A Profile in Mentorship: Dr. Thomas Pearson

Every scientist, even those who are particularly good at hiding away in their offices, will have an impact on others. Most of the time, this impact is a byproduct of our everyday work. We don’t give it much thought – it just happens. But what if that impact was not accidental, and instead was a deliberate, strategic path of choices that build up those around us – even those who disagree with us, compete with us, and threaten us? That is the path that has been trodden by Dr. Thomas Pearson who was awarded the 2019 AHA Council on Epidemiology and Prevention Mentoring Award.

Dr. Pearson has an impeccable academic pedigree and an enviable career. After an early start at the University of Wisconsin, he earned his Bachelor of Arts, MD, MPH, and PhD all from the Johns Hopkins University. He has achieved the goal of every early career scientist – over 35 years of continuous NIH support and is a Fellow of the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, the American College of Preventive Medicine, and the American College of Physicians. But the degrees, grants, and accolades are a byproduct of a man driven to service for the love of science.

Dr. Pearson’s own mentors reflected his insatiable curiosity. As a student, he drew from a broad mentoring team that left lifelong impressions of the qualities of good mentor. While excellent teaching was important, more so was the “utterly frank” assessment and advice they provided him. He states, “from them I learned that the primary role of a mentor is to provide an honest, encouraging perspective on the mentee’s ideas, plans and experiences. While some mentors may be tempted to acquiesce or tell mentees what they want to hear- that is abrogation of their responsibility of a mentor.” Such frankness can be tough in today’s academic environment, so to help cultivate this skill, Dr. Pearson’s University of Florida developed the Mentorship Academy. Equally important to learning how to deliver a frank assessment of the mentee is helping the mentee learn how to receive and act upon such advice without taking umbrage to it.

Additionally, Dr. Pearson offered this advice on how early stage professionals can intentionally become effective mentors, including:

  • Be a good communicator. Communication is the basis of mentoring. Good communication should include developing shared expectations of the goals, responsibilities, and processes of the mentor-mentee relationship. Many of the problems that occur in the mentoring relationship result from a misalignment of expectations and reality. An honest conversation, with both parties being active listeners, about the mentor and mentee’s strengths, weaknesses and goals early on in the relationship can set both parties up for success.
  • Broaden your network. Every day we hear about new grants, interesting conferences, and visiting professors. Yet because they are just starting their career, mentees may not hear about the same opportunities. Part of being a good mentor, Dr. Pearson suggests, “is to continually be looking out for opportunities for your mentee and actively encouraging them to pursue them”. This includes inviting a mentee to a lecture and offering to introduce her to the speaker. Opening this door can help a mentee broaden her professional network and embolden her to pursue new opportunities.
  1. Focus on the mentee. The mentor must recognize the mentee is not “hers.” Rather the mentor should focus on the mentee’s needs and goals and, if she finds another investigator can provide a better opportunity for the mentee, help to arrange it. Dr. Pearson states, “Mentoring and selfishness are like oil and water- they don’t mix.”
  2. Stay curious. In his acceptance speech, Dr. Pearson talked about how much he learned from each of his mentees. They taught and inspired him as much as he did them. But that can only happen by accepting that mentoring is a partnership in which each person has a lot to offer. Good mentors need to be curious about their mentees and excited about learning from them.

Dr. Pearson has mentored over 60 people during his career. Many have gone to have equally enviable careers where their impact reverberates into every corner of our profession. He told me, “You never really stop mentoring a mentee. People I mentored still call me and talk about their career, their family. At some point, they start being friends.”

Mentors – true mentors – view their work not as a requisite service but as a thread that weaves together the knowledge of the current and past generations to the next. Mentors are the foundation upon which scientific progress is made; and their impact is the greatest when their mentoring is done with humility, enthusiasm, compassion, curiosity, and an infallible sense of optimism. These are the traits Dr. Pearson embodies; and are the ones that all who seek to see further should strive to emulate.





The Social Determinants of Cardiovascular Health

Social epidemiology “proposes to identify societal characteristics that affect the pattern of disease and health distribution in a society and to understand its mechanisms.” [1]

At AHA EPI|Lifestyle Scientific Sessions this year, the conference theme was “Genes,  Behavior, and Environment: Putting the Pieces Together,” as I discussed in my blog post in early March. [Read the post]

Both within and between the ideas of genes, behavior, and environment was the thread of health disparities and social epidemiology. Oral abstract sessions included Epidemiology of Major Cardiovascular Disease, where Dr. Ben King discussed the burden of CVD among homeless persons in Austin, Texas; Dr. Gail Daumit highlighted interventions to reduce CV risk factor burden among those with serious mental illness; and Dr. Catherine Tcheandjieu called for more inclusion of non-European descent populations in polygenic risk studies.

