John Cunningham, Epidemiologist, Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit, Ontario

CARRFS eNews profiles a leading member in each issue. In this issue we profile John Cunningham, Epidemiologist, Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit, Ontario.

What is your background?

My non-academic background consists of working for the Department of National Defence for 15 years, specializing in military engineering and running my own business for 8 years. My educational background is quite varied. I studied forestry at MacDonald College in Montreal in the early ‘80s and then geography and geology at Concordia. After returning to university in the late ‘90s to study biology at Queen’s, I focused on plant ecology and particularly spatial aspects of interspecies plant competition. This, along with my training in geography, really piqued my interest in spatial analysis and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I also completed a Masters in Community Health and Epidemiology at Queen’s, in emergency medicine research, and then worked at Queen’s doing research epidemiology. I began my career in public health in 2006 at the Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit in Eastern Ontario and have worked there ever since. I am a bit of a learning junkie and have continued to complement my professional skills by taking epi-related courses online and through the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program, as well as many professional GIS courses.

What inspired you to become an epidemiologist?

It was on a fishing trip in Newfoundland with a good friend I had met while serving in the Canadian Army that things started falling into place. We had been discussing what I might do with all of the education and experience I had gathered. He turned to me matter-of-factly while casting his line into the river and said “Have you ever thought about epidemiology?” “Epidemi-what?” I asked. And so it began. There was no blinding flash of brilliance or epiphany on my part. Just a fishing trip. I do see now that there was a common thread throughout my educational experience that led nicely to epidemiology. I believe that this is true for many people who find a career that they are passionate about.

What do you spend the most time on in your current position?

I am privileged to have a role in a public health unit that allows me to both be generalist and specialist at the same time. I spend about 60 percent of my time doing the day-to-day epidemiology and analysis that supports population health assessment and surveillance and program planning and evaluation. This includes reporting to our staff, Board of Health, community organizations and the media. I also provide epidemiological consultation to health unit staff. The other 40 percent of my time is spent working on in-depth research projects within both the health unit and for external stakeholders, and doing syndromic surveillance. I am also a keen advocate of adding an element of spatial analysis to the work I do. I am very fortunate that the health unit has seen the value in spatial epidemiology and has sustained my work by providing software, training and IT support. I have worked hard to take our GIS beyond the “Gee whiz” effect that it gives to data visualization and add statistical testing for the spatial and space-time effects that can occur in local disease distributions.

What was your motivation to become a member of the CARRFS?

I attended the CARRFS Think Tank Forum in 2008 and was impressed by the breadth and depth of expertise and attendance from all regions of Canada. At the time I didn’t have a lot of public health experience to offer, but I did come away impressed by the plenary and breakout sessions. I immediately saw the value of bringing together so much talent and knowledge to ruminate on the ideas of coordinating and sharing public health surveillance information across all agencies in Canada. The goal of a national “network of networks” was clearly evident to me.

How do you see the current role of the CARRFS in Canada today?

I think that CARRFS has a major role to play in bringing together the enormous amount of information related to public health surveillance in terms of synthesizing how surveillance is done in different agencies across Canada and beyond. This alone is an enormous task. Canada is large and diverse in terms of geography and the jurisdictional and political arrangements of our health agencies. Having a central repository of surveillance information, methodologies and training is fundamental to its efficient communication and sharing. As well, I believe that CARRFS can be a key player in disseminating new ideas and trends in health surveillance as they evolve.

What are the future opportunities for the CARRFS?

CARRFS is well-positioned to leverage current and future developments and innovations in data gathering, analysis and communication methods for risk factor surveillance. I believe that advances in computing power and software coding as well as novel data collection methods and large relational databases make it a very exciting time for all forms of public health surveillance, and see CARRFS as being able to play a key role in coordinating with and educating public health professionals in the continued learning and communicating of novel methodologies and processes. I also see the potential for CARRFS to extend its repository of knowledge and skills to a broader community in terms of academic and non-academic research. <>

By Jostein Algroy