Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology
“In many ways, what my research and teaching are aimed at doing is to bring a degree of healthy skepticism about and humility to science."
Since his earliest years growing up in Montreal, Ashley Naimi always wanted to be a scientist. His father, an immigrant from Iran who left because of the revolution, encouraged his education. “Because he didn’t have one, my father told me, ‘Education is your ticket and key,’” Naimi explains.
With an interest in how the body works, Naimi completed his undergraduate degree studying physiology at Concordia University in Montreal. Having been exposed to the intellectualism and activism that accompanied university culture, Naimi’s interest in public health and social justice grew. In 2003, to fulfill a requirement for his minor degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in Science, he did a small research project in public health, gaining exposure to (what was then) an emerging field. This experience compelled him to pursue a master’s in community health focusing on social epidemiology at the University of Montreal.
“In public health, I have always come from a science perspective. I am drawn to the complexity of the math and minutiae, the details of things,” Naimi says.
Naimi went on to get his PhD in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012, and then completed his post-doctorate with social epidemiologists at McGill University in Montreal. Next, he became a faculty member with a research-track position at the university in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh for a tenure-track position in 2015. As of June 2020, he is an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Rollins.
Most of Naimi’s research is related to pregnancy outcomes. He is specifically interested in two major areas: The first is the use of machine learning and causal inference techniques to address some challenges and limitations in randomized trials in reproductive and perinatal health. One of his recent research projects included developing a better understanding of the role that daily low-dose aspirin can play in mitigating the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes among women at high risk of pregnancy loss. His other interest is addressing the issues around the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence in terms of social justice. For instance, identifying the algorithmic biases, why they happen, and how to reduce their potential impacts on already disadvantaged populations.
“In many ways, what my research and teaching are aimed at doing is to bring a degree of healthy skepticism about and humility to science. People think of science as a machine—you put data in and out comes the answers we all need. It’s not that straightforward,” Naimi says.
He adds, “Humility is needed. It comes from understanding details about how the scientific process works and how the tools work, where they’re limited, and why they don’t always provide us with the answers we need. My goal is to bring that to my field in a healthy, respectful way.”
Naimi joined Rollins’ faculty ranks in August 2020. Because of the pandemic, he delayed the move from Pittsburgh to Atlanta to June 2021. He will teach the Epi Methods Course this fall.
“I’m changing it up to expose students to machine learning and will be incorporating those advanced algorithms into the course. My whole approach is to say, ‘Proceed with caution and here are the questions you should ask and have answered before assuming these algorithms are the best out there,’” he says.
Naimi says teaching defines him. “Academia is the place where people come together to learn about the world and share that knowledge and understanding far and wide. This is one of my most cherished values.”