• Aug 30, 2015 » Sabbath
    oliversackssabbathYears ago after stumbling on one of Oliver Sacks’ books and the rest… I became, like many people, so inspired that I shifted my whole studies to anatomy & neuroscience. Times changed and my passions changed but that candle still burns. Today this great writer, scientist and physician has passed on leaving us with these words: “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” Thank you Dr. Sacks. Shabbat shalom.
  • Operational research: bridging theory and practice

    Published May 17, 2015 | Share your thoughts
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    This is an excerpt from a longer Healthy Inference (Epidemiology student blog) to which I contributed, reflecting on a week-long Operational Research Methods course at McGill University.

    The importance and challenges of publication in operational research – Marzieh Ghiasi (Epidemiology)

    One of the interesting topics covered in the course was the important role that publication can play in operational research. In academia, for better or worse, the mantra ‘publish or perish’ exists in part because publications are a measure of productivity. In implementation settings, the objectives and pressures are different and publication is not a priority. In fact, projects are often are implemented by governments and agencies, without a strong empirical framework or post-hoc analysis– and the people doing the implementation may or may not be trained in constructing scientific publications. The course instructors highlighted how conducting operational research and publishing can play the role of providing an evidence-based road-map and dissemination tool. Consequently, the capacity to conduct operational research is built by not only by training people how to develop protocols, collect data, but also how to publish and do it well. The presenters gave the example of a course by The Union/MSF focused on developing these skills.

    We had a hands-on overview of how to use EpiData, a free open software for systematic data entry ideal for use in constrained settings. As well, an overview of how the publication process works: for example, the often overlooked but important task of actually looking at and adhering to author guidelines before submitting a manuscript to a journal! One of the most interesting things I took away from the workshops was the idea of ‘inclusive authorship’ in operational research, which is critical in projects that involve dozens and dozens of people in design, implementation, data collection and analysis. The instructors recalled their own experiences of trying to chase authors and contributors down by email versus bringing dozens of people in a room over the course of a couple of days to get them to write a paper together (the latter works better!). Bringing 30-something people to write a paper is, of course, in itself an operational challenge. But, as this paper showcases, it is possible and should be done to ensure fairness and engagement.

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

    Peter Singer’s moral calculus of charity

    Published May 07, 2015 | Share your thoughts
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    A while back I read a very intriguing op-ed in NYT by Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. The article, titled “Good Charity, Bad Charity”, argues that the decision to contribute to one charity versus another should be based on an “evidence-based approach” that “[offers] the most positive impact for your time and money”. As someone in public health, I thought this was a nicely laid out and pragmatic approach to decision making with limited resources. For example, as a high-impact or “good” charity, Singer gives the example of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) -oriented organization. Learning about NTDs related issues for years, I’ve personally observed that a lot of the underpinning drivers in research or advocacy for NTDs appeals to people’s utilitarian sensibilities: You can impact the lives of millions of people in a truly meaningful way for very little (monetarily at least).

    charity_ghiasiorg
    Image created using public domain & creative commons licensed images: 1, 2, 3, 4.

    However, what I think is a point that is really worth examining is the argument that Singer lays out in how we can “objectively” determine that by contributing to one initiative versus another that “we’ll be able to do more good”. Singer asks us to make a hypothetical choice between contributing to the creation of a new art museum wing, versus contributing to an organization working to reduce incidence of trachoma, a debilitating NTD which causes blindness. In a classic utilitarian fashion, he lays out our utility measurement for $100,000 invested. On the one hand the museum will provide 50 years of expected service and aesthetic pleasure, and he estimates that our contribution will improve the “aesthetic experiences of 100,000 visitors”. On the other hand contribution to a trachoma-reducing charity will spare “1,000 people from 15 years of blindness”.

    The crux of the argument is that in this hypothetical scenario we are in zero-sum game where somebody’s visual/aesthetic pleasure comes, very literally, at the cost of a number of people’s eyes. Would we be, in essence, willing to have people’s eyes gouged out to enjoy a new museum wing? Singer posits to do so “You’d have to be nuts”. We are therefore drawn into a moral quandary, where one choice denotes empathy or humanity or whatever it is that makes us not want to have other people suffer. The other choice is a selfish choice. What kind of a person would choose art at the cost of people’s eyes? Except for, you know, those people that get eyeball tattoos.
    Continue Reading »

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    Who said it? the Quote Investigator

    Published May 04, 2015 | Share your thoughts
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    QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.
    — Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)

    Most people have some sort of a niche interest… I’ve always been a bit of a quotations aficionado (quote-phile?). You can imagine how excited I was when we first got internet at home in the 90s and I discovered the The Quote Garden. Of course, on occassion I’ve had the nagging fear that perhaps Oscar Wilde was right in saying: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (De Profundis, 1897). But I think some of us don’t love quotations for the lack of original thoughts… rather, these small bits of thoughts offered by others intrigue us and get our imaginations running. Or at least that’s how I comfort myself.

