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Kaye Edwards (front) and Chris Roebuck taught the College's inaugural "Introduction to Health Studies" course.
Kaye Edwards (front) and Chris Roebuck taught the College's inaugural "Introduction to Health Studies" course.

New Perspective on Health

It’s an early April afternoon, and in a packed classroom in Hilles Hall, the College’s first-ever “Introduction to Health Studies” class is exploring complex questions about poverty, violence, and health.

First, three students give a short presentation that looks at whether raising the minimum wage could be viewed as a public health issue. After the class gets the chance to comment, biologist Kaye Edwards and anthropologist Christopher Roebuck, who are teaching the course jointly, guide the group toward the topic of the week’s reading assignment: How is interpersonal violence similar to infectious disease epidemics?

Hands go up around the room. “Violence begins with one person, and it spreads,” offers one student. “To stop it, you need to find the root causes,” says another. As Roebuck jots their responses on the chalkboard, Edwards cues a video of a TED Talk by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who applies the principles of public health to reducing violence in communities across the U.S. “Violence as a disease is more than a metaphor,” Slutkin declares in the video, but after it ends Edwards asks the group to consider just how precise the parallel is between violence and infectious disease. “Learned behavior can increase violence,” she observes. “But does learned behavior increase infectious disease?”

This challenging class marked the launch of the new Bi-College Multi-disciplinary Health Studies Program, which gives students in any major an opportunity to minor in health studies. Along with the intro course, which is designed to be team taught by two faculty members from different disciplines, the minor encompasses a capstone seminar that will feature distinguished speakers in the field of health studies, plus four additional courses to be selected from an approved list of courses offered at Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

“There are health studies majors and minors developing at colleges across the country,” says Edwards, an associate professor of Independent College Programs and the director of the new program. “But what makes us distinctive is that we are deliberately multidisciplinary across all three academic areas. We have a natural science, a social science, as well as a humanities focus.” Edwards, who received her Ph.D. in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and did postdoctoral work in tropical parasitology, says the idea for the health studies program has been evolving since she first taught a course called “Disease and Discrimination” in 1993. Over the years, she advised students looking to piece together independent majors or minors in public health or health studies. But it was clear there was interest in, and a need for, something more.

“Many of our students who are interested in health don’t necessarily want to be a nurse or a doctor or a care provider,” Edwards says. “They are interested in the policy issues, and the educational issues. Or they are interested in health-care management, or in becoming a medical anthropologist. The health studies minor will allow them to go in many different directions.”

As they worked to create the program, Edwards and her counterparts at Bryn Mawr found a model in the Tri-College Program in Environmental Studies, which is also multidisciplinary. “They were incredibly helpful as we worked on planning this,” she says.

More than 30 students enrolled in the inaugural health studies intro course, and 15 have declared their intention to minor in the field. During the next academic year, the course offerings will expand, with visiting faculty at Haverford teaching classes on health statistics and social epidemiology. Roebuck, a medical anthropologist whose research includes work on the United Nations-sponsored “HIV Stigma Index,” will also reprise a course he taught in the spring, “Viruses, Humans, Vital Politics: An Anthropology of HIV and AIDS.”

“The new health studies minor now offers students a coherent structure,” says Edwards. “The introductory course gives them a shared vocabulary, and the capstone seminar experience will allow a group of students to examine health problems using a variety of methodologies. They can approach a health issue from statistics or economics or ethics, or they can look at its biological basis.”

This kind of multidisciplinary approach has the potential to turn out the kind of creative thinkers needed to help solve pressing global health issues, says Edwards. “So much of the work on public health is about doing collaborations. You have to be able to talk with people who are coming from different perspectives.”

—Eils Lotozo

 

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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