Global health minor links biomedical science degrees to 'human impact'

University Park, Pa. -- A large group of students majoring in toxicology or in immunology and infectious disease in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are flocking to the new global health minor.

These students are exploiting a rare opportunity to combine specialized coursework in molecular biosciences with courses -- and an international field experience -- in global health and related issues, according to James Endres Howell, program coordinator for the toxicology and immunology and infectious disease majors.

Administered in the College of Health and Human Development, the Global Health minor offers a broad, interdisciplinary experience that opens doors for different career interests and pathways, explained Melina Czymoniewicz-Klippel, Global Health minor coordinator, who noted that already 26 students are enrolled in the 18-credit program, representing a broad spectrum of majors.

Howell praised the competitive nature of the minor. "More students are applying than can be accepted in the program, so only the best students are being selected," he said.

The application for the Global Health minor is extensive, noted Lynn McGowan, of Downingtown, Pa., a junior Schreyer Honors Scholar majoring in immunology and infectious disease, who is enrolled in the minor. "It forced us to consider what we really hoped to get from a study-abroad experience and the significance this experience would hold in our education and growth as individuals," she said.

Each curriculum is tailored to a student's interest, Howell added, pointing out that students choose classes with close guidance from their minor adviser. "Biomedical science courses are offered in lots of programs at Penn State, but finishing these particular programs together provides students a truly interdisciplinary combination of science and social science. It empowers students to go change the world."

There are few toxicology and immunology bachelor's degree programs like Penn State's in the United States, according to Howell. "You can count the others on one hand," he said. "And the new Global Health minor is literally unique. To my knowledge, Penn State is the one and only place where students can get these credentials in four years."

Howell pointed out that the new minor would be strong preparation for a wide range of careers. "In order for people to understand the global-health fields, you have to know more than the science," he said. "You literally and figuratively need to speak the language of the country where you're working."

Students enrolled in the new minor said they believe it makes their education more valuable and will help them apply what they are doing in the classroom -- from the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the immune system to the ecological dynamics of environmental toxicants -- to concrete issues in human health.

"I really like my major, but I don't want to be stuck in a lab my whole life," said Michael Henry, a sophomore Schreyer Honors Scholar double majoring in immunology and infectious disease as well as toxicology. "I feel like this minor adds another facet to my education."

"It's not so much the hard science, but more of the global context of science, that is so valuable," said Anna Jacob, a junior majoring in toxicology and now minoring in Global Health.

Students in the minor are required to complete 18 credits of prescribed and supporting coursework, which includes an introductory global health course, an epidemiology course, and several supporting courses that may focus on a range of topics, including natural disasters, child health and trade policy. Several supporting courses are offered in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The prescribed coursework also requires a for-credit, six-week, supervised fieldwork experience over the summer that allows students to gain firsthand experience of working across cultural boundaries and develop global citizenship skills. The prescribed and supporting minor courses are open to students of all majors, excluding the fieldwork experience course, said Czymoniewicz-Klippel.

"Our goal is to support students to better understand what it means to work within a 'sharing model' of global health, in which people listen to and respect each others' diverse perspectives," she said.

This year, locations for the global health fieldwork include Polokwane and Capetown, South Africa. Jacob, of Rockville, Md., said she is looking forward to being one of the first Penn State students to have this experience because it will tie the academic science she is learning in class to its application.

"All of us in the minor have this feeling that we want to do something beyond ourselves, beyond the lab and an 8-to-5 job," said Henry, of Mechanicsburg, Pa. "And then we get the human, face-to-face impact."

More information on the Global Health minor can be found at http://bbh.hhdev.psu.edu/globalhealth/.

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Last Updated May 03, 2011