Daphne Ling, Sports Medicine Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor

Daphne Ling graduated with a PhD in Epidemiology in 2012. She is currently a Sports Medicine Epidemiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery and an Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?

It was a very natural transition. I was introduced to the field of epidemiology as an undergrad and I had no idea about the field prior to taking that introductory course. I liked it so much that I decided to pursue a Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. I liked the Master’s program so much that I decided to continue with the PhD just to get more training. I think higher level education gives you a certain level of autonomy. That’s very important for job satisfaction later on.

Q: During your PhD, what would you say were your biggest challenges?

I think my supervisor had high expectations. He’s very prolific and he had set that expectation for us—so the lab was quite productive and I spent four years doing the PhD. He also had an idea of conducting a primary study at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. PhD projects can take all forms—some people will use administrative databases, but we collected our own data. That was challenging, but very fulfilling. We really started from conception to execution to publication. We worked with children, a special and vulnerable population, so there were a few more hoops to jump through. But we in the end, with the help of the incredible staff at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and with the nurses in particular, we recruited 399 children. We were one away from 400, but we collected 399 children in two years. And that was the primary focus of my PhD work.

Q: Did you get support from any sources?

I have to really give credit to my supervisor, Dr. Madhukar Pai. He was a very good supervisor and he gave us opportunities that we could not have imagined. I was one of his first few PhD students. We were able to have opportunities in other countries—I went to South Africa, while another student went to India. He was always giving us projects, for instance, from the World Health Organization. We also published on work aside from our primary PhD work. So being where I am now, I see that there’s a lot of time and effort put into being a supervisor, like reading drafts of manuscripts, which can be very painful and time-consuming. And that’s in addition to his own work as a professor. So I would say he was a very good supervisor—he gave us opportunities and also provided that support for us to have a very rewarding PhD experience.

Q: Was there any experience during graduate school that is valuable now to your current position?

I actually think that the primary study where we collect our own data was very important, now that I’ve had a chance to conduct my own study with prospectively collected data. Seeing a project through from start to finish, having the patience to do it, and knowing that it’s a step-by-step process with input from many team members—that’s a unique experience to have. Patience and collaboration are very important. I think for the PhD experience, motivation is very innate—there are no set dates, and school will kick you out in eight years or so.

When you finish that PhD and you graduate, you know that you have what it takes to take something from start to finish. Having worked a few years now, I realize that the ability to finish is what separates those who are successful and those who are not. If you start something but don’t finish it, no one will ever know. So the PhD training teaches you how to cross the finish line. No matter how painful it is, you have to take one step at a time, but you will get there.

Q: What is your current job and how did you get there?

Actually, I transitioned to another field after the PhD. I was doing tuberculosis work for my PhD and then afterwards worked on HIV, STIs, and Hepatitis C. And I’ve always been interested in sports. Canada, at the time, hosted the Women’s World Cup in 2015. That’s when I started to think about what the next 30 years of my life was going to be like. What is interesting enough to kind of sustain my interest level for the next 30 years? So I decided to look into combining sport with epidemiology and at the time, I didn’t know if that sort of job existed. One day, I just went on Google and I found the current position that I have now. I’m a Sports Medicine Epidemiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. It’s an orthopedic specialty hospital in Manhattan, and I work in the Sports Medicine Institute. It’s been great. I never imagined that I would be in this position and it really is a dream job. I can’t imagine doing anything else and I’ve never looked back since I made the transition.

Daphne describes how she decided to switch fields after her PhD.

Q: When making these decisions about careers, what made you decide to go one way or another?

When I finished the PhD, I was a little tired, so I decided to leave academia and go into government afterwards. After a few years working in government, I found out that I still like research. Don’t confuse the feeling of being burnt out with not liking research, because when I finished my PhD, I was tired, but I still loved research and I did not find that level of research in government. So I went back to do a postdoc. That’s when the World Cup tournament happened and I started thinking about the next 30 years. That’s a long time. If you’re getting bored early on, then it’s not a sustainable career.

Q: What was it like transitioning to a different field?

I needed to convince people to hire me. Luckily, they hired me because when I was interviewing, one of the surgeons, who is now my mentor, said that if you choose the right athlete, then they can be trained for whatever sport. So I came in with a solid background in epidemiology and I knew that the methodologies are the same—it’s just the application that is different. So whatever field you want to apply it to, it is up to you. If that training is solid—and I think McGill’s program is very solid—then people are able to see that, and the transition can be made. I’m very grateful for them to see that the talent and training are there, and for them to take a risk on someone who has no experience in orthopedics or sports medicine. The past three and a half years that I’ve been here felt like a postdoc, but I’m getting to where I can start thinking about my own research questions, and that’s a good feeling.

But nothing goes to waste—everything is transferable. Anything that you learn in one experience, you’ll often see it again in another experience. Then you can go back on your previous background and apply it in a new way.

Q: What are your experiences with the job search, and in particular the timing of that?

That’s a very important consideration. I started the job search early—I would say probably the year before I was going to graduate because it takes a while not only trying to find a job, but for people to go through that hiring process. I had an offer for a job that I wasn’t interested in—I was idealistic at the time, and wanted that dream job right away. I talked to my supervisor about it and said that maybe I shouldn’t take this job and look for another one. And he said, “No, don’t do that. Accept this job so you have something and then look around.” That’s very good advice because I don’t think I would have had another offer. In that first job, I knew right away that it was not a good fit, and I wouldn’t have lasted very long. But to have a gap after the PhD would not have been good morale-wise. So I am grateful for my supervisor for telling me to accept the position.

Q: You talked about academia and government, but have you considered alternative careers such as in industry?

Industry never appealed to me for some reason, so I never considered it. I left academia after the PhD because I was quite tired. I chose to go into government work, which I thought was a decent alternative, but if you like research rather than practice, government may not be a great fit.

My current position is based in a hospital, so it has a research track. I’m an Assistant Scientist, which is kind of like an Assistant Professor position. Then I have an adjunct affiliation at Weill Cornell Medical College as an Assistant Professor. So it’s a nice middle ground. With this position, I focus on research and I don’t have to teach, but I get some of the resources from Weill Cornell. This is another path people should consider. It’s not just industry or academia—there’s government, and there’s hospitals, and other alternatives. It shouldn’t just be two options.

 Q: Do you have any tips on staying motivated during the PhD?

It’s important to have something outside of your studies because the PhD can get very challenging mentally. It’s important to find some kind of outlet. For me, it was participating in sports. I’m from the US, and when I got to Canada, I discovered the sport of curling. I joined the Royal Montreal Curling Club and it was a lot of fun. Curling is a great sport—it’s very mental and very physical. I miss it. I’ve been in the US again and that’s the one thing I miss most about Canada, aside from the people.

Many thanks to Daphne for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn.

She also just launched a women’s soccer study “The Women’s Soccer Health Study: From Head to Toe“, which can be found on Twitter.

Description of study: An anonymous health survey for retired/former women’s soccer players who have played at the elite level (NCAA, professional, or national team). The questions relate to 5 areas of health: physical, musculoskeletal, female athlete, neurocognitive, and mental. The survey takes 10-20 minutes to complete. We hope that the findings from this initial survey will lay the foundation for future long-term research on the health of female athletes. Survey respondents have to be located in the US due to data privacy regulations that vary around the world. The investigators are actively looking for academic collaborators in other countries, including Canada. 

This interview took place in June 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.