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So we can rise

It’s almost formulaic, isn’t it? In almost every narrative of heroism, the hero finds him or herself in a very low point, in a spot where it seems impossible to make a come back and beat the bad guys. In “Superman Returns”, we see Superman near drowning in the ocean after being beaten and stabbed with a shard of kryptonite. He’s powerless because the part of the ocean he’s in is also surrounded by kryptonite. It seems like that is the end.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, our hero, Batman, finds himself in a far away land, thrown away in a prison held underground. His back is broken. He’s been beaten to a pulp. The only way out is to climb out, and not very many have been able to escape that way. While he is there, his enemies bring Gotham City to its knees.

The narrative repeats itself over and over in literature far and wide. Heroes rise. Heroes fall. But, if they’re so smart and invincible, why do they need to fall? Surely, with all his abilities, Superman must have seen that the goddamned island he was flying over was made out of kryptonite. I mean, it glowed green in spots, for crying out loud. He could have used his x-ray vision or super hearing to see that Lex Luthor and his goons were there. So why fall? Is it just to sell tickets? Is it because we superhero fans are so gullible that we’ll go to see the movie just to see if our hero will make it through?

Yeah, okay, we are. But I also like to think that these “falls” of our heroes are the writers’ way of teaching us that even heroes are capable of falling, of being imperfect. So our own imperfections should not discourage us. Like our heroes, we will fall, and, on the average and in the long run, we’re going to be okay. Except for dying, every other problem has a solution. (And there even is some doubt as to whether or not death is the end of it all.) Things can be at their extreme worse, and there is still going to be a way out. Right?

I’m taking a final exam tomorrow in biostatistics. That subject has turned out to be my achilles heel in these early days of my doctoral school adventure, so much so that I’ve been distracted from other subjects just to keep up with biostats. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not performing academically to the standard that I became accustomed to when I got my master of public health degree, when my GPA then was pretty sweet. People thought that I was smart.

Now, I find myself having to study extra hard extra long to grasp the public health implications of biostatistical analyses. It’s not just grabbing a bunch of data and spitting out numbers. I have to understand the data, understand what I’m doing with it, and interpret the numbers. The questions are less like “what is one plus one?” and more like “if you get a result of 2, what does that say about the two numbers that you just added together to get that 2?” It’s a little more difficult than that, but you know what I mean.

Look, it’s not like I don’t know what an odds ratio is or that logistic regressions are best done on dichotomous outcomes, or that the Chi Square distribution is what you use to do hypothesis testing on odds ratios (with degrees of freedom equaling the number of columns minus one times the number of rows minus one in the contingency tables). I know the stuff. Give me a big ol’ data set and I’ll tell you if the means in one group are statistically significantly different from the means in the other group. Seriously, I can do this. And when I do get the DrPH and am employed by a county health department in Montana, I’ll be able to read the evidence for all that its worth and offer good advice to those who need to make the decisions. Heck, I’ll make the decision myself.

I can be a good superman. Unfortunately, biostats is my kryptonite right now, and I’m up to my neck in it.

But we fall so we can rise, so our triumph will taste that much better. Fifty years from now, I’ll look back on these days and smile and enjoy thinking about how much of a big deal I made out of one exam here and one exam there. My children and grandchildren (all of them theoretical right now) will see me getting my DrPH as a first-generation (more like 1 and 1/2 generation) immigrant and applaud it, be inspired by it. And, if I am lucky enough, it won’t be just them who will follow and join me in the sun.

So excuse me while I grab a mountain made of my kryptonite (the final exam tomorrow) and toss it into outer space, so to speak. (I’ll rest on Saturday.)


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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

2 replies

  1. If it was easy, it’s be a bachelors degree, not a doctorate. 😉

    More seriously, I honestly have no clue about most of what you rattled off on statistical analysis. I have even less of a clue about the subject your test is about tomorrow.
    I do know that the topic exists and a bare notion of what is done with it, as I’ve personally watched and helped epidemiologists in some outbreaks abroad while I was in the military.
    I was handed questionnaires, with a host of question groupings, the epidemiologist figured out the zero index, spread, means of halting the spread and medications/vaccines administered to get out in front of the outbreak and arrest it before more misery or death could occur.

    I’m retired from the military now. I’m back home.
    I’m well comforted in knowing that there are ranks of epidemiologists, not a radio call and helicopter ride away, but watching, searching for contagious disease and preparing in advance for responses. I’m comfortable in knowing that the great practitioners of the darkest of the dark arts, statistics, hold those epidemiologists in their ranks to protect us from the darkness of the various plagues that have afflicted so many generations of the past.

    So, continue in your studies! Your fine work has already been appreciated, your advanced studies will prepare you to protect us in the future from those dark plagues that afflicted our past generations.

    As for heroes, I know know the real, flesh and blood ones.
    All of whom say, I only did what I had to do at the time, what’s the big deal?


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