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Meet Those Nerdy Girls – Dr. Amanda Simanek

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This week in Meet the Nerdy Girls, we’re delighted to introduce Dr. Amanda Simanek, PhD, MPH!

Dr. Simanek is a social epidemiologist who studies the psychosocial determinants of infectious disease, links between infection and chronic disease, and the pathways by which social inequities in health occur across the lifecourse and across generations.

We asked her how the pandemic has changed her work, and she explained, “Before the pandemic, I mainly studied social determinants of latent infections (like herpesviruses) and their links to chronic disease outcomes like cardiovascular disease and mental and cognitive outcomes (often in collaboration with Nerdy Girl Dr. Jennifer Beam Dowd!). However, in my prior position as a research faculty member at the University of Michigan, I also helped plan and carry out a large CDC-funded study that aimed to understand the extent to which voluntary isolation among those with influenza symptoms stops transmission of the flu among social networks of University students.

The main motivation for that study was in fact the possibility that a novel influenza strain will likely emerge, causing a pandemic. We knew that in that situation, we would largely need to depend on non-pharmaceutical interventions to stop transmission–until treatments and vaccines are developed. So, when the pandemic began, pivoting to think about similar interventions for the prevention of the novel respiratory virus, SARS-CoV-2, was luckily not a complete stretch!”

Here’s what she recently told us about her work and her life.

❇️ Why did you agree to be part of the Dear Pandemic team?

“When you asked me if I wanted to join DP, I was already fielding questions from friends and family about COVID-19 and knew that it would be way easier to keep up with the science and answer a greater volume of questions if I had the powerhouse women already involved in DP as partners in crime. I was honored and delighted to join the DP effort.” 💥

❇️ What has been the most frustrating thing about the pandemic, from your point of view?

“Politicization of public health measures that should be based on scientific knowledge.” 🤦‍♀️

❇️ What are you most proud of?

“Hands down-raising 3 amazing boys aged 12, 10 and 5 years–who have become suddenly and acutely aware during the pandemic that their mom is an epidemiologist and their dad is a nurse. They have been infinitely patient and total champs at mask-wearing and social distancing.”👩👦👦👦👨

❇️ Who is your hero?

“All the public health leaders that have stuck to the science and kept at it all these months…this work is exhausting and so many have gotten up each day and just kept advocating against all odds for the measures necessary to keep communities safe.” 🤹‍♀️

❇️ What you miss most from before the pandemic:

“Being able to sneak away to work at a coffee shop for a few hours ☕, hugging friends and extended family 🤗, and planning travel. 🛫 Our family loves to travel, so the day we can safely jet off to somewhere new again will be a very happy day.” Simanek, a native midwesterner, says her family plans to go “somewhere warm” when it’s safe to travel again. 🌴🍹☀️🌴

❇️ If you had a do-over on the last 10 months, what would you do differently?

“Definitely, I would pace myself better. 🏃‍♀️💨 I want to do all the things, all the time–and especially to be helpful during this time when the expertise of epidemiologists is so needed. At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t realize what a long road it was going to be and how long I (and everybody else) would need to be at this.”

❇️ What you don’t miss at all:

“Having to look professional every day. I love having the option for only wearing business casual above the waist for Zoom meetings and using audio only on the days I don’t want to even try taming my unruly curly hair.” 👔

❇️ What is your superpower? 🦸‍♀️:

“Finding the funny, even when it all feels overwhelming.” Dr. Simanek is responsible for many of our amusing ‘Sunday Funnies’ posts (as well as dozens of posts on more serious topics like changes in CDC guidelines, masks, and how to reduce risk doing anything from air travel to letting someone use your bathroom).

❇️ How do you manage stress?

“Getting outdoors and getting exercise are top of my list for dealing with stress. We adopted two puppies since the start of the pandemic and their walks and playtime have been a lifesaver. 🐶🐶 They have forced me to get outdoors and moving, even on the days when I normally would have said there is no time, I have no energy, or more recently-it’s too cold!.”

❇️ Fun fact: Want to meet the puppies? Dr. Simanek’s family’s two pandemic rescue puppies, Zach and Zara, have been featured in the photos on our posts about COVID-sniffing dogs! Here and here.

❇️ What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

“I look forward to hearing about each and every friend and family member that gets vaccinated and it becoming safer and safer to reunite with loved ones we haven’t been able to see in person over the past year!”

Dr. Simanek is currently an Associate Professor at the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she teaches courses in epidemiologic methods, social epidemiology, links between infectious and chronic disease and will be instructing the MPH field experience course this summer.

Her current research, focused on the ways that social disadvantage in one generation adversely affects health in the next, has been supported by the National Institutes of Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Marmot Prince Mahidol Fellowship at the Institute for Health Equity at University College London. She says she hopes to start new research related to the pandemic itself in the coming months. “I am a collaborator on two recent grant submissions related to understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on birth outcomes and on women experiencing interpersonal violence, so if these are funded, I anticipate integrating these projects into my research program. In addition, there will be the need to study the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on the development of chronic diseases, so I also anticipate carrying out research on this topic in the future as well.”

Dr. Simanek earned a B.A. in Women’s Studies and Political Science from UW-Madison. She went on to earn a Master’s in International Health Epidemiology (MPH), and a PhD in Epidemiologic Science from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. At UM, she trained in the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health (at the same time Nerdy Girl Dr. Sandra Albrecht was getting her PhD and Dr. Jennifer Beam Dowd was a Postdoc there!). Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as International Journal of Epidemiology, Epidemiology & Infection, Brain, Behavior & Immunity, and Psychoneuroendocrinology (among many others).

She has also served on multiple expert advisory boards and workgroups during the pandemic–including for her university, the Milwaukee County Unified Emergency Operations Center Epi Intel Team and the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s pandemic response team. She’s been quoted in dozens (and dozens!) of news articles including those in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vox and Newsweek, interviewed on NBC Global Hangout and The Joy Reid show and has been a regular contributor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s COVID Q&A column and guest for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time COVID-19 segments.

Dr. Simanek’s University Profile

UW Milwaukee Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, UW-Milwaukee University of Wisconsin-Madison University of Michigan University of Michigan School of Public Health Milwaukee, Wisconsin Ann Arbor, Michigan University College London Madison, Wisconsin Milwaukee County Department of Health & Human Services

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