Dr. Rulla Tamimi is the chief of the new Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences, associate director of population science at the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center, and (interim) assistant professor of population health sciences. Previously, Dr. Tamimi was an associate professor in epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and the co-lead of the Breast Cancer Program at the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
What got you involved in epidemiology?
I always had a natural desire for science and math. After I graduated from college, I worked in a basic science lab. I loved being in the environment and collaborating with a team in an academic setting. But it was hard for me to appreciate what was happening at the cellular level and how it affected human health. My boss at the time encouraged me to take some courses at the University of Washington to explore my interests. At that point, I’d never even heard of the term “epidemiology.” After I signed up for my first class, I absolutely fell in love. Epidemiology was exactly everything I was interested in. I liked math, I liked logic, and I liked the idea that we can impact health on a personal level. That got me hooked.
Tell us about your research
I am a cancer epidemiologist and a molecular epidemiologist. My research area is around breast cancer—everything from genetics to behaviors to molecular markers. I’m attracted to women’s health issues and breast cancer is the number one cancer among women. There’s a lot that we know but there isn’t a lot that is modifiable. On the one hand, it’s an example of a cancer where there has been tremendous work and progress in developing new treatments. But in terms of prevention, I still think we are really behind—and there is a lot more we can do.
In recent years, I’ve been focusing on mammographic density as an intermediate marker of risk. That has given me a lot of opportunities to collaborate with different people, such as radiologists and computer scientists, to see if we can use imaging to do a better job of predicting which women are at higher risk of developing breast cancer. I also work very closely with pathologists, using biomarkers and looking at tissue samples from either benign biopsies or tumor samples. We found that even on an H&E slide, which is a thinly sliced tumor tissue that has been stained, computer scientists can pull out information either about the tumor or the normal tissue adjacent to the tumor that may help predict long-term outcomes. I’m also really interested in survivorship, both from a quality-of-life and long-term survival standpoint.
What will be your focus for your new roles?
I am planning on growing the Division of Epidemiology with a goal of recruiting eight new faculty members. The dream is to have something very balanced—both in terms of the diseases that people study but also their areas of emphasis.
At the Meyer Cancer Center, I’ll be working on building population science. The center’s catchment area encompasses the Upper East Side, Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian Queens. It’s a very diverse patient population, which means it has very different exposure profiles and unique health care needs, which vary by neighborhood. Our goals are to identify cancer risk factors and understand cancer disparities, understand the needs of the community, and design research studies that better address those needs. Working together with community outreach and engagement will be really important to understanding what the risk factors and barriers to screening and prevention are and developing interventions that can improve cancer prevention and control across the entire community.
What brings you to Weill Cornell Medicine?
This is my dream job. On day one, I get to build a group and shape the direction of a division. And it’s the same with the cancer center—cancer control and prevention is a space that’s very exciting to me, and there’s a huge opportunity to make a difference. There’s so much great science at Weill Cornell Medicine, and I am honored to join this team.