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A Major That Matters

By Kristi Birch

On the third floor of the Bloomberg School’s Wolfe Street Building, Zirui Song identifies different species of mosquitoes that may be vectors for the West Nile virus. Two floors up, Patrick Bogard tries to isolate a protein in Simonsiellabacteria. 

Song and Bogard are not faculty or post-docs or even graduate students. They are undergraduates majoring in Public Health Studies at Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

And they’re in good company. In 2004, 84 of Arts & Sciences’ 630 graduating seniors—12.8 percent—majored in public health. Only International Relations claimed more student majors.

“If there’s a single reason this major is popular, it’s because you’ve got two parts of a university promoting an agenda so well,” says James Goodyear, PhD, associate director of the Public Health Studies program and its advisor. 

He’s not just talking about student research in Bloomberg School labs. Bloomberg School faculty go to the Homewood campus to teach undergraduate introductory public health courses. And during their senior year, undergraduates travel across town to take courses at the Bloomberg School alongside graduate students.

Many universities that offer an undergraduate public health degree confine it to one area of public health, such as health policy. In the Hopkins program, students take an introductory curriculum of epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy and management, and environmental health, and then concentrate in natural sciences (fulfilling the pre-med curriculum) or social sciences.

The major has been around since 1976, but until the mid-1990s, it never graduated more than 15 students a year. Because it wasn’t connected to an academic department, it was relatively invisible. In the late 1990s, after Goodyear became the designated public health advisor and Bloomberg School faculty began teaching the introductory epidemiology course, the major became increasingly attractive. Then, in 2000, in response to student demand, the administration granted “program” status to the major, giving it an office, resources and a revised curriculum. 

Participation has increased greatly, thanks in part to the student-created Public Health Students Forum, which does peer advising and recruits first-year students and undeclared majors into the program. And last spring, the first issue of Epidemic Proportions, a public health journal written entirely by undergraduate public health majors, was published.

Students like the real-world application the curriculum offers. “Take a course like physics: Pre-meds say they’ll never use it. They never say that about biostatistics or epidemiology,” says Goodyear.

“I originally wanted to be a doctor but that’s changed,” says Bogard. “Now I’m more into research.” He is planning to get a PhD in biochemistry or another bench science. Whitney Austin, who helped research health care accessibility at the Center for Law and the Public’s Health before she graduated in May, plans to get into an MPH/JD program and work in health law.

“You don’t get this kind of continuance in other disciplines,” says Goodyear, who notes that most liberal arts students go on to careers unrelated to their majors.