    However, as a caveat to my passion for collecting the words of others, whenever I find a phrase that catches my fancy– I always have to track down the source. Call it my editor’s instinct, but I shudder at the words “Source: Unknown”. Fortunately, most quotes I encounter have sources. Unfortunately, they’re often mangled and misattributed versions of their original self. These insidious frankenstein quotes aren’t just on Facebook groups, Tumblr pages and other bedazzled corners of the web. They’re everywhere. Recently, I was reading a (legit, serious) book which had a great quote from a Rumi poem, and since I can read Persian, I decided to track down the poem in Rumi’s original texts. I tried every permutation and absolutely could not track a legitimate textual source in Persian… or any other language including English! (I’d missed that Rumi’s a cultural meme now…)

    quote investigator During this little adventure I stumbled on what is my favorite recent discovery on the internet these days– Garson O’Toole’s blog “Quote Investigator”. A real entertaining rabbit hole, the blog takes a disputed quote, then methodically unravels the histories and the people to whom the quote has been attributed– then BAM! concludes with the most likely source for the quotation. This site has given me hope that there is end in sight to the travesty of quote misattribution, but has also opened my eyes to a whole history behind some of my favorite words from the past.

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    Seventy-two nations’ war/Jang-e haftad-o do mellat

    Published March 28, 2015 | Share your thoughts
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    جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت (حافظ)
    دوش دیدم که ملایک در میخانه زدند
    ساکنان حرم ستر و عفاف ملکوت
    آسمان بار امانت نتوانست کشید
    جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت همه را عذر بنه
    شکر ایزد که میان من و او صلح افتاد
    آتش آن نیست که از شعله او خندد شمع
    کس چو حافظ نگشاد از رخ اندیشه نقاب
    گل آدم بسرشتند و به پیمانه زدند
    با من راه نشین باده مستانه زدند
    قرعه کار به نام من دیوانه زدند
    چون ندیدند حقیقت ره افسانه زدند
    صوفیان رقص کنان ساغر شکرانه زدند
    آتش آن است که در خرمن پروانه زدند
    تا سر زلف سخن را به قلم شانه زدند

    "A Hoary Man" by Ostad Mahmoud Farshchian A Hoary Man” by Ostad Mahmoud Farshchian

    Seventy-two Nations’ War (Hafez)

    Last night I saw angels on the tavern’s door beat
    The clay of man they mold and they knead

    The pure and noble dwellers of the shrine
    With this vagrant beggar drunken recline

    The sky could not bear its trusted burden’s load
    Unto this madman was thus the deed bestowed

    Seventy-two nations war, their follies let pass
    Not seeing the truth they took fable-paved paths

    The divine be praised for between us peace arose
    Each dancing dervish’s cup with joy overflows

    Fire is not that flame in which the candle burns bright
    Fire is that blaze which sets the moth’s wings alight

    None like Hafez can unveil the mind
    And its tangled mane with the pen unwind

    The above is my translation and interpretation of what is arguably Hafez’s most esoteric and well-know poem. I had always wanted to tackle this translation but my felt that no turn of phrase could ever do justice the original. But, with the new year at helm, I took the challenge on with the hope of capturing and transferring a sliver of meaning in my own way.

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    International Speech Contest: Finding the Body & Heart

    Published November 18, 2014 | Share your thoughts
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    The following post was written in Fall 2014 for a Toastmasters club Newsletter reflecting my own very memorable experience of participating in the Toastmasters international speech contest at the level of the district.

    tm_mg2

    Speech Contest: Finding the Body and the Heart
    Marzieh Ghiasi (ACB, CL) Division G Governor, District 61 2014-2015

    Visiting clubs and areas in this new contest season—the Fall Humorous speech and Evaluation contest— I’ve had a chance to see dozens of contestants give their best speeches, to make us laugh or to give feedback, and on occasion both. Being present for many of these contests as a division governor has been a unique experience, because it was only earlier this year when I was a contestant myself—standing in front of the room, first at the level of the club, then area, then division, and eventually the district.

    When I was moving through the contests, I asked many other people what it would be like. Every person told me something different—which only reflected the uniqueness of each contestant’s experience. Of course, practice, integrate feedback, and watch previous contest winners are the tidbits everyone will tell you… so here are some less obvious lessons from the beginning and the very end of the journey.
    Continue Reading »

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  • Aug 23, 2014 » The learning myth
    Salman Khan of Khan Academy published an Op-Ed a couple of days ago titled “Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart”. Khan cites research that has shown better learning outcomes in children praised for work process rather than innate qualities, and describes how Khan Academy sees the same principles at play.
    “…students are spending more time learning on Khan Academy after being exposed to messages which praise their tenacity and grit and that underscore that the brain is like a muscle.”
    I was pretty intrigued by this idea a couple of years ago when I stumbled on the studies, it all seemed so counter-intuitive at first, but after some research the arguments and the evidence were pretty compelling. I wrote an essay focusing on the follies of praise, summarizing evidence of how praising effort instead of innate abilities can “empower children, [promote] the desire for challenges, for self-improvement, and other factors that can propagate self-esteem and achievement to the highest degree.” Years later, it’s pretty exciting to see Khan advocate a “national conversation” and perhaps global conversation about this. #
  • Aug 16, 2014 » Looking at a Lute Player
    1626_Orazio_Gentileschi_-_Lute_Player painting illusion I saw The Lute Player by Orazio Gentileschi at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC a couple of weeks back. I assumed I knew how to appreciate a work of art, at the very least just by looking and taking it in. But if it wasn’t for a great museum staff standing nearby that day, I wouldn’t have taken a second look at this particular painting before moving on. He said it was important to move beyond receptive appreciation and look at art more actively. I’m glad I did. Check out this great illusion: move your head from one side of the screen to the other all while looking at the scroll of the violin resting on the table. The instrument points at you whatever your position! As you might imagine, I spent the next little while doing all sorts of funny walks elsewhere in the museum. Nothing cool to report– no magical illusions, but it was kind of new and magical for me to approach some works in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. # # #
  • The Adventure of the Cure That Wasn’t

