Department of Public Health Sciences

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Student’s search for missing data - Updated

Student’s search for missing data

Laura Holder, a current MSc biostatistics student, has always been interested in public health research and statistics, and she wanted to find a graduate program that combined these two disciplines. For Laura, the Biostatistics Program in the Department of Public Health Sciences seemed like the best fit, since biostatistics can be applied to an immense range of topics and projects.

Laura began her academic career at McMaster University, where she graduated with a BSc in psychology, neuroscience, and behaviour, with a minor in statistics. While completing her undergraduate training, Laura took courses in algebra, calculus, differential equations, probability, statistics, and survey sampling.  Laura was drawn to the MSc Biostatistics Program offered in the Department of Public Health Sciences since its curriculum provided both a good foundation in epidemiological research and statistical skill development.

During her 12 month program, Laura has enjoyed the “diversity in coursework, which has been enhanced by the inter-departmental nature of the program”.  She notes that the courses offered by the Departments of Public Health Science and Mathematics and Statistics are well integrated and very complementary.  The course work has exposed her to a diverse and comprehensive range of subject matter, and she likes the opportunity for collaboration that the small program offers. 

For Laura’s practicum, she is working with Dr. Michael McIsaac, whose research interest’s lie in methodology to handle missing data, and Dr. William Pickett, the co-principal investigator on the Health Behaviours in School-Aged Children Survey in Canada (HBSC). The HBSC is a cross-national survey of adolescent health conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Laura explains that “missing data is a virtually inevitable obstacle in survey research, and neglecting to properly account for missing data during analysis may result in false findings and conclusions. Certain characteristics of large complex surveys, like the HBSC, offer unique challenges when dealing with missing data.”  Laura’s practicum is focused on the missing data in the HBSC, specifically, how missing data may impact conclusions drawn about the relationship between childhood hunger and certain negative health outcomes. 

After graduating from the program, Laura hopes to use the fundamental skills she has developed during her time at Queen’s to work as an analyst for a government or research agency that is involved in informing public health policy development.



Michael Leung successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

Michael Leung successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

On Thursday, July 30, 2015, MSc candidate Michael Leung successfully defended his MSc thesis to the Department of Public Health Sciences. Michael's thesis title was factors associated with reduction in metabolic risk score during a lifestyle intervention program. He was supervised by Drs. Kristan Aronson and Joan Tranmer, and his examiners were Drs. Christina Godfrey (School of Nursing), Harriet Richardson (PHS), Keyue Ding (PHS), and Kevin Woo (School of Nursing)Congratulations Michael. 


Olivia Meggetto successfully defends her MSc thesis ​

Olivia Meggetto successfully defends her MSc thesis ​

On Tuesday, July 28, 2015, MSc candidate Olivia Meggetto successfully defended her MSc thesis to the Department of Public Health Sciences. Olivia's thesis title was factors associated with worsening menopause-specific HRQL and treatment discontinuation in a breast cancer chemoprevention trial. She was supervised by Dr. Harriet Richardson, and her examiners were Drs. Mona Sawhney (School of Nursing), Ana Johnson (PHS), Kristan Aronson (PHS), and Joan Tranmer (School of Nursing)Congratulations Olivia. 


Big Data: Transforming Medicine

Big Data: Transforming Medicine

Richard Birtwhistle is a professor in the Queen’s Department of Family Medicine and Public Health Sciences, the director of the university’s Centre for Studies in Primary Care, and the chair and principal investigator of the Canadian Primary Care Sentinel Surveillance Network (CPCSSN). The network collects patient information stored in electronic medical records (EMR) of primary care practitioners across Canada. Using complex algorithms, CPCSSN brings the data from these different EMR systems together into a consistent format. This enables researchers to use those data to answer questions about the incidence and treatment of diabetes, hypertension, depression, chronic obstructive lung disease, osteoarthritis and other chronic diseases that Canadian family physicians commonly deal with.

Launched in 2008, with funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, CPCSSN now consists of more than 800 primary care practitioners – or “sentinels” – in seven provinces and one territory and the de-identified records of almost one million patients across Canada. Each doctor uses an EMR to record their clinical care of patients by inputting information such as body weight, blood pressure, body mass index, health conditions, referrals, risk factors for disease, lab investigations and any prescribed medications. Before any of this information is uploaded to CPCSSN, each patient is assigned a unique CPCSSN number that links them with their personal information, but this information does not leave the practice. Therefore, any data actually used for research remains anonymous.

The type of information collected in EMRs is difficult to get from other data sources (such as the Canada Health Survey), which is why a centralized repository holds such great potential for researchers and makers of health policy. The data are also useful to the network’s family doctors. Remarkably, although EMRs contain loads of information about individual patients, most systems don’t provide physicians with reports that shed light on all their patients as a group. The CPCSSN database provides this capability, thus allowing the doctors to track their patients better and provide better, more personalized care. This, by itself, is enormously useful.

“We have a system where doctors can find out how many people with out-of-control diabetes haven’t been seen in the last six months, then go back and link the CPCSSN numbers with the patients’ IDs and then contact them and get them into the clinic,” says Birtwhistle. “From a quality improvement point of view, it’s actually pretty important.”

Birtwhistle says EMR data that CPCSSN has collected is a gold mine for researchers seeking to learn more about chronic disease in primary care in Canada. Much of the data remain untapped. But CPCSSN’s greatest value may ultimately stem from enabling the data to be linked with other types of medical data, he says.

