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Public Health Connects Physical and Social Sciences

Colorized negative stained transmission electron micrograph of the swine flu virus. Photo by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC.

“Maintaining and improving public health is one of the great mandates of our time, both in the United States and abroad,”  according to the university-wide committee charged with creating AU’s newest major in the College of Arts and Sciences—public health.

The new program offers a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of science, and a minor in public health.  The BA coursework focuses more on the social sciences aspect of public health (e.g., prevention, community health, etc.) whereas the BS coursework focuses more on the science of public health, including biostatistics, advanced work in epidemiology and infectious disease.  Both majors would be suitable for premed students.

A truly interdisciplinary program, the public health program features courses from each school and college at AU. More than 70 faculty members across campus currently conduct research related to health or teach courses in the field.

“We hope to engage many different types of students,” says Lynne Arneson, Premedical Programs Coordinator and an active member of the committee. “This major is really in line with AU’s values.” In addition to premedical students, the program hopes to attract students with an interest in environmental and global issues. 

The program features four course cluster areas:
•    Global Health
•    Health Science
•    Social and Community Health
•    Policy, Program Planning, and Evaluation.
   
Students are required to take classes in all four of these areas, but will ultimately be able to choose a concentration in one of them. “What sets our program apart from other public health programs,” says Arneson, “is that it teaches students the basics, but also allows them to develop their passions.” While many public health programs are isolated, AU’s public health major is highly interdisciplinary. “We hope to use this major to make a good connection between the hard sciences and the social sciences,” says Arneson. Core coursework for the major will involve classes in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Service. Electives include courses from the Schools of Communication and Public Affairs as well as the Kogod School of Business. 

AU’s program is also unique in that it requires students to participate in internships and experiential learning opportunities. Partnerships with public health institutions and NGOs in the DC metropolitan area will provide high quality internships and cooperatives for students.  Opportunities for hands-on experience, particularly in global health, will also be available through AU’s study abroad programs.  “Public Health will be a practical type of major,” says Arneson. “It’s all about applying knowledge.”

The committee hopes to hire a program director with expertise in infectious diseases to support the BS program as well as a full-time assistant director. In addition to existing faculty, these new professors will teach several of the courses being developed to serve this program including Fundamentals of Epidemiology, Introduction to Infectious Disease and the Senior Capstone course. They will also help to facilitate partnerships between students and local health organizations including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. 

Students can declare a public health major in fall 2011. Preliminary surveys of current AU students show substantial interest of students planning to either declare or change their major to public health. “This represents an important further step,” says the committee report “in American University’s commitment to…turning ideas into action and action into service.”