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About the DB

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

  • Job finished, health centre is closing
  • Tomorrow's topic: survey errors
  • Poker, pensions and the shot-put
Chris Redmond

Alzheimer Awareness Month

[Two at lectern, two beside screen]

Five teams of students presented their term projects from Arts 303 at an evening session in December. The course -- "Designing Learning Activities with Interactive Multimedia" -- is taught by Kevin Harrigan of applied health sciences and the Centre for Learning and Teaching Through Technology. The student groups worked for faculty "clients" to investigate and develop "learning objects" for courses in muscle visualization, semiotics, speech communication, diabetes prevention and cardiac function.

Job finished, health centre is closing -- by Patricia Bow

After more than 20 years, the Centre for Applied Health Research is to be dissolved, with official action coming at next week's UW senate meeting. "It's a case of metamorphosis," says Paul McDonald, the centre's director since 1999 and a health studies and gerontology professor. "CAHR was set up to incubate and nurture research in applied health at UW. Essentially, it's dissolving because it has fulfilled its mandate."

According to McDonald's report to the Senate Graduate and Research Council, "Five years ago, the collective budgets of CAHR partners totalled approximately $2 million; today they have a collective budget of more than $5 million." Some partners have outgrown the CAHR umbrella and are as large as the centre was when it began in 1984. Two examples are the Population Health Research Group, of which McDonald is co-director, and the Centre for Behavioural Research and Program Evaluation. Since they are now raising strong voices of their own, CAHR was in the undesirable position of "creating additional noise in an already busy environment," McDonald says.

Other CAHR projects or affiliates have found new umbrellas. The Program Training and Consultation Centre will be within PHRG, while the Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program, the Functional Abilities Program, and the Neurobehavioural Assessment and Rehabilitation Program have joined the new R.B. Schlegel Research Institute for Aging. That's a fitting outcome, McDonald says, since Ron Schlegel, president of RBJ Schlegel Holdings, was an applied health sciences professor for 19 years and one of CAHR's early architects.

Applied health research has not only expanded over the years, its focus has changed. "It was a very different scene when I was in grad school. Health then was largely a clinical enterprise," McDonald says. "We used to put more emphasis on the individual. If you had heart disease, you were told to stop smoking, and so on."

Today, he says, the emphasis has shifted to guarding the health of whole populations, and we know that health and well-being are far more complex than anyone imagined. A host of factors affect health, from one's genetic makeup, environment, and social milieu to building codes and advertising. That means more interdisciplinary research is needed. While CAHR included researchers from all faculties, its core was in AHS. Now, health research flourishes all over campus: in computer science (health informatics), electrical and computer engineering (medical imaging), optometry (vision care), psychology (smoking and other risky behaviours), economics (health care funding), and environment and resource studies (pollution and health), to name a few. McDonald also looks for linkages with researchers, policy makers and service providers off campus: for instance, with the Public Health Agency of Canada or provincial ministries of health.

"We at UW are among the country's leaders in developing interventions for public health," he says. "CAHR was ahead of its time in putting the emphasis on developing preventive public health policy, but the rapid growth of teams that used to function under CAHR's broad umbrella means we can expect even more specific and more sophisticated research in the future."

Tomorrow's topic: survey errors

When health researchers rely on information from surveys, several kinds of errors can make their data less than reliable, says Mary Thompson of UW's statistics and actuarial science department, who will speak on the subject tomorrow (12 noon, Davis Centre room 1304). Her talk on "The Quality of Survey Data" is the latest in a torrent of seminars, workshops and conferences sponsored by the Waterloo Institute for Health Informatics Research, including biweekly talks by researchers associated with WIHIR.

Her talk "will discuss the role of survey data in health research", an abstract says. "Health care decision makers rely on data from the census, from multipurpose surveys like the Canadian Community Health Survey, and from surveys of disease prevalence, surveys of health care use, and surveys of opinion. Survey science has recently begun to focus on an all-encompassing notion of 'data quality'. Examples will be given illustrating the components of 'total survey error': measurement problems, data collection/processing error, sampling error, non-response error and coverage problems. The last part of the talk will be devoted to current research on the reduction of non-sampling error."

Thompson, a former acting dean of the faculty of mathematics, also serves as co-director (with John Goyder of sociology) of UW's Survey Research Centre, and is an investigator on international studies of tobacco control headed by Geoff Fong of the psychology department. In her own research she is focusing on the construction and use of survey weights for longitudinal, multilevel and latent variable models, and resampling methods for interval estimation and testing.

A news release issued by UW last fall described some of her work on the relationship between survey data and "meaning" or outcomes. "When we answer a survey or read the results of one," said the release, "we assume that the results tell us something about relationships and casual connections. For instance, if a survey about reactions to graphic warning labels on cigarette packages found that after 10 years of nasty smoking labels fewer people were still smoking, it might be an indication that the labels work."

Maybe, maybe not, says Thompson. "There is a great deal of scope for using surveys to observe processes and to see how one kind of event leads to another, but the surveys have to be designed appropriately to examine supposed relationships and connections."

