News & Events

Noel Weiss on mentorship, music, and epi methods

Laura East | June 25, 2020
8 minutes to read

After nearly 50 years as a member of the faculty in the Department of Epidemiology, Professor Noel Weiss’ CV lists nearly 700 epidemiologic articles and books. While Dr. Weiss has published many paramount papers on clinical and cancer epidemiology, and epidemiologic methods, this awesome body of research is truly a testament to Dr. Weiss’ legacy of mentorship to generations of public health researchers and practitioners with whom he’s collaborated.

Dr. Noel Weiss with his family in Ithaca, New York.

Ahead of his transition to emeritus status on June 30, 2020, we sat down with Professor Noel Weiss to learn about the studies he’s led, the courses he’s shaped, and the methodological contributions he’s made, which have had an immeasurable impact on the Department of Epidemiology and School of Public Health (SPH), the University of Washington (UW), and the field of epidemiology.

What first piqued your interest in epidemiology?

I was initially trained in clinical medicine, but before I completed my first year of residency, I began to look for something different. I had thought about public health broadly, but I still knew very little about epidemiology.

I enrolled in the graduate program at the Harvard School of Public Health, and discovered something in the epidemiology and biostatistics classes. They were interesting and fun, and showed me how the application of what was being taught could address all sorts of questions related to health and prevention.

When you initially embarked on your academic career, was teaching something you saw for yourself?

Absolutely. I had served as a teaching assistant for several years at Harvard, and felt that I had an ability to explain things in a way that people could understand. I figured, maybe I could do this for a career.

Ironically, in my admissions essay for medical school, I wrote that I expressly didn’t want to be a teacher like so many others in my family—I wanted to be a doctor and wanted to practice medicine.

Instead, you ended up both becoming a teacher and a doctor! How would you say your clinical experience helped shape your approach to epidemiology?

Even though I was only a resident for one year, having had that medical training completely shaped my outlook toward research. Almost all the questions in which I’ve had an interest in were clinical ones. Indeed, the very first book I wrote was on clinical epidemiology.

How would you describe your research interests and how they changed over time?

When I accepted the position at the UW, I was focused on cardiovascular disease epidemiology, and that’s what I thought I was going to work on. However, several months before my arrival the funding for that research didn’t materialize. So I was asked to organize a population-based cancer registry. That’s how I got started in cancer research—man plans, God laughs.

The presence of that registry, the Cancer Surveillance System, enabled a lot of studies to be done that otherwise would have been impossible. I was able to do some research using the registry data alone, and other research that used the registry to identify persons with cancer whom we could approach to get interview information with which to make comparisons with similar information from the general population. To some extent, I’m still involved in those kinds of studies, along with a number of projects related to cancer screening. I’ve also done a lot of work on projects with students, who have exposed me to other research areas I would never have considered on my own. For better or worse, I guess I’ve always had broad interests.

Then, starting in the mid-70’s, I began writing methodological articles that try to help people understand issues and ideas related to study design and analysis.

Are there particular papers or projects that you are really proud to have been a part of?

There are several, particularly the ones in which doing things right required some hard thinking. I’ll describe just two.

About a decade into my career, my colleague, Dr. Janet Daling, and I were conducting a study that examined factors that predispose women to ectopic pregnancy. Separately, we wrote an article about the methodologic issues that need to be dealt with in such studies. These issues can be quite tricky. To this day, that article from 1985 is cited by most investigators who do work in this field.

The second is an article published in 1992 on the efficacy of screening sigmoidoscopy in the prevention of mortality from colorectal cancer. That study found evidence of a very strong benefit associated with screening of this type. For two decades these results constituted the key piece of evidence in support of the efficacy of endoscopic screening for colorectal cancer.

Though I was only a co-author of the publication, I helped to write the proposal to support the work, strengthened the study methods, and developed the analytic approach that was used. Subsequently, I’ve had a number of similar collaborations on screening studies, all of which have provided a lot of satisfaction.

What are some of your most proud moments from your career?

One of the most memorable was in 1999, when I received the first Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award given by the University of Washington. Because mentoring and teaching have been such an important emphasis in my career, knowing that the nominators took the time to submit letters and were willing to go to bat for me was very rewarding. In 2011, I received a similar award from the Congress of Epidemiology.

Additionally, even though it’s not a single moment, seeing many trainees of mine thriving and doing good work is an ongoing source of pride for me.

What have you enjoyed most about mentoring students?

What I’ve enjoyed most really relates to why I wanted to do this sort of work in the first place. I love trying to spread the methodological “gospel,” that you can structure observations and organize analyses in a way that can maximize the chances of identifying a relationship between an exposure and an illness.

It’s particularly gratifying when others take what they learn from me (and others at the UW) and use those approaches on their own.

Can you talk about how the beloved EPI 512/513 epidemiology methods series came about?

The evolution of these courses actually started when I arrived in 1973. I was asked to teach what was then called ‘chronic disease epidemiology,’ during the coming winter quarter.

In preparing to teach that course, I looked at the curriculum for EPI 511, the only epi methods course at the time, which was offered in autumn. I realized that there was a lot more about epidemiologic methods that could and ought to be taught. So, I reconfigured the chronic disease course into a kind of second-level methods course to complement EPI 511.

Later, when I began serving as graduate program director, one of the most common complaints I had from students was regarding that first course, EPI 511. That course was designed to be open to all graduate students in SPH. Epi students wanted something a little more in depth.

After I became Department Chair in 1984, I proposed to keep EPI 511 for the students in the other departments and create our own two-course sequence, which is now EPI 512/513. Adding a second quarter required adding a second instructor, and with Tom Koepsell on our faculty and available, the course had a high likelihood of being successful.

While 2020 was my last year teaching in the Epi 512/513 series, I know I’m leaving the course in the extremely capable hands of Drs. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar and Amanda Phipps.

In addition to be a professor of epidemiology you have played music with a number of students, including the current “F-Wing Trio.” Can you talk a little bit more about your interest in music and how these epi ensembles have come about?

Both my parents were professional musicians. My mother was a concert pianist and had a strong career as an accompanist in Chicago. My father played the saxophone in the big band era, and worked with many famous band leaders.

I started playing the clarinet at age 12 and had some aptitude – but given the aptitude of my parents, I had clearly regressed to the mean! It was never a prominent thing in my life but I would pick it up every so often.

Over the years, I have played with several students in our Department: initially an oboist, then a violinist, and more recently two violinists (Philip Hwang and Vivian Lyons). In each case, the musical connection has enabled a depth of relationship that can be difficult to achieve otherwise.

What are you looking forward to in this transition?

I expect to continue to read, to write, and to think, and I would enjoy visiting other institutions and give talks (once visiting is allowed again).

I look forward to having an office in the new Hans Rosling Center for Population Health building and interacting with students and faculty. I expect to continue to work with graduate students and clinical fellows. I’ll probably be at the UW a couple of days each week. Please feel free to stop by and say hello!

Should you wish to recognize Noel’s transition through a gift to the department, he has requested it be to the E. Russell Alexander Endowment for EPI Students* in support of graduate students. 

*E. Russell Alexander (1928-2006) was a nationally renowned epidemiologist and founding faculty member of the School of Public Health, and was the first chair of the UW Department of Epidemiology.