Thursday, February 4, 2021

PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: Kathleen Bachynski

This week's D3Playbook Interview features Kathleen Bachynski, epidemiologist and assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg (Pa.) College.

What triggered your interest in public health and epidemiology in particular?

I had never even heard of public health or epidemiology until my sophomore year at the University of Michigan. On a whim, I accompanied one of my college housemates to an open house at Michigan's School of Public Health. She was interested in applying to one of their programs and I tagged along without any idea of what the presentations would be about. What really won me over was learning that public health was fundamentally about prevention. In medicine, you usually try to help care for people after they have become ill. Learning that public health was a field dedicated to trying to prevent injury and disease from occurring in the first place was a revelation to me. I was specifically drawn to epidemiology because you can study causes of ill health from very specific genes all the way to major social factors such as poor housing or loss of employment. I loved the complex, interdisciplinary nature of a field that provides tools to understand human health from so many different perspectives. 

What attracted you to the sports science aspects?

When playing high school soccer, I ripped my ACL, MCL and meniscus. I had surgery to reconstruct the ACL followed by months of physical therapy. This personal experience, as well as knowing many other friends and teammates who had experienced sports injuries, motivated me to learn more about how to promote health and safety in sports. I've seen firsthand that sports can have incredible health benefits, but they can also cause significant health harms. I'm passionate about bringing a public health perspective to sports to help minimize the risks while improving access to the many benefits of physical activity and recreation.

As an epidemiologist, what are your thoughts when you see your alma mater - Michigan - be forced by the state to suspend all athletic activities due to COVID?

I have been very dismayed. Back in October, Covid had spread extensively on the Michigan campus to the point where health officials issued a stay-at-home order for all undergraduate students, but varsity athletes were exempted from the rule. I think this sent a very mixed message in the midst of public health efforts seeking to stem the spread of the virus. Then, as you note, most recently the Michigan athletic department had to suspend all activities due to a significant outbreak that is especially concerning because it includes cases of a more transmissible variant, B.1.1.7. To me, the lesson is that on a college campus, athletics do not occur in a bubble, and they cannot be treated as being separate from the rest of the community.

By the token, what are your thoughts when you see Muhlenberg, its Conference and many others in Division III cancel conference competition?

I was so proud and grateful to see Muhlenberg, its Conference and many other Division III teams prioritize public health and cancel competitions to help reduce the spread of the virus. I still reflect on Muhlenberg College Coach (Nate) Milne's very moving words about the football team from back in July: “They all understand that if not playing football can save lives that’s what they have to do.” To me, this is a prime example of athletic programs and athletes leading the way to help keep their communities safe. We have lost so many lives this year that it's easy to lose sight of the many institutions and people who took actions that helped save lives. There are people who are alive today and people who are not suffering from the long term effects of COVID as a result. I could not be more thankful to everybody making the tough calls and protecting public health.

What do we need to do to better deal with the pandemic?

This question will likely be the topic of books and articles for decades to come! Here are just three suggestions:

1) The top priority at all levels--national, state, and local--should be to drive transmission down as far as possible. Too often, we have seen leaders ease up on public health protocols as soon as the numbers of cases begin to drop. This approach results in a vicious cycle that quickly leads to cases climbing again. Instead, we should double down on what's working to reduce transmission. If we ease up and then wait until hospitals beds start getting filled before we take action, we'll constantly remain several steps behind the virus. Without a far more proactive and consistent strategy, we'll continue to see people dying preventable deaths.

2) Right now, the vast majority of health spending in the United States is dedicated to medicine. But as the old saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." We need to invest far more in basic public health infrastructure, from contact tracing to vaccine distribution. I love this sports analogy from Dr. Umair Shah, director of the public health department in Harris County, Texas: "Shah likes to think of his fellow public-health practitioners as the offensive line of a football team whose fans know only the quarterback: clinical medicine. Except that when a football team has a great season, the owners continue to invest in the offensive line, recognizing that it is crucial to the quarterback’s success. “In public health we do the opposite. When tuberculosis rates decline or tobacco use goes down, we cut those programs." We need to keep investing in the public health measures that work.

3) In both our public health messages and in our public policies, we need to support people in making safer choices. For example, paid sick leave is critical to help people stay home when they are ill and still be able to make ends meet. In the context of sports, making parks and other public spaces easily accessible helps give people options for lower risk activities. Although it is too dangerous right now in much of the country to host an indoor wrestling tournament, we should keep encouraging people to go for walks outside, ride a bike, or enjoy other safer ways to get physical activity.

In your book, "No Game for Boys to Play," you write the first history of youth tackle football and the debates over its safety. What is the appropriate age for tackle versus flag football?

Ideally, I would like to see us avoid full body collision sports (tackle football, boxing, body checking in hockey) for children and promote lower risk alternatives. Repeated collisions pose a risk for brains at all ages, so there isn't a single definitive age. But I think efforts to promote flag football under 14 are a good start. Younger children have a much larger head-to-body ratio, weaker neck muscles, and are going through a very important period of brain development. In addition, much of the risk of brain trauma is cumulative over time. This means that avoiding exposure to brain injuries at younger ages is especially important to set children on the healthiest path for the rest of their lives. We only get one brain!

What do you like to do outside of science? Hobbies, spare time, etc.

I really enjoy playing music. Before the pandemic hit, I was playing oboe with the Moravian College Community Orchestra. I can't wait until it's safe again for bands and orchestras to resume rehearsing and performing in person!

You are fluent in three languages - English, French and Spanish. Is there another in your future?

I wish! Instead, I'm trying to keep my French and Spanish from growing too rusty. Lately I've been watching a French show titled "Call My Agent" that follows a fictional talent agency and the humorous efforts of the main characters to manage their often very demanding celebrity clients. It is both a very fun pandemic distraction and a great opportunity to immerse myself in French for an hour!

Follow Ms. Bachynski on Twitter @bachyns


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