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Paula Strassle, Ph.D., M.S.P.H joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor. She sat down to discuss her childhood dream of becoming an anthropologist, the events that inspired her to become an epidemiologist, and the goals she has for herself as a faculty member at UNC.

Dr. Paula Strassle received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in May 2010 and later a Master of Science in Public Health in Epidemiology from Emory University in May 2014. She recently earned her Ph.D. in Epidemiology from UNC at Chapel Hill in June 2019. Dr. Strassle has already been working closely with UNC Surgery through her work as an Epidemiologist and Data Manager, where she has collaborated with surgeons on dozens of research studies on topics including clinical epidemiology, patient outcomes, access to care, and trends in surgical practices. Her leadership in this area will keep UNC and the Department of Surgery as a frontrunner in the field.

She will be supporting research growth in the department by designing and conducting research in large databases like claims databases, discharge records, and National Registries, as well as working with electronic medical record data. Clinicians have research questions, and Paula has the necessary statistical and epidemiological expertise to appropriately design and conduct the study. She will help support faculty by performing analyses, training residents and fellows on how to conduct their own research, and connecting people to resources.

What inspired you to become an epidemiologist?
During my undergraduate studies, I was researching neuropsychology. What I took away from the experience was I learned that I enjoyed research. I like asking questions. I like the process. However, I didn’t want to do psychology research anymore.

After graduation, I was looking for a job. I had been working at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine in their Psychiatry Department. There was an opening in their public health department for a clinical research coordinator. I got the job and through a great mentor, Anthony Harris, MD, MPH, I got involved doing epidemiology research, specifically with hospital-acquired infections in the infection control department. I fell in love with the math and the way you design a study; the big picture kind of study where you’re doing projects in which you’re looking at population-level outcomes, average treatment effect as opposed to individual treatments.

I felt some of the research we were doing could impact a ton of people. However, I realized that I needed more education to be able to do it better. I went and got my masters, and within the first year at Emory, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough, so I continued my education with a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

Why did you choose to get your Ph.D. from UNC?

I only applied to a few schools, but what drew me to UNC is that they have a unique approach to their epidemiology Ph.D. program. Many Ph.D. programs follow a similar formula, you find a mentor, and then your dissertation and all of your research is going to be based around their RO1, or in their lab, or with their funding source. At UNC, they don’t guarantee funding for their students but acknowledge that there are plenty of funding opportunities both in the public health school and outside of it. It allows people the flexibility to change advisors, change projects, and get additional experiences outside of a traditional RO1 track. I got an incredible education out of it and the faculty was great. It also doesn’t hurt that UNC has the number two Public Health School in the country.

How did you find yourself working with the department of surgery during grad school?

When I started my Ph.D. program at UNC, I tried to look to see if I could find a project or a job opportunity either in the hospital or with infection control. I stumbled across a project that was a grant between the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UNC Gillings School of Public Health with David Van Duin, MD, Ph.D., and the UNC Surgery Burn Center, with Sam Jones, MD.

I spent my first year doing a huge database linkage project, connecting the burn registry to the EMR records as well as hospital epidemiology data from the infection control Department and then using the database for research. Once the grant was over, I connected with Jen Jen Yeh, MD, Surgical Oncologist, and research scientist. I found myself working in the department of surgery for four years as a grad student doing a smaller, but a similar role than I’m in now.

Why did you decide to join UNC Surgery as a faculty member?

I’m someone who likes data process; managing data, linking data. I like figuring out a puzzle and approaching projects. I like figuring out the best way to do projects, the best way to approach them, and the best way to analyze them. I’m not drawn to a specific area of research, so the department of surgery is nice because I get to do everything from cancer to trauma to cardiac. You get a little of everything, but the main underlying theme is the data sources and the analysis methods I’m using. My position within the department is a job I probably wouldn’t have found anywhere else.

Can you give me an example of a time when you had to overcome an obstacle on your road to your career goals?
That would be when I decided that I wanted to apply for my Ph.D. I was at the end of my first year at Emory, in my first semester of my second year, starting my thesis. My GRE scores had expired, so I had to study to retake the GRE, I was taking a full course load, and I was teaching a course. I met with a professor to ask for some advice and guidance. He had received his Ph.D. from UNC, and he told me I shouldn’t do it because he didn’t think that it would be a good fit and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I applied despite his comments and was accepted and then graduated from his alma mater. If I had listened to him, I would have missed out on a great education and career path, but instead, I followed my instincts and reminded myself that I was capable of achieving my goals.

