Eighth Graders Get a Lesson in Public Health
Over the course of a month-long science project, eighth graders at the Hunter’s Point Community Middle School in Queens adopted an infectious disease, choosing from options like Ebola, bubonic plague, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and Zika. The students learned about how their disease inflicts harm on the body as well as how it spreads within the community. In early December, the class took a field trip to the Columbia Mailman School to gather more data about the diseases they’ve been studying and the people who research them.
In a classroom in the Hammer Health Sciences Center, faculty from the Department of Epidemiology told the students what inspired them to pursue a career in public health and fielded questions from the inquisitive tweens. For starters, the young people wanted to know, what exactly is public health?
A lot of people think about health in the context of doctors and hospitals, said Charles Branas, chair of Epidemiology. In fact, he continued, our health comprises much more than our individual medical histories. The health and well-being of whole neighborhoods is shaped by everything from air pollution to the availability of affordable housing, from vaccination rates to programs to prevent gun violence—all subjects studied by public health researchers.
As faculty demonstrated, the variety of questions studied in public health is as varied as the career paths into the field. Branas, for example, started as an EMS worker, an experience that led him to study trauma care and then the prevention of gun violence. Manuela Orjuela, a literature major before she became a pediatric oncologist and epidemiologist, found her way to public health by way of a study of the parasite leishmaniasis in Colombia. Lauren Houghton transitioned into public health from anthropology—which is not, as one student guessed, the study of ants—through research into puberty in Bangladesh.
While discussing her research on breast cancer, Houghton asked the class whether they thought diseases were the result of someone’s genes or the environment they live in— such as exposure to chemicals that interfere with their hormones. One student’s answer came in the form of a question: Could it be both? Yes, Houghton replied, “What you just hit on is a key concept in epidemiology called ‘interaction.’”
After lunch, the visitors joined a graduate-level class in cancer epidemiology taught by Jasmine McDonald. The experience was thrilling for her students, says teacher Taryn Martinez.
“Our students took pages of notes during Dr. McDonald’s lecture, above and beyond what they were required to do,” said Martinez, who helped design the “Mission: Outbreak!” class project. “In general, they were inspired to hear about the work these professionals do and it caused them to think more concretely about the paths that could be open to them in the future, too.”
To this point, one of the students had already posed a question on the minds of many of his classmates: “How can I go to school here?”
McDonald, who says she was impressed with the group’s deep curiosity, offered words of advice. “Push each other and motivate each other,” she said. “You’re already ahead of the curve.”