Major in Biology of Global Health

Understanding issues of global health requires reaching into a wide range of scientific disciplines and crossing disciplinary boundaries to consider multiple complex, interrelated factors.  Still, expertise in specific disciplines, such as biology, environmental science, and policy (among others) is necessary and beneficial to addressing global health issues. 

This new major in Biology of Global Health is designed as part of a joint initiative in Global and Community Health developed between and within the departments of Health and Human Performance (HHP) and Biology, and complements the major in Public Health Studies in HHP.   The two separate majors, Public Health Studies (HHP) and Biology of Global Health (Biology) will pursue different goals for different populations of students, using different tools.  However, we share common focus on populations and prevention, underserved populations, interdisciplinary focus and approaches, the importance of interrelated systems, be they environmental, social, political, etc., and global perspective.

To complement students’ understanding of the biology of human health and inspire the application of traditional biology to broad complex issues of global health, this major is designed to explore determinants of health (policy, behavior, environment, socio-economic determinants, ethics, health care systems, culture) and prepare students to take on subjects, such as: Infectious diseases; Environmental issues; Molecular biology and biotechnological advances; Demographic and human geographic issues; Biodiversity, genetics, and evolution, all with the aim of understanding and fostering global human health.

Strengthening educational training in global health is crucial to provide the next generation of leaders with the tools required to better tackle domestic and international health disparity challenges.  In 2003, the Institute of Medicine recommended that all undergraduates have access to education in public health.   The US Department of Health and Human Services has issued a call to action with the Healthy People 2020 initiative, which lists as one of their objectives to “increase the proportion of 4-year colleges and universities that offer public health or related majors and/or minors.”  In response, many undergraduate institutions have developed programs in public health. 

Although this major considers human health in large degree, the impacts of humans on the globe as well as the impacts of environmental change on humans are also considered.   In support of the global nature of this major, a component of the program is the requirement that students complete a suitable experiential learning or global engagement project.  This experience can be completed through study abroad in a developing country, work with a related agency or local program, or other approved experience over and above the Human Diversity core curriculum requirement.

This major is distinct from a “pre-health” program in that it embraces a broader definition of “health” with different requirements.  An important distinction being that clinical health (e.g. traditional medicine) is focused toward individual disease diagnosis and treatment, while global health is focused on ecosystems, communities, health, and prevention, fitting with the WHO definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”   In addition, this major espouses the philosophy that environmental sustainability is inherently linked and inseparable from global health, and incorporates ecology and environmental sustainability as a crucial and integrated part of understanding and responding to global health issues.