Public-health program draws diverse crowd

When she worked to raise money for an AIDS advocacy organization, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, as a high school student, Lauren Taylor ’08 said a career involving health was only a faint possibility in the distant future.

But all that changed when she came to Yale.

When she arrived at Yale, courses like “AIDS and Society” and “Topics in Global Health” piqued her interest in public health. But it was the Yale School of Public Health — where she took an introductory global-health seminar her sophomore year — that really made the final impression.

A history of medicine, history of science major, who was formerly a Directed Studies student, Taylor said the atmosphere at YSPH appealed to her because of its “sense of urgency … and purpose” — something she found lacking from many of her highly theory-based undergraduate courses.

“I had become really frustrated with how theoretical and esoterical my classes had been,” she said. “I’d think, ‘Okay, that was really interesting. Now what do I do with this?’ ”

This question was one that drove her to apply, during her junior year, to the YSPH’s Select Program in Public Health, a joint program that offers Yale undergraduates the chance to graduate with a master’s in Public Health in addition to their undergraduate bachelor’s degree, over the course of five years.

Taylor is just one of 39 students who have been admitted to the program over the three years it is has been in existence — many of whom apply seeking a practical, hands-on experience with public health, despite having diverse backgrounds and career goals, Mark Schlesinger, director of undergraduate studies for the select program, said.

“The program was designed to augment their education in a way that brought their knowledge into the real world,” he said. “It gives them a chance to do things that would be substantively meaningful.”

He added that the 90 or so applicants the program has seen over the past three years do not fit any single category, and represent virtually every undergraduate department — from political science to biology to psychology.

Perhaps surprisingly, only “a tiny minority” have aspirations to become public health professionals, he said. Instead, many, like Brian Wayda ’07 EPH ’08, see the degree as a stepping stone to another professional track. Wayda, who double-majored in physics and economics during his time at Yale, said his long-term goal is to attend medical school, a desire that his courses in health management through the Select Program have confirmed.

Some — like Laura Chandhok ’08 — view it as a training ground for practical skills that will stand them in good stead for a health advocacy career in the non-profit world.

Still others, like Paula Chatterjee ’09, who also has plans to become a doctor, look at it as a chance to delve into health issues, like international healthcare systems and disease epidemiology, which may not be offered at the undergraduate level through the College.

“It doesn’t matter whether people care about health necessarily. What matters is that they want to use their knowledge in a socially constructive way,” Schlesinger said.

The skills the program emphasizes have a much greater pre-professional bent than those taught at the undergraduate level.

“Instead of writing a term paper, you write a grant proposal,” Chandhok said, adding that the program places a focus on data analysis.

But these skills come with a considerable time investment: The degree keeps its students more than busy over the five-year course of study, interviewed Select Program candidates said. Completing the program requires candidates to take a total of 18 course units over the course of five years. In their four undergraduate years, students must complete six M.P.H. course units in addition to their undergraduate major, two of which can come from a list of pre-approved undergraduate courses in health.

In addition to the academic course load, the program stipulates that students conduct a public health internship over the summer between their fourth and final year, as well as a master’s thesis — which comprises two course units — over their last year.

But Chandhok, who said she would not have necessarily applied to a two-year MPH program after graduation, was drawn to the idea of investing only a single additional year to gain another degree.

“A year isn’t very much time to spend,” Taylor said. “It really limits the commitment you’re making.”

Indeed, up to a third of candidates go above and beyond the minimal requirements of the degree to take graduate classes beyond the requirement. Schlesinger said.

The program offers eight possible concentrations to candidates, covering everything from environmental health sciences to biostatistics. The Health Management concentration is unique among the eight in that it combines courses at the YSPH with courses at the School of Management.

“We all have an appreciation for how broad the field is, and we have our own reasons for being passionate about it,” Chatterjee, a prospective chronic disease epidemiology concentrator, said. Chatterjee herself became interested in epidemiology after having gained first-hand experience working with a Calcutta-based breast cancer support network and at a research lab at the School of Medicine on the biology of type II diabetes.

When the Select Program was created in 2006, its subsidiary aim was to serve as the “educational bridge” between the undergraduate campus and the medical school campus, bridging the spatial and psychological six-block divide, Schlesinger said.

Before the five-year program, the MPH cohort was relatively more homogenous, comprising largely of professionals with doctoral degrees in health related fields, he explained. The five-year program for undergraduates at the College was enacted, in part, to increase the diversity of ages and backgrounds represented among the MPH group, he said.

But this has both benefits and drawbacks, Wayda said.

The obvious plus is that the Select Program offers Yalies the chance to learn from, and often collaborate on projects with doctors and other professionals, he said.

Still, at the same time, “It’s tough to become fully integrated into the graduate school community,” Schlesinger said, adding that he felt like the had “two identities” during his senior year. “The administration is working hard to make it truly a five-year program, instead of a four-plus-one-year program.”

But Taylor said the transition was easy for her, even though jumping into a class with people “decades older that you” can be daunting, stressing that she found the classroom procedures at Yale College and at YSPH similar.

What really influenced her decision to pursue public health after college, though, was the passion and commitment of the public health professions she met through her involvement in the program, she said.

“People aren’t in the field because there’s much money to made in it, or because their parents are into it, but because they really want to be,” she said. “That’s type of passion is what I’m looking for.”

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