What is it that you’re hoping that these numbers, this data collection, will one day bring to fruition?

I hope one day that the work I do can have a positive impact on someone. Within UNC Surgery, that might mean helping them decide which surgery is most effective based on research data. On a bigger and a little more practical level, what I would personally like to do is raise the level of research that’s being done. That way, we don’t use bad data to make a decision that could negatively impact someone.

In the past ten years, there’s been a lot of huge advancements both in the types of data we’re using, the designs of studies, and the analysis methods used in public health. Clinicians and particularly surgeons are starting to ask more complex and deeper questions. They need to start embracing some of these advanced methods and I want to bring them to the field in an approachable way and make people comfortable reading, using, and understanding them. That way we don’t get a handful of studies out there that say, oh everyone should do X, but it’s because the study designs are bad. If we had designed the study correctly, we’d find out that X has no effect or may even have a worse effect on patient outcomes. If I can in some way prevent that from happening, I think that would be a good use of my skills.

I also like working with clinicians. I feel like when they have the face to face time with patients, they’re the ones in the room thinking ‘should I do surgery A or should I do surgery B.’ I will never have that experience. I’m not a surgeon. I was never trained as one. I don’t know what they’re thinking in the room. I do know though that they have great questions, and I can figure out how to get them the right answers.

What are some of your goals with UNC Surgery?

One of the things I’m hoping to do at UNC Surgery is to create more collaborations within the department and with the public health school, including health policy, epidemiology, and biostatistics because there’s good work that can be done. There’s a lot of similar research questions being asked, maybe not specifically on surgery but in topics where surgery could be folded into it.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

My superpower would be teleportation. I struggle to not be a late person. Teleportation would be super cool because I could get anywhere instantly, so I’d never be late to anything. Also, my family lives in the northeast, and as much as I like visiting them, the traveling part of it is a pain, so it’d be nice to be able to teleport. Plus I’d love to see the world; I love traveling. So if I could, pop in and spend a day in Iceland instead of having to plan a week and a half long trip that would be awesome. I would like to be able to take people with me, hold my hand and we could travel the world in an instant.

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

My favorite travel destination would have to be Jasper National Park up in Canada. It’s a giant Glacier National Park, and there are glaciers everywhere; clear, crazy blue water because of the silt from the glaciers passing through the mountains. I went there for a week with some friends last summer, and we hiked the whole time, it was beautiful.

What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?

When I was little, I wanted to be an archaeologist. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Dinosaurs, and I’m still a big fan of them. I thought that they were the coolest thing ever. I even have a tattoo of a Dinosaur on my foot. I also really liked the Indiana Jones movies, so I was sure being an archaeologist was going to be amazing. However, I found out that they don’t go on adventures as much as Indiana Jones does and there’s also not that much stuff to dig up anymore. So I ultimately didn’t follow through with it. However, for the longest time, I thought I was going to be an archaeologist.

What is one thing you wish your co-workers knew about you before they met you?

I’m very passionate about epidemiology. I always want things to be done in the best way, for studies to have the best approach and the best design. I can be a little passionate when I talk about them. I am aware that most people don’t love or even care about statistics. They just want the job to get done, and I can sometimes go on and on about them. Statistics are great, and they’re super helpful, and whether or not you realize it, you use them all the time.

If you could say that sit down with one person, any person for a meal alive or dead, who would it be?

I’m going to cheat a little and not say a person, but a group. I would want to sit down with the U.S. Women’s soccer team after their big win in the FIFA World Cup. I can imagine it’d be super fun because they’re clearly enjoying their success. I think it’d be a really great meal and a really good time. Being on such a national stage with so much pressure and still just totally crushing it, takes a certain type of person. It would be interesting to hear how they handle all of the pressure and now the limelight. I believe everyone could use just a touch of that.

What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?

I don’t know when I would give the advice, but I would tell my younger self to find something you’re passionate about and lean fully into it. When you’re a little kid, science and math aren’t cool. I loved those subjects, but I tried to play it off because it wasn’t cool then. Now nerds rule the world so I would have saved myself much frustration if I just leaned in and went full nerd at a younger age, just accepted it because I’m definitely one now and it’s great.