By Regina Nuzzo
Seeing the Pattern
Timothy Rebbeck is using his eye for detail to help solve cancer’s puzzles
By Regina Nuzzo
Epidemiologist Timothy Rebbeck had what he describes as “the coup of my life” a few years ago when he spotted an impostor sitting on the shelves of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a collection of Thai pottery. “The moment I saw it, I said, That’s wrong. Nobody ever made a piece that looked like that,” he recalls.
As a hobby, he’d already scrutinized hundreds of examples of this kind of pottery—called Sawankalok, made in Thailand between the 14th and 16th centuries—in out-of-the-way museums around the world. At home he had dozens of valuable pieces of his own. No matter what the museum curators said, he just knew this piece had to be a clever knockoff from modern times.
An eye for spotting patterns helps in Rebbeck’s line of work. As a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Center for Population Health and Health Disparities, among other positions at the university, he knows that a bunch of dots may not reveal much—until you connect them. “In epidemiology, you see lots of numbers, and then you start seeing patterns, and you get a sense for when something is right or wrong, just like with Sawankalok pottery,” he says with a laugh.
Luckily, sensing what lies beyond the obvious is one of Rebbeck’s hallmark talents. “Tim is a brilliant scientist,” says behavioral scientist Caryn Lerman, a colleague and the deputy director of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania. “He also has a unique gift for seeing the big picture.”
In Rebbeck’s prostate cancer research, curious contradictions beg for this big-picture interpretation. For example, autopsy studies suggest that African-American men seem to develop prostate cancer at slightly higher rates than European-American men. African-Americans are also diagnosed with prostate cancer more frequently than European-Americans during their lifetimes. “And when you look at death, the difference is even greater still,” Rebbeck says.
“What that tells me is that the differences in rates from the time you’re diagnosed until the time you die must have to do with cumulative effects of lots of different things: biology, environment, social factors, treatment, access to care,” he says.
Maybe the key is to look not only at your genes or your lifestyle, he says, but also at how your personal environment interacts with these things. “Context is very important,” he says, his ninth-floor office window behind him offering a view of Philadelphia’s urban grittiness. “Do you have a worse diet because you can’t go to the supermarket readily? Do you not get exercise because after it gets dark you can’t go outside your house? A new way of thinking about disparities is to consider genetic susceptibility and individual exposure in the neighborhood context. This is something that’s never really been studied before.”