Public-health study now an undergrad option

An undergraduate certificate in public health is now available at CU-Boulder.

By Clint Talbott

If the state of the world is flat, hot and crowded, the field of public health is large, diffuse and complex. That’s why the University of Colorado Boulder is giving students the ability to earn an interdisciplinary certificate in public health.

The undergraduate certificate will be open to all majors and encourage students to broaden their education to include some far-ranging elements of public health. One goal is to help prepare students in a wide range of fields for the public-health issues that, during their working lives, might land on their desks.

Matthew McQueen, associate professor of integrative physiology and director of the certificate program, emphasizes that point: “Public health is not a field that can be addressed within a single, traditional A&S academic department. It just doesn’t work.”

McQueen cites some reasons that “public health” is broad: It encompasses political issues such as how health care is delivered, social issues such as how to provide basic health-care to war refugees, and environmental issues such as how change in climate affects human health.

“It really runs the full gamut from the environment all the way down to our cells.”

The certificate program, which will require that students take courses in biology and statistics, will include two new “core” courses: Introduction to Epidemiology, taught by McQueen, and Introduction to Global Public Health, taught by Elisabeth Root, assistant professor of geography.

In the last four or five years, student interest has grown tremendously.

Ellie Falletta, a senior studying geography and molecular, cellular and developmental biology, said she is proud to see CU-Boulder incorporating public health into its curriculum.

“It has become clear to our generation that the problems that the world faces can no longer be tackled by the traditional fields of study alone,” she said.

“By providing more interdisciplinary certificates like public health, students from a variety of backgrounds and majors will be able to apply their knowledge from these fields and contribute to solving the crucial problems of our generation.”

McQueen added: “We used to distinguish between global public health and public health. But anything can arrive at DIA at any moment from any country in the world. We have to think about public health from a global perspective. There’s no other way to do it.”

The first system to fail in war-torn areas regions is health infrastructure, McQueen said. “Outbreaks of measles and polio and so on arise fairly quickly. We see that in Syria, where there’s been an outbreak of polio. That’s because vaccination programs are on hold until they get things back into order.”

Students who pursue a traditional liberal-arts education might decide to focus on microbiology, neuroscience or medicine, for example.

Such tightly focused educational careers might not be appropriate for those who wish to work in “this vast expanse of public-health disciplines that you work in either as researcher, as a practitioner, (though) maybe not necessarily a clinical practitioner.”

Most traditional colleges have been slow to embrace such interdisciplinary studies. “I think it’s because they don’t know where to put it. … Something like public health, it belongs a little bit here, belongs a little bit there.”

Rather than taking a traditional approach, which would mean establishing a public-health department, “this allows students to have their home base of expertise … economics, anthropology, sociology, integrative physiology, and they can supplement that and get the perspective of public health from their department’s view.

An undergraduate certificate in public health can pave the way for graduate study in public health. “You’ve been exposed to things like epidemiology, environmental health, social demography and these types of courses at the undergraduate level, and you can see how those track into master’s programs, Ph.D. programs that might be more focused.”

With an undergraduate certificate in public health, students “are not going to come out as fully trained public-health professionals, but they can see future careers that include perhaps an element of public health.”

World population growth plays a role in the rising importance of the study of public health, McQueen said. This is true particularly in developing countries, and among those who migrate to other countries, he said.

“They bring their own vulnerabilities, but then they’re entering into new environments that create new susceptibilities for them healthwise.” And as world population grows, there’s more competition for resources, plus a higher risk for health problems linked to changing environmental conditions, he said.

Further, countries such as China face looming public-health crises because of the prevalence of cigarette smoking there. “And the government is trying to weigh how much it’s going to treat lung-cancer cases. It’s going to be a huge burden to that country at some point and will cost a lot of money.”

“In a very short period of time, you have a very rapid migration of rural to urban and living in crowded quarters, and diets change dramatically—you’re probably not eating what you should be eating, probably not being as active as you should be—and that’s all population density.”

“We need to be acutely aware of the changes, because changes happen so quickly now. It’s not slow, gradual things that are going on. Within a couple of decades, you can have a completely changed economy, workforce, living structure, demography, aging populations.”

The public-health certificate should pull majors into fields they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. “I don’t know how many integrative physiology students take a geography class. It’s not many, I would bet, for example,” he said.

“You get different perspectives. When you learn about public health from a geography faculty member, that’s a different perspective. If somebody in sociology or somebody in economics learns epidemiology from somebody in integrative physiology, they can see how we come to the table with our perspective on public health and how we can improve public health.”

The first students to earn the new certificate in public health—which would complement their major degree of study—could graduate in fall 2015.

McQueen emphasized that while he spearheads the certificate program, the effort itself is deeply collaborative. “This is a multiple-faculty-led initiative.”

Falletta became a strong advocate for a public health certificate because she felt there had been “a void in my education.” As a double major, “I became frustrated by what felt like a huge disconnect between the social and hard sciences in my coursework.”

When Falletta joined GlobeMed, a student-run non-profit on campus that advocates global health equity, “I was finally exposed to issues related to public health,” she said. The group’s weekly meetings focus on what global health equity is, what students’ role within that movement looks like, and how to approach such issues with a critical perspective.

“This education outside of the classroom fueled my passion for public health, but it also troubled me that not all students had this same opportunity within the classroom,” she said.

As a CU student legislator, Falletta advocated for the certificate. “The administration quickly became aware that this was a course of study that students were demanding and interested in pursuing.”

Falletta is graduating and will not be able to pursue the public-health certificate herself. “But I am excited for all of the current and future Buffs who will now have this opportunity! It makes me hopeful that the university is headed in the right direction and will continue to work to prepare students with a practical education that can be used to solve some of the biggest challenges communities face in Colorado and around the world.”

To learn more about the public-health certificate program, see http://www.colorado.edu/publichealthprogram/

Clint Talbott is publications and external relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences and editor of the College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.

May 29, 2014

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