School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Erin Arthurs

MSc., Epidemiology

Erin Arthurs

Erin Arthurs 

"Epidemiology researcher mines 20 years of data in search of connection between radiation and stroke."

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, September 2014

After graduating in 2008 from McGill University with a BSc in Mathematics and Statistics, Erin Arthurs embarked on a promising career in healthcare research. During her undergraduate degree, she had been involved in research on health related quality of life and disease activity among patients with scleroderma (with supervisor Dr. Russell Steele). She went on to work at the McGill University Health Centre Research Institute in the Division of Clinical Epidemiology, and then the Jewish General Hospital’s Behavioural Health Research Group, while being a student member of the Canadian Scleroderma Research Group, under the supervision of Dr. Brett Thombs. She began to wonder, however, what she could accomplish with an MSc and the place where mathematics and health met, for Arthurs, was epidemiology.

In 2012 Arthurs started graduate studies in Epidemiology at Queen’s Department of Public Health Sciences. She found her project in the collaborative work of co-supervisors Dr. Steven Hall, an otolaryngologist who made his career in surgical oncology, and Dr. Paul Peng, director of the Biostatistics program, who had just recently teamed up together to inquire into the risk of stroke among head and neck cancer patients following radiotherapy. Due to the transdisciplinary nature of the project, it was funded by the Terry Fox Foundation Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research at CIHR.

Arthurs jokes that over the course of her many research projects, she has been “exposed to a lot of different diseases,” but cancer care has been a through-line even into her next steps after graduation—Arthurs has recently accepted a position as Senior Business Analyst at Cancer Care Ontario.

In the project Arthurs has successfully defended, she had been using administrative health data kept by the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) from over 22,000 patients over the course of 20 years.

As you might imagine, this data is kept highly secure—so much so that one of her co-supervisors can’t even access it because he is not an ICES scientist. She herself had to sign a fairly ironclad non-disclosure agreement. But she also notes that “researchers in this province are fortunate, because of the Ontario Health Act, to be able to collect and access a wealth of data that is only available elsewhere with explicit patient consent.”

You may be wondering: why is stroke the object of concern for Arthurs and her supervisors in studying these patients? She explains: “when radiation is given as cancer therapy it also does damage to surrounding healthy tissues and can cause second malignancies. The toxicity of radiation can affect the head and neck regions differently than in other body areas because of the complex physiology of these structures and because of the large blood vessels going to the brain.”

Radiation damage to those blood vessels can mean stiffening of the vessel walls and the formation of arterial plaques, which are risk factors for stroke. Preliminary findings from Arthurs and her mentors are consistent with their biologic assumption, and the intent is to publish the results of her thesis in an oncology journal as it seemingly fills a pretty important gap in the literature to date.

Having had such a rewarding experience with her MSc project, courtesy of the mentoring from Drs. Hall and Peng, Arthurs has considered a PhD down the line. Ultimately, however, she wants to work in industry, where she believes that the skills she gained through the program will provide a unique perspective to the world of program and policy development.

In the process of searching out her newest post, Arthurs recounts that she applied to about twenty different jobs, and advocates “getting unconventional” with your job search. For her, though, it was professional networking—with an alumna of the same Queen’s program, no less—that ended up being the ticket to a position that was right for her.

Throughout her program, Arthurs has applied this collegial mindset to establishing a student association, along with a handful of other classmates. Her and her colleagues’ goals for the student association have been to engage in team building between the Department of Public Health MSc, MPH, and PhD programs, as well as connecting with other schools, and building their alumni network.

Queen’s, she recalls, wasn’t even on her radar when she first sought graduate opportunities, but when she learned of its small cohort size (around ten people in any given year) and competitive funding, Arthurs’ choice was clear and she has been an energetic advocate on its behalf.

Outside of research and these professional development activities, Arthurs has also participated in the Queen’s community as an intramural athlete, particularly in basketball, one of the sports she grew up playing the most.

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