Gerhard Hellemann

October 2021

Gerhard Hellemann, PhD This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.Associate Professor, Biostatistics

Why public health?

I joined UAB from UCLA in March 2020. My wife and I are very excited to have joined the UAB team — she is a neuroscientist in the School of Medicine. My passion has always been providing research support — I greatly enjoy developing research programs from the ground up. Biostatistics to me is the perfect intersection between math and interdisciplinary research collaboration. It is fascinating to be on the front lines seeing how research ideas are developed. I am excited to be in public health because of the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse set of researchers on a wide variety of topics.

What is your educational background?

I completed my master's in Statistics from the University of Dortmund in Germany. Upon completion, I joined Dr. Peter Bentler as his grad student/mentee where I became involved with research in the psychology department. I obtained a PhD in Psychometrics and Measurement from UCLA in 2005 after which I stayed on first as a senior statistician and then as an assistant professor. I am currently collaborating with the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center and the Comprehensive Neuroscience Center at the UAB School of Medicine on their research projects.

An exciting on-going project?

The most exciting project that I am currently working on is telemedicine. The pandemic has offered a truly unique opportunity to see how telemedicine develops, when applied to primary care during a rapidly changing environment. We have collected data on both the provider and patient side, and preliminary analyses suggest that it seems to be well received, but we will require more analyses and long-term data to understand how this works long term.

Another interesting line of research is getting a better understanding of sickle cell disease. The Alabama Newborn Screening Program that started in 1964 has included, since 1987, a screen for sickle cell disease among the more than thirty other disorders. However, there are people who do not get follow-up care for this disorder and are not part of the system. These people are an important sub-population that we need to understand better, as we know that they are likely in need of specialized care for sickle cell, but we don't know anything about them. Due to all the recent birth cohorts being screened, we have a more and more complete picture of what the actual affected population looks like, and not just who the care-seeking patients are. Usually you don't know what you don't know, but here we have a case where we know where the gaps in our knowledge are.

Most prized professional accomplishment?

I don't see specific moments of accomplishment, but the impact I am able to have on others. As someone who views research as something inherently collaborative, helping to facilitate these collaborative relationships is incredibly fulfilling. The highlight for me was when I assisted in building relationships for three groups of researchers. Grouping people that can work together to create energy is what is most prized, and then working in these collaborations to create excellent research.

As a professor, a collaborative mindset is the hardest thing to teach students. In this era, we do not have single geniuses anymore — it is all about working and communicating across disciplines. This is in my experience one of the biggest shocks people get, and it typically hits in the post-doc phase of study. The number one issue people have with collaboration is fearing that their idea will be stolen. To that, I usually advise if somebody else can steal your idea, you have not thought deep enough about it. I truly believe that people are not as exchangeable as they think. We are unique as researchers which is both comforting and frightening — nobody else can do what we can do. Once you have a terminal degree, you have to realize that you are the expert in your chosen field, your thesis was a unique contribution of science.

If you had the funding to answer any one research question, what would it be?

If I had unlimited funding, I would like to create updated versions of standard tests with better psychometric properties. I believe the biggest limitation in research is the quality of data. Many of the questionnaires in common use have usually been developed a long time ago by somebody who tried something different, and they have become part of the standard practice over time. Some of them are not adapted to how differently we live today than in the past, others have limitations of measuring scores in the high or low ranges of the underlying traits. Because many of these tests are limited in the ranges that they assess, very different people get grouped into the same category, and this might not reflect the interest of the researcher in the best way.

I would like to re-do and validate these standard tests. Of course, next would be convincing people to use the new tests, publishing a whole series of papers re-doing comparative studies, etc. That is the fantasy part, but if I had unlimited funding... why not?!

Coolest conference you have been to?

Back in 2001, I went to a seminar led by Judea Pearl. He had just published his book on Causality and he outlined his thinking on causation as well as correlation. This inspired me to look at correlational data with an overlay of structure and try to unify this perspective that that is rooted in causal networks with traditional statistical approaches like factor analysis that are based on measuring the associations. This question is driving a lot of my current research.