Alumni Profiles Series: Ana Rappold
Ana Rappold graduated from Duke with a PhD in Statistics and Decision Sciences in 2004. After graduating, she joined the Environmental Protection Agency, first as a postdoctoral fellow and later as a Principal Investigator. She is currently the scientific lead on research aimed at integrating public health messaging with environmental models and understanding their effectiveness in improving population health outcomes. Dr. Rappold was recently awarded a Pathfinder Innovation Projects Award to conduct research on wearable air quality sensors and health.
Why did you choose to pursue your PhD at Duke?
I took a statistics course in my last semester of undergraduate studies at UNC, and I loved it. One of the topics we covered at the very end of the course focused on game theory and Bayesian methods, which I found fascinating. At that time, and even still to this day, Duke had a very strong applied Bayesian statistics program, so I decided to apply to Duke to pursue my interest. I also love the Research Triangle, and I have continued to live here since graduation.
What type of experiences did you have as a graduate student that influenced your desire to enter your profession?
From the beginning of my graduate studies, it was clear to me that I really enjoyed using statistics to solve multidisciplinary research problems. In my first few years at Duke, I tried several courses and seminars outside of the statistics department. I struggled at a few of them which was a little discouraging. Looking back I believe I struggled because I did not fill passionate about the research questions.
However, the cloud of uncertainty in my research seemed to lift after I joined research efforts funded by an oceanographer and a statistician who would eventually become my mentors. Through a grant, I went on a data-gathering expedition in the North Atlantic, and I met some inspiring investigators from around the world. I was particularly struck by how passionate these researchers were about climate research and how invested they were in their work. That experience widened my horizons, and I gained an appreciation for what it means to be a Principal Investigator.
What is the best career advice you have been given? What advice would you give to current graduate students?
I strongly believe that having good mentors is important to one’s career. Good advisors will have high expectations but will also help you understand the larger context of how your research addresses gaps in knowledge and where you can make the most impactful contribution. Mentors also challenge and inspire you to do your best work and provide excellent references to other faculty and researchers around the world. I also think that learning to write well is one of the most useful skills you can have in any field, academia in particular. The ability to convey complex ideas is the hallmark of any successful researcher and is incredibly useful when generating new ideas. I found the best way to become a better writer is through lots and lots of practice.
What career plans did you have when you began as a graduate student? Did they shift at all?
I always knew I wanted to work in a research institute of some sort, but I did not know I would end up working in an area of public health so focused on environmental exposures. It showed me that it is good to have focus in your life. But allowing some variation and opportunity to explore is important since you never know how much you may love something until you try it.
What is your favorite thing about your current career, and what has been the most surprising thing about it?
The most rewarding part of my career has been my research on health impacts of wildland fires. While most of my work is focused on public health, I also work with professionals with diverse expertise regarding wildland fires. These include fire ecologists, firefighters, smoke modelers, public health professionals, and others who are dedicated to improving community and ecological responses to the detrimental effects of wildland fires. In particular, I work to manage public health outcomes during wildfire incidences. For example, how will a particular fire impact short and longterm health in a community close by? Who is at risk? How do we reach the most vulnerable populations? I found that the wildfire research community is highly interdisciplinary and collaborative, and everyone is very driven because their work has an important impact on the environment and communities. It is extremely rewarding to be working on a relevant problem with passionate people.
Do you have any interesting projects or professional plans in the works?
We always have a number of interesting projects in the works--that is one benefit of working for a research organization. But, aside from the wildfire project I mentioned, probably at the top of my list is a clinical study on behavioral changes of individuals who wear environmental monitoring technologies or wearables. Wearables are a new form of technology that can be easily worn on the body as an implant or accessory, and they are penetrating almost every field. FitBit, which tracks a variety of personal fitness metrics, is probably the most widely known and popular device. With respect to environmental protection, there is a new crop of air quality sensors being developed. They are used quite extensively in areas where air pollution is a major factor, such as Asia and Eastern Europe. We are also investigating how these sensors change people’s behavior. For example, are they willing to change their commuting routes, running routes, or even cooking habits to avoid air pollution? The EPA has a whole clinical research branch, so we have the ability to enroll people in the study and perform health monitoring.
Do you have any favorite memories of Duke that you would like to share?
Duke offered many opportunities to meet diverse and interesting scholars. The campus was beautiful, and I loved working with the professors. What I remember most about Duke were the incredible people I met and the friends I made. I still keep in touch with many of my collaborators and officemates, and they are all around the world doing incredible work! Some of my close friends are working in California, Virginia, New Jersey, Sao Paolo, Austin, China, and England. It just goes to show that your experience at Duke will stay with you forever!
Master's student, Statistical Science