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University of Iowa to add undergraduate public health study major

'There is a lot of interest'

University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate Celestin Missikpode (right) speaks about his research project on systems dynamics mod
University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate Celestin Missikpode (right) speaks about his research project on systems dynamics modeling of falls and related injuries with Ryan Carnahan, a professor in the epidemiology department, during a poster session at the College of Public Health in Iowa City on Thursday, May 7, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — When Alfonza Brown was in fifth grade, his teacher read an excerpt from “The Hot Zone,” billed as a “terrifying true story” about the origins and incidents of viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.

And he wanted more.

“I read the whole book,” Brown said. “I thought it was really interesting.”

When he got to the University of Iowa in 2009, Brown struggled to pick a major, but he knew he wanted to conduct some type of research. He connected with a professor in the College of Medicine and spent four years working with influenza, spending one summer in an environmental health center in the northwest African nation of Gambia.

Furthering his education with a master’s degree from the UI College of Public Health suddenly became a clear path for Brown, who earned his undergraduate degree in psychology. But had an undergraduate major in public health been available, Brown said his academic course would have become obvious sooner.

“Given I did have some interest, I would have been able to figure out this is something I want to get a (master’s) in and go on to get a Ph.D.,” said Brown, now 23. “But it was not being offered, so I stepped into it lightly.”

An increase in student interest — as exhibited by Brown — is behind the UI’s decision to start offering the state’s first four-year undergraduate degree in public health in fall 2016. That, along with an expanding public health job market and growing demand for trained employees, has administrators excited about the new program, said Sue Curry, dean of the UI College of Public Health, which currently offers only graduate and professional degrees.

“There’s a national shortage of people with credentials and training in public health,” Curry said.

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The Board of Regents at its last meeting approved the college’s plans to develop two new undergraduate tracks in public health — one following a more liberal arts slant and another focused on the sciences.

Curry said administrators will spend the next year developing curriculum and educating students about what public health encompasses — from infectious diseases to food-borne illnesses to community health, biostatistics, or even human trafficking.

“There is a lot of interest in public health, even if students don’t know that’s what they’re interested in,” Curry said.

Evidence of demand

The UI College of Public Health was established in 1999 and moved into its own building in 2012. It’s the state’s only accredited school in public health, offering master’s degrees in health administration, public health and areas such as epidemiology, health policy and agricultural safety and health.

It also offers doctoral degrees, certificates and undergraduate paths to continuing education.

“The college’s long-term strategy in its strategic plan has been to expand its offerings to include undergraduate education,” according to regent documents.

A growing number of accredited schools nationwide have started doing so.

“And enrollment in these programs has increased significantly during the last five years,” according to regent documents.

Even though the UI has no undergraduate public health major yet, it has offered select classes to undergraduates since 1999, and those classes have swelled.

A fundamentals of public health course, for example, saw fall on-campus enrollment more than double in one year — from 28 to 57. Curry said instructors of that course asked students if they’d be interested in a public health major, and they expressed “considerable enthusiasm.”

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Regarding graduate level enrollment, the UI College of Public Health has seen numbers rise from 324 in 2005 to 370 in 2014. The college has about 80 current faculty members, some of whom have said they’d be willing to teach undergraduate courses.

Undergraduate students interested in the major will be admitted directly, and officials expect an inaugural class of about two dozen with plans to grow it to 500-some by fall 2021.

“We are starting out small,” she said. “And we will innovate.”

Training the future

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited studies showing just 20 percent of public health workers have formal education in the field, and the nation is expected to face a shortage of a quarter-million public health employees by 2020, according to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.

Although specifics of the UI undergraduate program have yet to be determined, the bachelor of arts track will focus on community and behavioral aspects of public health, according to Curry. The Bachelor of Science track will suit students interested in research or preparing for advanced education in biostatistics, dentistry, environmental health, epidemiology, medicine, pharmacy and other medical fields.

The state does have four other programs addressing some aspect of public health, including Allen College’s bachelor of health sciences program with a public health emphasis, University of Northern Iowa’s bachelor of arts program in health promotion, and Iowa State University’s bachelor of science program in kinesiology and health.

Schools in the Midwest offering undergraduate programs similar to the one slated for the UI include the University of Illinois and Saint Louis University, according to regent documents.

UI’s College of Public Health is ranked nationally in the top 10 among publicly supported schools of public health, and officials say an undergraduate addition could benefit the state’s work force and economy.

“These strengths position the College of Public Health to be successful in attracting students from Iowa, the region and nationally to train the future generation of the public health workforce,” according to regent documents.

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Brown, who graduated Friday from the UI College of Public Health with a master’s in epidemiology, said he’s interviewing with state and county health departments and is hopeful for fast placement. He said undergraduates who get on the public health track early should have even more flexibility in their careers.

“They’ll have the opportunity to explore and see if they’re really interested,” he said.

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