Arsenio Paez shares with us his experiences during his DPhil in Evidence Based-Health Care and his plans to utilise these in his research, and with the students he teaches.
27 July 2023
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Arsenio Paez completed his DPhil in Evidence-Based Health Care in May 2023. Here he shares how this experience will inform his research focused on sleep, Alzheimer's Disease, and dementia and his teaching, in Canada.
Tell me about yourself – where did you study previously?
I'm something of a lifelong learner: this is my 7th time graduating in something. I studied in the US at Northeastern University in Boston for my bachelor’s, my master's, and my doctor degree, and then I went to Harvard for a graduate degree in the Medical School, all in health and health research. Then I came to Oxford for the PGDip in Health Research, then the MSc in Evidence-Based Health Care (EBHC), and now the DPhil. But this DPhil is the crowning lifelong dream for me. I'm drawn to universities, to the exchange of ideas and to that constant flow and debate. But my DPhil experience was the most transformational of them, and it was so from the very first day I applied. At the time I first applied, I realised I had just missed the deadline for the MSc in EBHC, so I applied for the PGDip first, but even then I knew that the goal was the DPhil.
Did this programme differ from your previous experiences?
I think there's something special about EBHC, and it's the people. It doesn’t seem that it has only tutors and students. Rather, it feels like it's this mix of colleagues. In a certain sense, it's a mix of people who are in a shared journey. We learn with them, and from them, and we admire them. I never felt like one little student in a classroom of 100. It always felt to me like a very personal learning experience, and it was transformational enough that it changed my own journey considerably. It certainly influenced my current work. It was just wonderful. I think that the people, the tutors, staff, colleagues at EBHC are where the “magic happens.” I still have great friendships with some of my former tutors, and I still admire them. It's really a community. It's a learning community, and I love that it's an open learning community. It's a diverse and dynamic community in such an ancient place, so you've got this wonderful contrast and interaction between the past, the present, and the future.
Why did you choose Oxford for your DPhil and what helped you make that decision?
There were two reasons:
First, from the time I was a child growing up on a beach in Florida in the United States, I wanted to study at Oxford. It was my dream. It's kind of a slightly sappy story, but it was impossible because we couldn’t afford it - I came from a poor family. So I postponed it until now. I couldn't do it at 18 years of age, so I did in my 40s, which is why, at the end of my DPhil in my viva I shed a few tears, because it’s such an emotional thing for me.
But secondly, there was also the programme. I remember looking at the programme and seeing who was in the programme, what they were doing, and it was just such a wonderful mix of ideas and perspectives. It wasn't all hard-core science, hard-core clinical or hard-core research: It was this wonderful, vibrant mix. And for me, I knew this was a home, this was somewhere where it's possible to think laterally and do things that involve a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and seeing things in a new and different way. I think that is very unique, and I think it's easy to take it for granted and say: “oh, all universities do this”, but they don't - not in the same way. I think this is special to this programme and to this department in particular.
Why Evidence Based Health Care?
I think one of the most important things - especially in this age where there's so much access to so much information, but not necessarily access to how to understand information, how to curate information, even how to disagree about information - is for people to have the ability to really grapple with ideas, and to have a structure for grappling with them. I think that’s vital, so for me it was important be part of a programme that had that basis. Here we consider how to think about the evidence, we think about how to make the evidence, we think about how people consume the evidence, or decide not to, and that’s important. Especially now with what we see with AI and machine learning, and everything else, I think it becomes more important than ever to consider how we think about what evidence is and ask “what is truth, or what is true?” and what kind of truth, to what degree? What is certainty? How much certainty can we have, or do we need? How do we make decisions ourselves, not just patients and consumers and the public? That's a focus of this programme that I think that was very compelling.
What has your experience of the DPhil been?
It was a wonderful challenge. I love this idea that one thinks of something that one really want to know more about, and you approach supervisors, and you have this dialogue, this conversation. I know this from my own experience, but it's one thing knowing it cognitively, and another thing living through it.
What would you tell people considering taking this DPhil?
