Interdisciplinary training provides the ideal pathway to a career in public health
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced terms such as epidemiology, herd immunity, and viral transmission into everyday conversation. Now, a new academic program is bringing the discipline of public health into the classroom for students at St. Olaf College.
Public health is a broad field that brings together professionals from different disciplines. Likewise, the public health concentration of St. Olaf covers classes in 14 academic departments, including psychology, economics and mathematics. Any student can focus on public health, even if their primary focus at St. Olaf is as diverse as studio art or political science.
“There is a place for everyone in public health,” says Associate Professor of Nursing and Department Chair Susan Huynh. “It’s not just about treating the patient’s asthma. It’s about watching deep into the complex factors that contribute to asthma, such as air quality and housing.”
There is room for everyone in public health. It’s not just about treating the patient’s asthma. It’s about taking a deep look at the complex factors that contribute to asthma, such as air quality and housing.Associate Professor of Nursing Practice and Department Chair Susan Huynh
The new public health concentration builds on the strength that St. Olaf has a long history of preparing students for careers in health care. Oles as Program Coordinator for the Georgia Department of Health Katie Casa ’12, Chief Operating Officer of the Good Samaritan Health Center Breanna Lathrop ’06 and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Senior Advancement Officer Ian Hamilton ’14 have developed successful careers in public health by using the liberal arts education they received at St. Olaf.
“I think the liberal arts approach is so well-suited to public health because it teaches you to approach a problem from all sides. No discipline really has an answer to a problem. Holistic thinking is required,” says Casa. “No matter what you’re interested in, if you’re passionate about health as a social justice issue, then there’s something you can do in public health.”
I think the liberal arts approach is so well-suited to public health because it teaches you to approach a problem from all sides. No discipline really has an answer to a problem. Holistic thinking is required.Georgia Department of Health Program Coordinator Katie Casa ’12
The new concentration of St. Olaf formalized the interdisciplinary approach to the study of public health.
Among the courses available is one that delves into the science of public health: epidemiology. The class is taught by another Ole who knows a thing or two about public health: Chris Ehresman ’84. She recently retired from a three-decade-long career with the Minnesota Department of Health, most recently as the state’s director of infectious diseases. At MDH, Ehresmann’s leadership helped Minnesota navigate numerous public health challenges, including responses to or preparedness for outbreaks of measles, Ebola and fungal meningitis. Most recently, she played a central role as Minnesota managed the first phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ehresmann is excited to be back on the Hill contributing to the public health concentration. As an expert in epidemiology, she knows the next pandemic won’t be prevented by a team of nurses or doctors alone—and she wants to do her part to prepare the next generation of public health leaders.
“Health is much bigger than doctors and stethoscopes,” she says. “Epidemiology involves teams made up of nurses, doctors, social workers, lawyers and mathematicians.”
Health is much bigger than doctors and stethoscopes. Epidemiology involves teams made up of nurses, doctors, social workers, lawyers and mathematicians.Instructor in Public Health Chris Eresman ’84
In its first year, the concentration has already captured the attention of students.
“We had our first student declare a public health concentration within 24 hours of the announcement [of the new concentration],” says visiting assistant professor of sociology and anthropology and director of the Public Health Concentration Andrea Conger. Part of that excitement is the fact that anyone—even those without a STEM background—can add the public health concentration.
The decision to build public health as a concentration rather than a major was deliberate. While many colleges have majors and minors, St. Olaf is unusual in offering majors and concentrations to students. Concentrations include courses in multiple departments and are designed to be accessible to all students.
People who work in public health need to think big, and this concentration works to develop that thinking style. “We can’t just target one area of public health,” says Conger. “We have to be interdisciplinary.”
We prepare students for jobs we never imagined. How cool is that?Director of the Public Health Concentration Andrea Conger
Because the public health concentration requires students to find connections between health care and other fields, the future of the field is exciting. Oles will consider the public health implications of everything from where a pedestrian bridge is built to how much time high school students should spend in class. “We’re preparing students for jobs we’ve never imagined,” says Conger. “How cool is that?”