New courses, minor added to Public Health offerings

Today’s health challenges are global, involving diseases that must be understood at the cellular level and addressed at the community level. These problems require the development of new interventions, the implementation of new models and the emergence of new systems.

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Public Health Professor Dale Dickinson is teaching two new undergraduate courses in environmental health sciences that show students the effects of everyday environmental exposures on human health.

UAB’s School of Public Health is training educated professionals to forge the best solutions in many ways, including the addition of two new undergraduate-level courses and a public health minor to complement its unique fifth-year master’s program.

“You really can’t look at a disease or person without understanding the context in which it occurs,” says Melissa Galvin, Ph.D., associate dean. “If you tell someone to quit smoking, but everybody in their family smokes, you’re not working on the problem from a comprehensive perspective. The problems we have are multifaceted and will take multiple perspectives and disciplines to affect change.”

That’s certainly the goal of the two new undergraduate courses, both of which are housed in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “Our Global Environment: Issues and Challenges” is being offered for the first time this fall as ENH 400. The second course, “Nature vs. Nurture: Genes, Environment and Health,” is ENH 405 and will be taught for the first time in spring 2012.

Dale Dickinson, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health, is teaching both courses. Dickinson says demand by undergraduates to learn more about how everyday environmental exposures affect human health and cause disease led to the creation of the courses. 

“As a campus, training in health-related professions is one of our strengths,” Dickinson says. “We know there are a great many science undergraduates who come here looking to go to medical school or a health-related profession. Understanding how the environment contributes to human health is essential regardless of the career a student pursues. These new courses are a great way to educate the undergraduate student body about the ways in which the environment interacts with us to affect our health.”

In ENH 400, Dickinson’s students explore the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the environment and examine where the agents we are exposed to originate, how we are exposed to them, how they affect us, and the regulations to reduce exposures; examples include both natural and man-made sources and will include case studies from food and water pollution, indoor and outdoor air pollution, pest and pesticides, and the impact of natural and man-made disasters.

“We’re looking at major factors that are found around us every day, regardless of where we work, live or play,” Dickinson says. “We teach the students to look at how these environmental exposures specifically impact human health. Learning what these factors are is important to students down the road regardless of their chosen profession.  And even as consumers — whether they are food consumers or information consumers — being able to critically evaluate a news article on these topics and understand it on a deeper different level is important as members of society.”

In ENH 405, Dickinson will guide students through the interactions of environment with genetics. Students will investigate why some people are more susceptible to dangerous or damaging environmental exposure as it relates to their individual genetic make-up.

“While our genes sometimes determine our health exclusively, most often their role in disease is influenced by the environment we are in,” Dickinson says. “We’re really talking about susceptibility to disease. It’s not nature versus nurture anymore. We understand both are involved, and both must be understood to best study disease and prevention.”

The class will look at environmental exposures, including nanoparticle exposure, smog, drugs and alcohol, pesticide use, noise pollution, indoor air pollution, contaminants found in plastics, vaccines and sexually transmitted infections. It also will examine positive environmental exposures, including nutraceuticals or functional foods like soy, green tea and garlic.

Disease models studies will include autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, violence, addictions, obesity, intelligence, sexual preference and cancer.

“We’re going to use timely, real world examples to study the gene-environment interaction and how it might best explain why some people more disease prone than others,” Dickinson says. “We’re going to look at what is the underlying evidence of the genetic component, what we know about the medical consequences of the environmental exposure, and how these work together to determine health. There are lots of interesting and contentious topics we can explore.”

ENH 400 is open to anyone and is not a requirement for ENH 405. The only requirement for ENH 405 is completion of Biology 116 or equivalent; completion of or registration in BY210 or BY330 is recommended but not required.

Minor, major

Both courses also can be taken as part of a degree track for a public health minor or as part of the fifth-year major program, a significant benefit to UAB students.

The public health minor was recently approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees and is appropriate for most undergraduate degrees. PUH 301, 302, 303 and 400, which focus on public health, epidemiology and global health, are required for the minor. Students then must get two approved electives to round out the requirements. ENH 400 and 405 are considered appropriate courses, but the electives also may be from any school within the university.

Undergraduate students also may be interested in obtaining a master’s of public health (MPH) degree through a fifth-year program beginning their junior or senior year. Students who begin the fast track program in their junior year can graduate with the MPH degree — the international standard for public health practice — after just five years of school instead of six.

“We’re very excited about the fifth-year master’s program,” Dickinson says. “Our students will learn everything that a student coming here and studying for two years in grad school would, but they would only have to spend one extra year in full time studies. We’re hoping a lot of undergraduates will take a real look at this. If they want to go to medical school and they get in, then they don’t have to finish the master’s, but they’ve got a good background in public health. Or, if they want to go to a professional school and they don’t get in, they can finish this in a year and have a master’s degree in a public health discipline.

“We’re really hoping a lot of students once they start it will fall in love with it and want to do public health practice.”

For more information on the new courses, the public health minor, the fifth-year master’s and the joint M.D./M.P.H. programs, visit www.soph.uab.edu. 

Learning & Development