Researcher Spotlight: Noori Akhtar-Danesh
Nov 17, 2020
By Guylaine Spencer
A researcher’s road can take surprising turns. The journey of Dr. Noori Akhtar-Danesh is a good example. The first time he encountered Q-methodology, one of his areas of research focus, he almost walked away from it.
The tale illustrates the importance of being open and curious. “I started my work at McMaster University in 2003,” Akhtar-Danesh explains. “Soon after, I was asked to review a manuscript. As a statistician, I am often asked to look at the statistical components of a paper. This one was using Q-methodology. I didn’t know anything about Q-methodology at the time. At first, I thought I should decline to review the manuscript. But then I told myself: Wait, see what it is. I went and read about it, and it was interesting. Based on that knowledge, I reviewed the manuscript. That was a starting point for me to learn something new.”
Akhtar-Danesh went on to become an expert in Q-methodology. “My focus is on the improvement of the methodology itself. I have developed some software for analysis, which people are using. I introduced Q-methodology at McMaster and held the 2008 Annual Q-Conference at McMaster,” says Akhtar-Danesh.
What is Q-methodology? In simple terms, it’s a tool that researchers use to answer subjective questions. “There are many areas of research where the study outcome is subjective. For instance, we cannot measure an individual’s perspective or satisfaction in the same way we can measure height, weight, blood pressure. It depends on the subject. We may have the same level of pain but report it differently. That is where Q-methodology has become helpful. It’s a different approach for gathering and analyzing subjective data,” he explains.
His other research focus is the analysis of cancer survival data. “People might ask why this is important. Cancer survival analysis shows the improvement that we get over time based on different treatments, such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.” A recent study he completed dealt with trends in survival for high-mortality cancers. “We analyzed the results and the general finding was that surgery worked better for those cancers that are susceptible to treatment. For instance, we saw a 20% increase in the 5-year survival rate for lung cancer from 2007 to 2015. This was a very interesting study. We published five articles from that project,” he notes. Studies like this can guide future health care plans and provide hope for patients.
One of his current studies is about using Q-methodology for course evaluations. Akhtar-Danesh is a co-principal investigator along with Dr. Bruce Wainman of the department of pathology and molecular medicine. The project could change how instructors administer, employ, and interpret course evaluations.
Akhtar-Danesh first became interested in research during his graduate studies. “My first study was for my master’s degree in biostatistics. I looked at different research topics and finally settled on the following question: What are the risk factors for babies born with birth defects? I was living in Iran in the 1980s and there was a war between Iran and Iraq. I looked at the environment and found that the most important risk factor was how close pregnant women lived to the war zones. That had a big effect on birth defects.”
The value of starting with a simple, clear question has stayed with him and is part of the advice he offers new researchers. “We can’t answer the whole world’s problems. Having a simple question and answering it is vital. Also, research doesn’t always go forward as we expect, so having patience is very important. During the process, we must be open to collaboration and to different ideas, mentorship and advice from senior researchers.”
Coming up with a “researchable” question is part of what Akhtar-Danesh enjoys most about research. “Conducting analysis and answering your research question are also very exciting. And last but not least, I enjoy collaborating with other people, other departments and sometimes other universities.”
Researcher Spotlight: Sandra Carroll