“Linking patients’ primary care data to genomic data, for example, could open up tremendous potential for understanding not only chronic diseases, but other diseases as well.”

Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 7 Spring 2015


Drawn to the notion that simple logic and numbers can facilitate our understanding of people, ideas, and events

Drawn to the notion that simple logic and numbers can facilitate our understanding of people, ideas, and events

MSc specializing in biostatistics candidate Andrew Dabbikeh has always had an interest in statistics and the cross over it has with biology. “I am drawn to the notion that simple logic and numbers can facilitate our understanding of people, ideas, and events,” he says. “I am fascinated by the collection and analysis of data to understand and discover past phenomena, which can be used to predict future events. Along with statistics, biology had been an interest of mine since my childhood. This interest spreads across multiple fields of biology, ranging from genetics to physiology to ecology.”


Randall Boyes successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

Randall Boyes successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

On Friday, July 10, 2015, MSc candidate Randall Boyes successfully defended his MSc thesis to the Department of Public Health Sciences. Randall's thesis title was patterns of use and comparative safety of new and old anticholinergic medications in older adults: a population-based study. He was supervised by Drs. Helene Ouellette-Kuntz and Sudeep Gill, and his examiners were Drs. Elizabeth VanDenKerkhof (School of Nursing), Will Pickett (PHS), Linda Levesque (PHS), and Dallas Seitz (Department of Psychiatry). In September Randy will be teaching MPA 805 (Quantitative Methods) at the Queen's School of Policy Studies. Congratulations Randy. 


Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence

Published on Queen's Gazette website, Monday, June 29, 2015

Bell Let’s Talk and Queen’s University hosted the third annual Breaking the Silence lecture on June 25 at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. The event aimed to raise awareness about mental health and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

This year’s lecture featured Heather Stuart, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair in the Faculty of Health Sciences, and Marthe Bernard, best known for her role on CBC’s Republic of Doyle. Entertainer Mary Walsh served as the master of ceremonies for the event.

The Bell Mental Health and 


PhD in Epidemiology student makes the most of Mitacs Global Link opportunity

PhD in Epidemiology student makes the most of Mitacs Global Link opportunity

Afshin Vafaei’s (PhD in epidemiology candidate) research question is a seemingly simple one:  Are ‘levels of social cohesion and the quality of interpersonal relationships’  determinants of injury.  Afshin is examining the relationship between two vulnerable populations: adolescents and older adults.

While completing his PhD research, under the supervision of Drs. Beatriz Alvarado and Will Pickett, Afshin has always believed that “despite the universality of epidemiological methods and analytic approaches, the interpretation of impacts of socially constructed exposures can be very complex and vary across different cultures”. When Dr. Alvarado informed Afshin of the Mitacs Globallink opportunity he jumped at the chance to travel to Brazil to enhance his understanding of the aging processes from an international perspective.

The Mitacs Globalink Research Award provides the opportunity for faculty at Canadian universities to strengthen existing international research collaborations and connect with colleagues around the world through the mobility of senior undergraduate and graduate students.  Student recipients of the Globallink Research Award will develop research skills, cultural fluency and professional network, becoming part of Canada’s generation of global innovators.

Under the guidance of  Dr. Guerra, a Professor in the Department of Physiotherapy at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN) Natal, Brazil, Afshin was able to learn how international researchers look at the aging-related mobility issues. The comments Afshin received from the UFRN faculty were valuable and will be used in the discussion section of his dissertation. During his visit Afshin was also invited to teach a crash course on health research methodology. During his stay in Brazil, Afshin also took part in the 7th Congress of Latin American and Caribbean Association of Geriatrics and Gerontology in Belem.  


Jonathan Kwong successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

Jonathan Kwong successfully defends his MSc thesis ​

On Wednesday June 24, 2015, MSc candidate Jonathan Kwong successfully defended his MSc thesis to the Department of Public Health Sciences. Jonathan's thesis title was risk-taking behaviour and school injury in Canadian adolescents: using population health theory to evaluate potential school-based contextual interventions. He was supervised by Drs. William Pickett and Don Klinger (Faculty of Education), and his examiners were Drs. Kevin Woo (School of Nursing), Duncan Hunter (PHS), Beatriz Alvarado (PHS), and Dana Edge (School of Nursing). Jonathan will be starting Medical School at the University of Toronto in September. Congratulations Jonathan. 


MSc candidate carries out fieldwork in Kilimanjaro

MSc candidate carries out fieldwork in Kilimanjaro

Erica Erwin (MSc ’16) is working on her Master fieldwork in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. Her research focus uses mobile health (mHealth) strategies to increase uptake of cervical cancer screening in low resource settings.        

Erica is conducting a pilot study on behaviour-change research that uses educational messages and travel vouchers (both delivered via text message) to increase screening uptake.   This is building on the work of two of  the Department’s  former  MSc  students, Emily Skastins and Melissa Cunningham, who previously studied the barriers to cervical cancer screening and HPV vaccines in the region. The pilot study is being run under the supervision of Dr. Karen Yeates and Dr. Kristan Aronson. It builds an innovative and effective method of screening for cervical cancer developed by Dr. Yeates requiring a trained non-physician healthcare worker, a mobile phone camera and text messaging.

As well as conducting her research, Erica has already camped  at a lake situated in a crater, and in the very near future, she plans to visit coffee plantations and waterfalls in the surrounding area and to set  out on a safari. She will also have the opportunity to participate in a medical caravan providing health services to remote locations.