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About the Institute

Profile of Eleanor Pullenayegum

Dr. Eleanor Pullenayegum, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Child Health Evaluative Sciences
  • Associate Professor, Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in England just outside of Cambridge, but I grew up in Luxemburg. I stayed there until I was 18 before going to Cambridge University to do my bachelors and my masters. Then I came here to the University of Toronto to do my PhD and did a post doctorate at Waterloo.       

2. What are you researching right now?
There are a couple of main projects. Here at SickKids we have rare diseases, and to describe how a disease evolves over time we monitor the patients when they come in and up to 18 years of age past that. Because patients usually visit more often when they are unwell, this can end up giving patients and families an unrealistic picture of how well they would do over time; it would overestimate the disease. I work on statistical methods to fix that.

The other piece is related to economic evaluation. These inform decisions around what treatments we use and what treatments we don’t based on cost and effectiveness. The way that effectiveness is measured doesn’t always provide the precise information that people need to make good decisions on treatment methods. I work on models to fix that as well.   

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I think I’d go with Johannes Kepler. He was an astronomer and his work was related to the fact that planets go around the sun, not vice versa. The reason I like him is that he saw his work as giving glory to God and being for the good of people. He had this humility about his work; that it’s not about him being great or admired, it’s about enjoying the beauty of creation and being a benefit to society. On a good day, that’s what I’d like to achieve.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
One that has influenced me a lot is Kepler and Galileo’s work around the fact that the planets go around the sun, followed by Newtonian Dynamics (Newton’s three laws of motion).

These things represent how science produces theories, evidence is gathered, and when those theories are no longer consistent with the evidence then we need to come up with a new theory. That is fundamental to statistics. We have a hypothesis, we collect data, and then we look to see if that data is consistent with the hypothesis. If it isn’t than we need a different hypothesis. Those breakthroughs to me shape how we practice statistics and medicine.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy connecting with my faith community, whether that’s rock-climbing together or learning about more about my faith or having brunch, those are things that give me huge meaning and encouragement.  

6. Why science?
Here I’m going to classify math as a science, even though it’s somewhat debated. I’ve always really enjoyed problem solving; my dad is a math teacher and was always really encouraging. I was thinking of medicine for a while since my grandfather suggested I might want to be a nurse, but I was always much better at math, so to end up doing statistics at a children’s hospital in a health research context is quite exciting.

7. Why SickKids?
The enthusiasm for the research that there is here, the collaborations that you can form, those are some of the big things I like about SickKids. There is interesting data as well working at a hospital, and data challenges in terms of rare diseases and saying something useful even though there are few patients.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
A discipline worth thinking about is how traditional statistics sits alongside computer science methods. Computer science methods are designed to do something different, to predict, and in traditional biostatistics you are thinking about how to explain. Additionally, with the amount of data we collect, it becomes a question of data quality.

9. What are you reading right now?
A few things! Something called Great with Child. I’m pregnant and it looks at how pregnancy is a time not just for physical change but also emotional and spiritual growth.  Another called Parenting with Love and Logic, because I need to learn how to parent. And finally a book called The Pearl that Broke its Shell, a story of a young women in rural Afghanistan in the present era. It looks at the life of her great grandmother who had similar stories and issues; it taps into what it’s like to be a woman in this particular setting.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
It’s a marathon not a sprint. Be in it for the long haul and make sure you don’t burn out too early. When you start out it’s easy to put everything into it and get exhausted after a couple of years. I enjoy running and so when I say it’s a marathon I don’t mean it as a negative, it’s just a different exercise.  

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
A place where research and discovery happen, to put it concisely.

January 2017

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