In the Social Determinants of Cardiometabolic Disease, social determinants of health (SDOH) came to the forefront, as would be expected. From Dr. Emily D’Agostino presenting results comparing use of different poverty measures, to Dr Marialaura Bonaccio highlighting the effect of cumulative socioeconomic disadvantage across the lifespan on heart failure hospitalizations, we in the audience learned not only how to measure and evaluate these measures of social determinants of health, but saw how they quantifiably and undeniably affect CV health and outcomes.

Caption: A key Healthy People 2020 goal is to “create social and physical environments that promote good health for all”. You can learn more [here]. Image Source: https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-of-health

Caption: A key Healthy People 2020 goal is to “create social and physical environments that promote good health for all”. You can learn more [here]. Image Source: https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-of-health


In the Lifecourse Epidemiology session, presenters summarized and argued for the importance of diet quality, smoking prevention, access to green spaces, and healthy diet patterns beginning in childhood to attenuate CVD risk in adulthood. Research from the Lifestyle Council naturally focuses on healthy lifestyle behaviors that are typically found in more affluent groups and likely contribute to the widening health disparities in chronic disease we’ve observed over the past decade, at least. [2]

In Dr. Leslie Lytle’s frank discussion of the lack of NIH funding towards intervention studies [3] to address not only these disparities but the lag in CV Health overall, I’m reminded of the session at #AHA17 “Closing the Gap on Disparities: Practical Strategies and Implementation,” when Dr. Michelle Albert called for epidemiologists to move from describing associations to implementing and evaluating interventions. [Read the post]

I encourage you to think of your research in the framework of social determinants of health. You can learn more about SDOHs, access data sources, and learn how to put SDOH research in action at the CDC Social Determinants page.



  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2723602/ Social epidemiology: Definition, history, and research examples. 
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus15.pdf Health, United States, 2015, With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30458950 NIH Primary and Secondary Prevention Research in Humans During 2012-2017




Engaging in the Conversation of Science: Its Time for You to Take an Active Role

Every day, headlines scream about cures, causes of disease, and questionable scientific advances. While many health reporters work hard to get the science right and translate it into something digestible for the public, they are still subject to pressures that can lead to less than precise articles. And once a scientific paper or abstract finds its way on to social media, the “facts” can be distorted into something barely resembling the original results, leaving scientists and the authors of the paper cringing. Given the speed of information-sharing today and the resulting imprecision, NOW is the time for all scientists (including early career scientists) to actively engage the lay public in the conversation of science through all means possible – even social media.

This was the topic of the early morning, early career presentation Bailey DeBarmore and I gave at the 2019 AHA EPI Lifestyle Scientific Sessions. To be honest, using social media to disseminate my science was definitely not something I learned in graduate school. In fact, my first exposure to blogging was through the TV character Barney Stinson, and for most of the past 15 years, I thought blogging was typically superficial and shameless. However, recently I have seen (and used) its immense power to share my own science. These experiences convinced me that social media may be one of the powerful tools we have to actively engaging and shaping in the conversation of science.

https://unsplash.com/photos/0gkw_9fy0eQWhether or not scientists should blog has been hotly debated. In 2018, Eryn Brown and Chris Woolston published a persuasive article on why science blogging matters in Nature. They list a number of benefits to blogging including furthering one’s career, recruiting more bright minds to science, creating a new community of scientists, and it can further the reach and understanding of science (by both the public and often by the scientist herself). Those are significant reasons to write a science blog. But, if you’re someone like me and didn’t really understand what blogging was, you may be wondering how to start.  There are several ways to get started writing science blogs:

  • Write your own. Brown and Woolston mention a several blogs started by scientists including Small Pond Science. This is a viable option, and there are a number of books and companies ready to help anyone start to blog for a fee. However, it can be a lot of work. Not only will you have to create the content, you will need to create and maintain the website, as well. Depending on your experience with website creation, you may not want this to be your first foray into science blogging.
  • Work with your professional organization. Many professional organizations including the American Heart Association, The American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Society for Nutrition have active blogs. And all blogs need one thing to stay relevant – content. As professional organizations have recognized the power of social media and blogging to advance their noble goals, they have increasingly worked with their members to help develop and promote accurate, timely, and engaging blogs. Some, like the American Heart Association and the American Society for Nutrition, have formal programs that provide both the blogging platform and training to help improve the quality and reach of the blog. (See links above to learn more about these great programs)
  • Collaborate with your journal editors. Increasingly, journals are offering authors the opportunity to create video abstracts, blogs, and podcasts on their accepted manuscripts. While it may seem like one more tedious or abstract thing to do, these can be highly engaging mediums on which to share your work. After all, if you’ve just spent years working on a research study that has somehow been condensed to 8 single-spaced pages, don’t you want that paper to have the maximal amount of impact?

