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College Students Embrace Public Health

School of Public Health offers College students many courses but no concentration

As global health gains popularity, the School of Public Health offers College students many courses but no concentration.
As global health gains popularity, the School of Public Health offers College students many courses but no concentration.
By Cynthia W. Shih, Crimson Staff Writer

In 2010, University President Drew G. Faust promoted the Harvard Global Health Institute to the status of a permanent institute, declaring that improving the state of global health education on campus was one of her highest priorities. Ever since, Harvard has continued its efforts to respond to a quickly growing interest in global health.

“At that time at least, all the global health courses were General Education courses,” said former Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health Barry R. Bloom and co-instructor of Life Sciences 120: “Global Health Threats.”

According to Bloom, LS120 is one of the few full courses in global health that has prerequisites. It was created specifically to provide a comprehensive class that went beyond general education.

“For students who were majoring in science—that have a real interest in science—there wasn’t that much in the advanced realm in global health for which students were really excited,” he added.

With growing undergraduate interest in global health in recent years, the Harvard School of Public Health has provided support to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences by offering more courses taught by HSPH faculty for undergraduates, establishing a unique relationship between the College and one of its graduate schools.

MEETING AN INCREASED DEMAND

Christopher P. Duggan, an associate professor in the department of nutrition at HSPH, spoke of a similar need to introduce more global health courses to meet the increased demand from undergraduates.

“We felt there was an unmet need and certainly a high interest among the undergraduate students to learn about the concepts of nutrition and how that relates to global health,” said Duggan, professor of Science of Living Systems 19: “Nutrition and Public Health,” about his own course.

Duggan’s course, which was first offered in 2010, saw its enrollment increase by more than 70 percent between its first and second year. It is only one of a number of global health courses that have seen rapid growth.

The School of Public Health is now focusing more of its energy on the College to meet this increased undergraduate demand for such coursework, offering more global health-related courses as the topic continues to grow in popularity across the country. Harvard’s expansive resources across the University have helped it match this demand.

“Lots of schools just don’t have the capacity to meet that interest,” said David M. Cutler ’87, the director of graduate and undergraduate education for HGHI.

“Schools that don’t have a medical school or a school of public health...inherently have fewer people to help out the students,” he added. “We have strong professional schools in these areas that help us out and, just in terms of the resources around here, it’s extraordinary.”

However, the increased interaction between HSPH and the College could lead to a draining of graduate resources as more HSPH professors teach in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Duggan acknowledged that the effort required to teach a course is “not insignificant,” but he said that he does not consider the process to be detrimental to graduate studies.

Many faculty work with undergraduate students, according to Cutler, who describes this cross-school pollination as “one of the most transformative experiences in our students’ lives, when they work with a whole host of faculty.”

Though faculty may now be working with students at both the graduate and undergraduate level, Cutler believes that this splitting of resources is not novel. Figuring out how to accommodate the interest of masters students, undergraduates, and researchers in addition to dealing with the physical and technical difficulties of these interactions are just “structural issues that the University has to deal with.”

Cutler said that the School of Public Health’s mission is to train people who will be involved in improving the health of the world.

“They view undergraduates as one of the ways of doing that,” said Cutler. “I don’t think they perceive themselves as being conflicted in any way.”

FOCUS WITHOUT A CONCENTRATION

Harvard first offered a secondary field in health policy in 2007, but in 2010, the secondary field expanded its scope to become the joint global health and health policy secondary that students know today.

“We bring a lot of intellectual excitement to this area,” said Cutler, faculty chair of the secondary field. “It’s such an important and popular field that the student numbers are very high, and you just have to be prepared for a lot of interest.”

According to Cutler, global health and health policy is one of the largest secondary fields. This year, there are roughly 100 GHHP students in the Class of 2012.

Cutler said that the University must work to create better opportunities for students to study topics in global health and health policy, regardless of whether they simply want to take one course on the topic, follow a program of study by taking several courses on the topic, or pursue international and domestic experiences related to public health policy.

Despite the large interest in the GHHP secondary, Cutler insists that there have not been discussions about promoting the secondary to a concentration.

Cutler said GHHP will focus on expanding the range of its classes rather than on developing into a concentration.

BECOMING ONE UNIVERSITY

As the program continues to flourish, some faculty members believe that even more can be done to support undergraduate interest. The major challenge in developing the teaching efforts on the undergraduate and graduate campuses lies in the funding of faculty salaries.

Though the number of faculty teaching global health courses has increased and the research opportunities available to undergraduates both on campus and overseas have increased, the funding for HSPH faculty to teach undergraduates may not be enough of an incentive to foster a stronger cross-school relationship between the College and HSPH.

“Diverting time from their own personal research to teach undergraduates is a much bigger statement than just to say they’re good guys and some of them want to teach undergraduates,” said Bloom. “I think it’s a big trade-off.”

Still, Duggan points to an improvement in funding over the past few years. “There used to be zero, but now I think there’s a moderate amount of salary support for faculty teaching.”

Duggan said that beyond the funding issue, the physical separation of the campuses—with the central FAS campus located in Cambridge and HSPH campus in Longwood—will keep students on the medical or public health track at a disadvantage. However, students can still look to the University’s other graduate schools, such as the Business School or Divinity School, for other kinds of global research.

“They may not be doing global health research, but they’re doing all kinds of global efforts in their fields, some of which are very relevant to public health,” he said.

As the University looks to increase collaboration between schools, the increased role of HSPH in the College marks a possible area for continued cooperation.

“With the tremendous interest on the part of undergraduates, particularly in global health, we take that as a mission and obligation,” Bloom said.

—Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at cshih@college.harvard.edu.

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