The Epidemiologist Next Door

DGHI's Emily Smith mines personal and professional experiences in a new book, which asks what it means to love your neighbor.

Emily Smith and book cover

By Alicia Banks

Published October 20, 2023 under Around DGHI

Fifteen months. That’s how long Emily Smith, Ph.D., suffered debilitating migraines. The headaches began in 2021, as millions of people were reading Smith’s posts on a Facebook page called “Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist,” which she started to share information about COVID-19. Many readers were appreciative, but others took issue with what Smith, an epidemiologist, had to say about public health measures to control the pandemic. Neighbors left threatening messages at the home she shared with her husband and two children in Waco, Texas.

“Six months in bed and nine months fully in the house,” recalls Smith, who is now an assistant professor of emergency medicine, surgery and global health at the Duke Global Health Institute. “It was my body’s response to the trauma.”

But Smith found an outlet for her stress: writing.  

She turned those experiences into a book, “The Science of the Good Samaritan: Thinking Bigger About Loving Our Neighbors,” slated for release on Oct. 24 by Harper Collins. The book is an extension of her faith and science, rooted in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. Smith pulls from her life’s experiences, those who inspire her and history from around the world.

Ahead of the book’s release, Smith spoke with DGHI about the meaning of the book’s title, her favorite chapters and what she wants readers to take away from her experiences.

The book is written in response to those who asked, “But what’s next? How do I be a neighbor in today’s world that is set up to do quite the opposite?”

The book includes your own experiences that are personal and academic, but what else can readers expect?

It has storytelling, mixing academics, data and personal stories, because I didn’t want it to be boring. There’s power in storytelling, so stories are weaved in the book alongside the data and science. Although the book is not about COVID-19, it’s a response to what I saw during the pandemic such as Christian nationalism and structural violence, systemic racism and poverty and inequities. These inequities have always been here, but for some people, it was the first time it was highlighted for them because of the pandemic.

The book is written in response to those who asked, “But what’s next? How do I be a neighbor in today’s world that is set up to do quite the opposite?” You’ll also see ‘And/Also’ throughout the book. Lots of people donate food or money a few times of year. This book is about doing that ‘And/Also,’ centering our lives towards equity so the rest of our actions, including how we spend our money, how we vote, and how we talk, shows neighboring, too.

What does “the science of the Good Samaritan” mean to you?  

In my first epidemiology class, my professor was very social justice-minded and said epidemiology is about knowing who is at risk of a disease and what to do about it. It struck me that day epidemiology is the science of the Good Samaritan: quantifying a need and choosing not to walk by when you see the problem. I can do that as an epidemiologist with data and advocacy, but I also think everyone can do that in their own lives, too.

This theme of “love your neighbor” resonates with lots of people, regardless of faith. I didn’t want to center this book on only one faith or even faith at all. At the beginning of the book, I have a thread about how to love your neighbor is from all major religions [including Islam and Judaism]. I even added, “Love your neighbor. That’s just being a good human,” one of my kids said during the pandemic. I think being a good neighbor will resonate with a lot of people.

 Emily Smith and Edna Adan Ismail

Did you ever see yourself writing a book as part of your career?

I’ve always wanted to write a book. I wrote and illustrated a book about an elf in a green cave when I was eight or nine and gave it to my grandmother who published a book of jokes. So, I think it’s in my bones, and I’ve always really enjoyed writing, especially when you can link it to help people.

What are your favorite chapters in the book and why?

Chapter three talks about The Great Scramble (colonization of Africa) and how that traces to the present with my work in Somaliland. That had modern day ramifications in terms of countries that are currently the poorest and most unstable. When people can understand that, my hope is that they can quit shaming groups and realize many modern-day problems, like poverty and unequal access to healthcare, are of no fault of their own.

Also, I talk about redlining here in Durham and the systematic racism of it we still now today. A lot of people haven’t been taught that history. When you understand the history of a place, you quit shaming. When we learn about it, you can be a better person. Then, it makes us better neighbors. I talk about history and data quite a bit to help quantify the need for people.

I’ve learned to be authentic and bold, which naturally I’m neither. I have a lot more courage than what I thought I did.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Chapter 12 is called “To Be You,” and I hope they laugh when they read it. I talk about a lady who sat beside me at the United Nations who made big outbursts, and I’m more diplomatic. We need both versions in this world, and it’s OK to be you. I hope they have the courage to be who they want to be as neighbors.

What’s a lesson you learned from writing this book?

Because of the costs of the pandemic, I feel I’m more of myself than I’ve ever been before. I’ve learned to be authentic and bold, which naturally I’m neither. I have a lot more courage than what I thought I did.

We can’t do it all, but we can do something. The value in doing something with people around you who are like minded is unparalleled. You need that community. I’m braver for it and hopefully, a better global neighbor too.