Hopefully by now you’re convinced that that science blogging can be a helpful tool and want to see how you can test it out yourself. But science bloggers are [often] not paid, and if something is going to take away from your teaching, patient care, grant writing and manuscript writing time, then there needs to be a way to derive academic benefit from it. We need metrics – specifically metrics that your promotion and tenure committee can appreciate. So I’ll conclude with a couple of tips for benefiting from blog writing.

  • Put your blogs on your CV. Edge for Scholars has great advice for how to cite a blog post on your CV (note they also publish some great early career academic blogs, as well).
  • Get your analytics (page views, geographic reach of your blog, number of times shared) and use them. You can include your analytics in your CV and also use them to highlight the reach of your science and your national and international impact on your 3- and 5- reviews.


If you like this blog or have any questions, let me know. I’d also love for you to share some of your science blogs with me on twitter at @AllisonWebelPhD and tell me how they helped you better engage in the conversation of science. Happy Writing!




Putting Together The Pieces of Genes, Behavior, and Environment

The theme of this year’s #EPILifestyle19 conference was “Genes, Behavior, Environment: Putting the Pieces Together.” The three speakers in the first session, Dr Eric Boerwinkle, Dr Leslie Lytle, and Dr Michael Jerrett presented a cohesive program truly reflecting putting the pieces together.

Dr Eric Boerwinkle genetic researcher, dean, and chair of public health at the UTHealth School of Public Health, kicked things off with a hearty welcome to Houston, and applauding the audience for braving the city during the annual Houston Rodeo. Dr. Boerwinkle’s talk was marked by sincerity and focused passion for precision health and precision prevention – terms to replace “precision medicine” – that mirrors the AHA’s focus on cardiovascular health over cardiovascular disease.


He highlighted that genetics, environment, and lifestyle behaviors can be envisioned in several ways, depending on perspective and discipline. A key challenge in producing science focused on fitting these pieces together is measurement. Variables are often measured separately and differently across disciplines, and no matter the metaphor, Boerwinkle encouraged the audience to step out of their silos and begin measuring key variables together. Dr Leslie Lytle of UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health provided a concrete example with the ADOPT project for obesity treatment, which identified high-priority measures to measure across biology, behavior, psychosocial, and environmental processes.

Transitioning from genetics to lifestyle behaviors, Boerwinkle highlighted research finding that even in genetically high-risk patients, modifying environmental factors and lifestyle behaviors can lower risk.

Dr. Leslie Lytle, professor in the department of Health Behavior at UNC Chapel Hill, situated her talk in the puzzle piece landscape by contrasting the NIH’s position on the importance of intervention research with the dismal percent of funding dollars that actually go towards intervention research.

unsplash by yusuf evli

After emphasizing the importance of intervention research to address the lifestyle and behavioral challenges of poor cardiovascular health, particularly obesity, Dr. Lytle showed us what intervention research should look like and what it can accomplish. Combining environment-level interventions based on socioecological models with individual level education can effect change, like in in the CATCH intervention, which involved child-level education, positive social modeling, and healthy changes in physical activity and school meals.

Over the past few years, the “exposome” concept has only gained popularity, along with the “-omics” trend. Wrapping up the themed session with environmental factors, Dr Michael Jerrett of UCLA School of Public Health taught us about characterizing the exposome by incorporating hyper-spatiotemporal components into research to assign exposure. What are hyper-spatiotemporal components? These components measure where people go during the day, what the pollution level is there, what they are doing and how it affects their exposure (walking in a park, biking behind a diesel truck, sitting in a car).

unsplash by adrian williams

Jerrett highlighted several studies examining these concepts, comparing the inhaled pollutants when biking, walking, or commuting by car to work in various areas of a city. How can we measure these spatiotemporal components in a “ubicomp” (ubiquitous computing) environment? Jerrett broke down the inside of our smart phones, calling attention to the numerous sensors present in nearly every smart phone and the research possibilities to harness these.