    Published June 16, 2014 | Share your thoughts
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    The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis (2014)
    Thomas Goetz
    320 pages

    *Originally published in Speaking of Medicine (PLOS).

    Marzieh Ghiasi and Madhukar Pai from McGill University & McGill International TB Centre, Montreal, review “The Remedy” by Thomas Goetz

    No image is more iconic of the Victorian age than that of a detective with a deerstalker cap, pipe, and magnifying glass roaming the dark streets of London in search of criminals and murderers. Hidden in plain sight, the real killers of the nineteenth century were infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, responsible for as many as a quarter of all deaths in that era.

    In The Remedy (2014) science journalist Thomas Goetz recounts the stories of Robert Koch, the founder of modern bacteriology, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the physician-author of the Sherlock Holmes series. In two narratives that run in parallel and eventually intersect, Goetz introduces a cast of pioneering medical detectives, from Koch’s scientific rival Louise Pasteur, to Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Joseph Bell. We follow a search for causative agents, preventive vaccines, and remedies for some of the deadliest infections in the Victorian era. Goetz describes how the principles of evidence-based science and systematic experimentation guided these ground-breaking discoveries, and how overlooking these principles led to setbacks.

    Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur and other microbiologists made a cast of pioneering medical detectives.  A mural at The Ohio State University Social Administration Building. Source: The Short North Gazette.

    Robert Koch, Louise Pasteur and other microbiologists made a cast of pioneering medical detectives, illustrated in a mural at The Ohio State University. Source: The Short North Gazette.

    The Remedy begins by tracking Robert Koch working as a town doctor in Germany. Limited by resources, but moved by his experience tending the wounded in the Franco-Prussian war, he investigated the causative agents of infections. Secluded from the continental scientific community, he developed tools and methods to study bacteria which we still use, from the white mouse lab to culture media. He also developed a set of postulates, a step-wise checklist for demonstrating that a disease is caused by an organism. These real as well as thinking tools allowed him to find and track the life course of the causative agent for anthrax—Bacillus anthracis, an irrefutable proof for the then-nascent germ theory.

    The strength of the book is Goetz’s page-turning account of one of science’s greatest rivalries, between Koch and the French scientist Louise Pasteur who was gaining fame for his work on vaccinations for anthrax and rabies, microbial fermentation and pasteurization. Goetz masterfully weaves primary sources, including letters and conference notes, to describe a race driven by a clash of egos, nationalism, and ambition. This competition ended in a breakthrough for Koch, who became the first to identify the infectious agent for tuberculosis— Mycobacterium tuberculosis. According to Goetz, Koch’s ambitions went further as he sought to find a cure for tuberculosis.

    Continue Reading »

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    The neglected diseases of poverty

    Published May 11, 2014 | Share your thoughts
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    *Originally published in The Upstream Journal.

    The last week of April is World Immunization Week, promoting vaccines as powerful tools for protecting people against some of the most deadly diseases. However, there are no effective vaccines for many of what are called “Neglected Tropical Diseases” – NTDs. And where there are few vaccines and treatments available, people remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and disease.

    NTDs include seventeen parasitic, bacterial and viral infections that infect more than a billion people across the world. They include diseases such as leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, dengue and sleeping sickness.

    Despite the name ‘tropical’ the NTDs thrive far beyond the tropics and represent a great health burden worldwide. These preventable “diseases of poverty” primarily affect the world’s poorest people and can cause severe lifelong disabilities such as blindness, deformities, and debilitation. However, the devastating impact of these diseases is often overshadowed by the “big three” – HIV, tuberculosis and malaria – leaving them neglected in discussions of global health, investment, and research.

    Velayuthan pillai (Age 69), a tailor. Elephantiasis turned his life into misery by taking away both his legs. Having lost his legs and job, he returned back to his home town and joined as a guard for a temple for the pay of (Rupess 800) 17.60$ per month. With the help of this little income he's struggling to make both ends in life along with his wife." Photo by Rajvinoth Jothineelakandan.

    Velayuthan pillai (Age 69), a tailor. Elephantiasis turned his life into misery by taking away both his legs. Having lost his legs and job, he returned back to his home town and joined as a guard for a temple for the pay of (Rupess 800) 17.60$ per month. With the help of this little income he’s struggling to make both ends in life along with his wife.” Photo by Rajvinoth Jothineelakandan.

    Continue Reading »

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    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi