Public Health on the Way to a B.A.

On the Morningside campus, Mailman faculty are introducing public health to Columbia undergraduates with a lens on contemporary social issues.

October 24, 2017

One Thursday in September, a classroom on West 120th Street lit up with a discussion on the epidemic of opioid deaths as a group of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates weighted strategies to stem its tide. A few days later, on the far side of the quad, another group of students compared the results of a survey they conducted on the evolution of American eating habits.

These classes are among five taught by Mailman School faculty on the Morningside Campus this academic year, including both a general survey course and more specialized offerings—all which teach public health fundamentals as they apply to a variety of contemporary social issues.

Nationally, there is an explosion in undergraduate interest in public health with the number of programs dedicated to the subject more than doubling since 2007, according to a study by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. While many of these programs emphasize professional readiness, the Mailman-led courses take a liberal arts approach.

“Public health lends itself quite well to liberal arts study,” says Dana March, assistant professor of Epidemiology whose Introduction to Public Health class covers the opioid epidemic alongside foundational concepts like the social and environmental determinants of health. “To fully understand population health and wellbeing, and how in society we achieve it or compromise it, we need to integrate perspectives from the sciences, arts, and humanities. 

“The idea is that public health is integral to a civil society,” continues March, the director of Undergraduate Programs at Mailman. “We’re interested in educating a global citizenry about the interrelationships among population health and civil society, in the context of a rapidly developing, globalizing, urbanizing, and aging world. No matter what Columbia and Barnard undergraduates go on to do, a population health lens is, in many ways, not only useful, but essential.”

Mailman faculty have been teaching Columbia undergraduates since the late 1990s. This fall, in addition to March’s survey class, offerings include a new course this year, Food, Public Health, and Public Policy with Anne Paxton. Next spring, students get to choose from the Social History of American Public Health with James Colgrove, the Fundamentals of Global Health with Marni Sommer and Rachel Moresky and another new offering, Your Longer Life: Biology, Person, and Society with Ruth Finkelstein and other faculty in the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center.

Looking ahead, Dana March foresees a day when public health has a more official designation at Columbia College. “There is a great deal of interest in a formalized program of study at the undergraduate level,” she says. “It’s also a great fit with the other undergraduate educational offerings at Columbia—at the heart of which is the signature core curriculum.”

On a September weekday, Anne Paxton’s class of about 30 students reports on the results of a survey they conducted with older family members about food. Among their takeaways: a generation ago, families were more likely to eat at home and together; and today, specialty and ethnic foods are a more regular part of diets. Increasingly, one student added, food is about expressing values and identity. “Food is never just fuel,” added Paxton, associate professor of Epidemiology and Population and Family Health. “It has meaning in everyone’s life.”

A few days earlier, March reviewed the latest statistics on the opioid epidemic, noting the drugs are now responsible for more American deaths than the HIV epidemic at its peak. One possible reason, a student offered: pharmaceutical companies aggressively market their products to physicians. March agreed, adding that the United States is also the only country in the world to allow direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs. Another student wondered, as more opioids are sold overseas, what conditions could make an epidemic there more or less likely? Would the availability of universal healthcare make a difference? How about the laws and mores around illegal drug use?

This sort of spirited discussion is far from unusual, says March. “Intellectually, it is such a pleasure to engage with this group. It’s inspiring to have them bring their energy, optimism, and rigor to bear on population health issues. These are the people who will allow us to meet the complex public health demands of the future, and it’s exciting to me.” 

The excitement is mutual. Former students, including Kayla Farrell, who is now pursuing an MPH in Environmental Health Sciences, have found their public health calling as undergrads.

As a Barnard student, Farrell’s initial exposure to the field was the Fundamentals of Global Health course where she was exposed to guest speakers such as Dean Linda P. Fried, New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, and Joseph Graziano, her current advisor. Last spring, she took March’s survey class, which she credits with bringing her to the Mailman School. “Not only did I love Professor March’s lectures,” Farrell says, “but she took the time to get to know all of us and helped me decide that I wanted to go straight to graduate school.”