Students Find Epidemiology an Infectious Career

Posted: March 10, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

tuberculosis cells
Mason’s new certificate program in epidemiology has students enrolled who are researching the risk factors for breast cancer and the distribution of rare tropical diseases such as African eye worm.
Public Health Image Library, Center for Disease Control and Prevention: pictured is Histopathology of tuberculosis, endometrium. Ziehl-Neelsen stain.

By Tara Laskowski

During a lecture at Mason last semester, Kathryn Jacobsen asked students, “How many people here are afraid of getting the Ebola virus?”

Almost everyone in the room raised their hands.

She then asked, “And how many of you are fearful of getting the flu this season?”

This time, there was a sparse show of hands.

Kathryn Jacobsen
Kathryn Jacobsen
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Jacobsen, an epidemiologist and expert in infectious diseases in the Global and Community Health Program at Mason, says that this is the typical response she gets when she poses these questions.

“Diseases like Ebola are frightening to people because they are rare and exotic,” she says. “But if you look at the statistics — which is what epidemiologists do — Ebola killed less than 100 people in the world last year. The flu, on the other hand, is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths in the United States every year.”

The Numbers of Medicine

When the evening news reports a new finding about the link between broccoli and cancer, chances are an epidemiologist was behind it. When public health officials post signage during flu season about the proper way to wash hands, it’s because an epidemiologist discovered that was an effective way to reduce infection.

Epidemiology is the study of factors affecting the health and illness of populations. Epidemiologists are the “number crunchers” – the statistical gurus behind public health. They tell us how eating specific foods affects the likelihood of developing cancer; the most effective ways to reduce the risk of contracting an infection; and why smokers might have bigger dental bills than nonsmokers.

“We’re not clinical doctors. We don’t treat people, and we don’t prescribe medicine,” says Jacobsen. “What we do is design drug trials, track outbreaks and look for the causes of diseases.”

Though epidemiology has been around since the Greek physician Hippocrates, it is gaining in popularity as a field.

Last fall, Mason started a certificate program in epidemiology, which is coordinated by Jacobsen. The program currently has more than a dozen students enrolled. Their research varies from the risk factors for breast cancer to the distribution of rare tropical diseases such as African eye worm.

Besides looking at public health issues globally, the program, Jacobsen believes, also gives students a practical perspective. “We teach them how to ask good questions,” she says.

One student spent a summer in Uganda researching the relationship between nutrition and HIV infection. Another is analyzing data from Chile that looks at childhood bullying and depression. The students come from all backgrounds and programs of study and plan to use the certificate in different ways.

“I think the most beneficial part of the experience is learning to think about the public health issues surrounding work and health,” says Laura Wheeler Poms, a doctoral candidate in industrial/organizational psychology who recently decided to obtain the epidemiology certificate.

“I think I have a broader perspective on what organizational policies can be influenced from a health and epidemiology view to make workers have a more positive work experience.”

Jeannie Padgett, a nurse and flight nurse for the Air Force, became interested in epidemiology after taking Jacobsen’s introductory course as part of her work in the masters of science in international health program.

“This year, I will be using my epidemiology knowledge to help the Air Force’s International Health Service Program write their policies and procedures for assisting developing countries and humanitarian and educational efforts,” says Padgett.

Researching the Cause

When deciding on a career path, Jacobsen was instantly bitten by the epidemiology bug. She knew she wanted to work in the health sciences, and she knew she wanted to work internationally, but she didn’t necessarily want to do clinical work. For her, epidemiology was the best of both worlds.

Book cover
Jacobsen’s textbook, “Introduction to Global Health,” gives an overview of major global health concerns.

Jacobsen researches and teaches about infectious disease epidemiology and the ethics of international health research, and is the author of a new textbook, “Introduction to Global Health,” that gives an overview of major global health concerns ranging from nutrition and infectious disease to reproductive health and occupational injuries.

Although her research has taken her to the mountains of Ecuador to study childhood diarrhea and to South Africa to look at tuberculosis, Jacobsen is still surprised — and even frightened — by infectious diseases.

“Some diseases are just gross, even if the risk of getting them is very low,” she says.

As her personal favorite example, she points to the guinea worm — a parasite found in West Africa that travels through the body before the adult worm, up to 3 feet in length, slowly emerges from a blister near the foot. With less than 10,000 cases of it last year, Jacobsen is confident that the guinea worm will eventually be totally eradicated from Earth.

It is keeping statistics in perspective that Jacobsen stresses. While exotic diseases are more frightening because of their bizarreness, Jacobsen says that the diseases that Americans should be most frightened of are heart disease and cancer. “These are what we are most likely to die from,” she says.

However, when a media blitz around a particular disease causes panic — think avian flu, anthrax or tuberculosis — Jacobsen tries to educate her students on being sensible and getting all the facts.

“While news reports are helpful because they raise awareness, they don’t always give all the information,” she says.

“I tell people to have a reasoned response to new studies and media stories. Outbreaks rarely turn out to be as awful as the media suggests they might become, just as reports on positive new developments rarely turn out to be as good as hoped for. It’s never as bad as they say, and it’s never as good either.”

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