I’d tell future DPhil students: keep in mind that what you begin with isn't necessarily what you end up with - it's kind of like a moveable feast. As I think back I realise how it has transformed my understanding of things. The experience was wonderful in that it was very dynamic. I love that it was self-directed to a certain point, and it was challenging because of that self-direction, and I think that's what we need. I think it's important to have the ability to make mistakes or not make mistakes, to grapple with yourself or be your own worst critic, or debate, or sometimes say: ‘Okay, this part didn't work. Do we abandon it? Or does it provide an opportunity?’ Those things are important and that's not always built in. I have colleagues in other programmes that are very linear. You do this on Monday, you do this on the Wednesday, you do this on the Friday, and they don't have that opportunity to explore and make mistakes, and fall down and scrape their knee, and get back up and go. So I think that was one of the most wonderful things for me. I think it gave me an even greater sense of myself as a scientist, a greater sense of the things that I find important, and what both my strengths and my weaknesses are. It was a really wonderful experience in that sense and I think it's very transformative. It's the way I always describe the EBHC - as being transformative, and it is - there's no other way around it. You come in one way and you leave another.
I think one could expect it to be very hierarchical and very formal, but it isn't really, and that's one of the most striking things: you can have a thousand years of history and learning and ideas, but it's still an open community and I think that is marvellous.
How did you find Oxford as a place to study and live?
Fabulous. I mean, come on it’s Oxford. It's so vibrant. Living here it’s constantly like: Oh, there's a concert at Exeter. Oh, there's a lunchtime recital at Pembroke. Oh, there's a lecture at the Ashmolean. Oh, there's a thing at the Bodleian.” So, as a place to live and study, it's incomparable. I just think there's so much here and I'm one of those people who will show up to every lecture, even if there are four of them in a day, I'll go to all four. It was actually wonderful. And again, it's just that sense of there being so many things available from so many perspectives and it doesn't become stale because there's this constant influx of new people and new ideas that revive it. You have tradition and modernity together in this amazing way. You have innovation and history together.
I will miss it. Part of me won’t miss knowing that there's something to submit or something to defend, but I will truly miss knowing that it's a daily part of my life. Believe it or not, it's actually going be to a hard adjustment after all these years. And so I hope I'll find ways of staying involved, because it's just become part of me. I think it does that, and that's wonderful. And so I think, for me, I “leave,” but I still remain part of EBHC. Oxford is part of me. When you’re here you're just part of the group and part of the conversation and the excitement - but I'll miss the frequent contact with it.
So if you'd like to tell me a little bit now about what you're looking forward to, what your plans are for the future.
During my DPhil I moved to Canada and started working in research focused on sleep and Alzheimer's Disease and dementia, which was a complete, 180 degree turn for me. I spent my whole life working with children with neurodevelopmental disorders, and now I'm working with older adults. And again, this is part of my journey in EBHC (questions, more questions, more opportunities!). So now I’m applying for some major funding grants in Canada and doing more teaching there. My mission is to take the experience I've had here to Canada. You'll never be able to replicate it anywhere else because it's unique to EBHC, but I can replicate the best parts of it. And that's my plan: to inspire my upcoming students. Of course, if I could send them all here, that'd be great, but at least I can inspire them with everything that I experienced here. It’s just made me more excited about the future and more excited to push the boundaries and ask why, and why and why not, and say “let's find out.” One of the funny things for me is that because of EBHC, I’ve arrived at this conviction that sometimes the question is even more important than the answer, which is a nice thing. So I think my plan is to keep that going and inspire other students and researchers in Canada.
If like me, it’s your dream, just take the leap and apply or you’ll never know how much you'll love the programme and the place and that would be a shame. Considering how many people on the planet dream of things and don't have the opportunity to do it, if you can give it a try, give it a shot. Don't think ‘oh it's not for me’. It is for you, or can be. Everyone started somewhere! So just apply, look into it, talk to other students, come visit. You've got something special in you, otherwise you wouldn't even be at the point of thinking of applying. Let that shine. We shine brighter when we shine together.
And have you yourself inspired others to come and study EBHC?
Yes, with my students in the US and Canada. Whilst I was reading for my DPhil, I inspired them all so much about Oxford and how much I adored the programme and how transformational it was that one of them graduated with the MSc and is now reading for the DPhil. Another one read for the MSc and wants to apply for the DPhil, another just applied for the MSc and yet another is on one of the postgraduate diplomas for Health research. These are four of the greatest students of mine from the last few years, so I feel I'm a good ambassador for the EBHC. A few other students of mine are now considering applying.