Jul. 12 2018

Pipeline Programs Help Students Get a Leg Up on Careers in Public Health

Mailman School summer programs equip minority college students with the skills to pursue a professional life in the health sciences

A classroom of college undergraduates formulated their thoughts on the forces that give rise to health disparities. Responding to prompts from instructor Sharon Washington, EdD, MPH ‘12, the group examined how race, a social construct, is often misconstrued as a biological fact, while racism, which deprives people of resources and subjects them to stress, creates ill health.

These students are part of the Summer Public Health Scholars program which provides more than 40 undergraduate minority students a 10-week introduction to public health and its applications to medicine, nursing, and dentistry. While most of the Mailman School’s graduate students are away on summer practicums, undergraduates from across the country take their place on campus, participating in “pipeline” programs that give them a head start on careers in the health sciences. Many students in these programs go on to pursue graduate studies, including at Mailman. Other programs held this summer at the Mailman School include the Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training (BEST) program, the Program to Inspire Minority Undergraduates in Environmental Health Science Research (PrIMER), and the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Fellowship.

Summer Public Health Scholars, the largest of the pipeline programs, is co-led by Robert Fullilove, EdD, professor of Sociomedical Sciences. Fullilove shares teaching duties with Washington, a professor at Temple University, in the class on health disparities and cultural competency. Classes are supplemented by mentoring provided by faculty from across Columbia University Medical Center, internships, and field trips, capped by a special tour of the Atlanta headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has funded the program since 2011.

“Summer Scholars and its sister programs are laying the groundwork for careers that pay dividends both for these talented students and for the field of public health for decades to come,” says Fullilove, who is also Associate Dean for Community and Minority Affairs. “More than ever, their unique perspectives are needed to solve our most urgent health challenges, so many of which are rooted in racial and economic disparities.”

The Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training program, or BEST, which celebrated its 10th-anniversary last summer, pairs undergraduates with faculty mentors to work on a research project; this summer’s findings will be on display in Hess Commons on July 19. Of the 138 students who have taken part in the National Institutes of Health-funded BEST program, 126 have graduated from college, and of those who have graduated, 57 percent have gone on to pursue graduate degrees.

The Program to Inspire Minority Undergraduates in Environmental Health Science Research, better known as PrIMER, offers New York City-area undergraduates an intensive introduction to the field through classroom lessons and hands-on work in the Mailman School’s Environmental Health Science laboratories—among the nation’s largest and most advanced for a public health school. The NIH-funded program, which continues over two summers, also helps students prep for the GREs.

Another NIH-funded program, the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Fellowship starts and ends with classes on the Mailman School campus. For eight weeks in June and July, the undergraduates complete fieldwork at ICAP sites in the Dominican Republic, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Like the other Mailman pipeline programs, the experience is fully funded, with all student expenses paid.

Back in the Summer Scholars classroom on a recent Thursday morning, Tirzah Sheppard, a rising senior at Temple University, brought up the issue of sickle cell anemia. While the disease is often associated with African-Americans, research shows that the genetic mutation giving rise to the illness originated in Mediterranean populations. The misguided notion that race is a biological fact, not a social construction, can have real-world implications, noted Sheppard, who identifies as Afro-Latina. Physicians might miss the disease in someone with fair skin while subjecting someone with east or south African ancestry to unnecessary testing.

Three days a week Sheppard interns with the Health Initiatives Department in the New York City Housing Authority as part of a program that goes borough to borough to reach out to young people to help them understand tobacco-free housing policies. Among the techniques she employs is a version of the Jeopardy quiz game that highlights not only the dangers of secondhand smoke, but also the meaning of health equity and the social factors that shape our health.                                                       

“The Summer Scholars program has opened my eyes to the sheer breadth of public health,” said Sheppard. “Most of all, I’m excited by all the ways I can make a difference as a public health professional. At the same time, the program is giving me the connections and confidence to help me navigate my career.”