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July 28, 2017

Biology of Global Health Major Shapes Students for Global Health Future

Global health is a growing and diverse field that merges scientific inquiry with population health studies in order to achieve significant social impacts. At Georgetown, the interdisciplinarity of this emerging field is illustrated by the College’s biology of global health (BGH) major.

Dr. Anne Rosenwald and Dr. Heidi Elmendorf launched the major in 2007 and have remained as co-directors since. Though it was initially expected to be a small major within the Department of Biology, the BGH major has since grown to be the largest major of the four housed in the department, currently boasting a cohort of nearly 100 rising juniors and seniors. This steady increase in the BGH program’s popularity is a sign of the growing relevance of global health at Georgetown and around the world.

Addressing a Need

Though neither Elmendorf nor Rosenwald came into Georgetown with backgrounds in global health policy, it became apparent that their department needed a major that would help students make the transition into thinking about how work in the biology lab has impact on global health issues.

“Georgetown was a logical place to do global health work because of the institution’s focus on health disparities and its global perspective,” noted Elmendorf.

And so the BGH program came into being. Rosenwald explained that that the mission behind the program was to apply the biology knowledge that students were learning in the classroom to real-world global health problems.

“Our philosophy for the major is that we expect students to have a rigorous background in science but we also expect them to make connections to the role that science plays in society, especially on the ideas of health at the population level,” Dr. Rosenwald said.

A Unique Approach to Global Health

One of the main components of the major is to guide students into becoming good communicators of science to different audiences, and this requisite writing course, Introduction to Biology of Global Health, counts toward the writing in the discipline requirement for undergraduates. In this class, students learn to write for a variety of different audiences, from the general public to experts in the field.

Another main focus of the BGH program is familiarizing students with appropriate literature, including scientific research articles, grant proposals, and government documents. The sophomore gateway course is split into two parts and is co-taught by Rosenwald and Elmendorf. The first half focuses on cancer and brings in historical material to illustrate the pivotal discoveries in the field, while the second half focuses on current malaria research and emphasizes how quickly the field is evolving.

Another unique aspect of the program is its interdisciplinary framework. The major not only includes classes that instill a deep understanding of biology and associated “hard sciences,” including chemistry, math, and statistics, but also requires corollary coursework in interdisciplinary perspectives, policy, economics, ethics, and sociology. Many of these additional courses are taught in the International Health Department in the School of Nursing and Health Studies or the science, technology, and international affairs major in the School of Foreign Service.

“The goal of this program, and in particular the corollary courses, is to create T-shaped individuals who not only have a deep understanding of scientific topics, but also have a wide range of knowledge in other subjects that are necessary to understand and communicate global health challenges,” Elmendorf explained.

Pursuing the Biology of Global Health

Since the launch of the BGH major in 2007, graduates have gone into careers in medicine, public health, biology and epidemiology research, and even working in local hospital settings.

Overall, the growth of the program demonstrates students' desire to bring their education into meaningful societal change. “Georgetown students really want to give back to the community, bringing the Jesuit ideals of the university into practice,” said Rosenwald.