Medical Schools Fight the War Against Disease

Epidemiologists go straight to the source, then sift their data one clue at a time.

By + More

At more than 80 other universities across the United States, students are finding solid graduate education in epidemiology, mentoring, and research opportunities, as well. The University of Washington, for example, has a well-respected public health school with a research-oriented epidemiology faculty. "We place a heavy emphasis on moving rapidly from the classroom to research activities," says Stephen Schwartz, director of graduate epidemiology programs. Among 193 faculty members, students can usually find a research topic that inspires them, and a faculty search engine makes that easy to do.

Breaking down walls between disciplines distinguishes the University of Michigan from many other schools of public health. Many of its 108 faculty members have joint appointments in medicine, sociology, environmental health, or other disciplines. Students learn to master the statistical tools of epidemiology and apply them to other problems. "AIDS taught us the necessity of this," says Sharon Kardia, who is chair of Michigan's epidemiology department. "The infectious disease people had taken a molecular approach—the bugs—but never really looked at how social networks could be involved."

Once epidemiology practitioners had identified the social groups becoming infected, prevention efforts became more efficient. One benefit of Michigan's interdisciplinary approach: It attracts research dollars and experienced faculty on emerging issues such as bioterrorism.

In the nation's capital, George Washington University is training women and men for the public health workforce. Faculty members often provide technical assistance to government agencies such as the District of Columbia Health Department. "We believe in the M.P.H. [master's of public health] as a terminal degree," says Manya Magnus, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. "People can live a very happy, productive public health life." Students are encouraged to spend time off campus working on studies with public health professionals in nonprofits and government agencies, many of which will hire them after graduation.

That's 23-year-old Matt Goldshore's story. Working on an HIV study through the D.C. Health Department was more than just a job he took while earning the master's degree he expects to collect this May. The project taught him ways of connecting with people, a skill he will need as an American medical student and, someday, a disease fighter in Africa. In August, Goldshore will begin seven more years of study toward his M.D. and Ph.D. in public health from the school of his choice: GW. "This place draws people who want to save the world," he says.