it,” he said. “The primary payoffs for me, over the years, are getting letters, e-mails or comments from students saying I contributed to their learning and that they appreciate my efforts.”