She's particularly interested in longitudinal studies -- where observations of individuals are made several times, typically over the course of years. There can be fairly significant problems in interpreting the results: "Every study has dropout, but if you are sampling over a long time the dropout rate may be pronounced. Do you replenish the sample, and if so, how is this done to make the best use of continuing respondents and new recruits, who may be statistically quite different? These decisions need to be made in the design of the sampling scheme and are key to the success of a longitudinal survey."

The Fong project includes a survey of smokers and their responses to anti-smoking measures such as graphic labels. Says Thompson: "The researchers who conceived the study are psychologists and health scientists concerned with whether this type of action is effective. My role is to try to ensure that their results can help to answer the research questions."

The role of the statistician is often to model error or noise so that it is easier to see the patterns that are sometimes hidden in mountains of data. "One fundamental technique is to try to find patterns in multi-dimensional data by reducing the dimensions. Sometimes that is a straightforward process, as in many engineering applications, but with data from human respondents it can be harder to find discernible patterns and appropriate reductions of dimensionality. The role of theory is very important, and designing and administering a survey carefully may shed light on parts of the structure and allow us to see that changes in one variable might have tremendous effects on another."

Observing systems without taking proper account of noise and randomness "can lead you astray and make you misinterpret results," she warns. "But through careful mathematical modeling of the randomness, you can look at the phenomenon and make sense of the uncertainty."

Poker, pensions and the shot-put

Science-and-business student Steve Paul-Ambrose is in the Bahamas this week, and will be coming home with a six-figure or seven-figure profit for the trip. He's now among the final six players in the World Poker Tour's PokerStars Caribbean Poker Adventure tournament, which started with 724 entrants. As the final day of play begins, Paul-Ambrose is in second place and guaranteed a minimum of $177,200 in payout. Today's play will be broadcast on the Travel Channel (and Toronto's CITY-TV) some time next season. Paul-Ambrose, says the tournament web site, "qualified for this tournament in a PokerStars satellite, and he plays online under the name stevejpa."

The human resources department sends this memo addressed mostly to part-time faculty and staff members: "Pension legislation in Ontario gives certain employees, who are not normally eligible, the option to join the University of Waterloo Pension Plan. To be eligible you must have worked continuously for the University of Waterloo during 2004 and 2005 and also you must have: earned $14,385 in 2005 and $14,175 in 2004, or worked more than 700 hours for the University of Waterloo in both 2004 and 2005. Pension plan participation requires employee contributions at the rate of 4.55% of base earnings up to $42,100 and 6.5% of any base earnings exceeding $42,100 (the 2006 Yearly Maximum Pensionable Earnings for Canada Pension). If you wish to join the pension plan, and feel that you qualify or have any questions concerning your eligibility, please contact Wanda Speek at ext. 3573 or wspeek@uwaterloo.ca to make the necessary arrangements."

Payroll sign-up for graduate students: Graduate Student Association information available today 1:00 to 3:30, human resources payroll registration 2:00 to 3:00, Davis Centre room 1302. Payroll registration also available Wednesday 10 to 11 a.m., DC 1302.

Arts faculty council 3:30, Humanities room 373.

Co-op student information sessions about the new early-match procedure, 4:30, Arts Lecture hall room 116.

'Meet Your NDP Candidates' pub night sponsored by UW Association of New Democrats, 6 to 10:30, Bombshelter pub, Student Life Centre.

Service and Society Day Wednesday 10:30 to 2:30, Student Life Centre, showing off activities of the Federation of Students and other societies. Clubs Days Thursday and Friday, SLC.

'Video Games as Entertainment', presentation by Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights, Wednesday 12 noon, Flex lab, Dana Porter Library, registration online.

Waterloo Public Interest Research Group volunteer meeting Wednesday 5:30, multipurpose room, Student Life Centre.

All-candidates' meeting for the federal election, Tuesday, January 17, 12:00, Student Life Centre. Elections Canada booth for voter registration and information, today in the SLC.

And the library sends a warning that books that were signed out on "term loan" by faculty, graduate students and staff members before the beginning of December are due back January 11, which is tomorrow. Books should be returned, obviously, or renewed online.

Also in the library, the winter program of tours and workshops is beginning. Hour-long basic sessions for graduate students, for instance ("learn about facilities and services that will make your library research more effective"), start tomorrow. Details are on the library web site.

The male "Athlete of the Week" from the Warrior interuniversity sports program this week is Justin Lutchin of the track-and-field team, which competed at a meet in Toronto over the weekend. Lutchin, a final-year arts student, finished first in the shot-put event, throwing 15.5 metres. "The throw qualifies Justin for the CIS Nationals in Saskatoon in March," Chris Gilbert of the athletics department reports, "and he is currently ranked 4th in Canada. This throw destroys Justin's previous personal best by over a meter, and it breaks the 28-year-old UW varsity record previously held by Rob Town."

The Employee Assistance Program sent out a gold flyer this week announcing a morning-long session on February 8 under the title "Getting Going, Keeping Going: How to Learn to Love Exercise". . . . The move of UW's safety office from the Health Services building to its new home in the Commissary building, near the smokestack, is scheduled for Tuesday of next week. . . . The turnkey desk in the Student Life Centre is taking appointments now for the blood donor clinic that will be held all next week. . . .


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