Since I started this blog in April, I can’t count the number of times I’ve come across statements on other blogs like, “Epidemiology is just statistical manipulation of data.”  This usually comes from an anti-vaccinationist commenter who clearly has never even opened an introductory epidemiology textbook.

So I was happy to see the article in the Washington Post on September 19th, entitled “For a Global Generation, Public Health Is a Hot Field.”  The article begins with:

“Courses in epidemiology, public health and global health — three subjects that were not offered by most colleges a generation ago — are hot classes on campuses these days.  They are drawing undergraduates to lecture halls in record numbers, prompting a scramble by colleges to hire faculty and import ready-made courses. Schools that have taught the subjects for years have expanded their offerings in response to surging demand.”  

And later in the article: “The concepts introduced in basic epidemiology courses include causation and correlation, absolute risk and relative risk, biological plausibility and statistical uncertainty. Nearly all health stories in the news — from the possible hazards of bisphenol A in plastics and the theory that vaccines cause autism, to racial disparities in health care and missteps in the investigation of tainted peppers — are better understood with grounding in that discipline.”

 The impetus for teaching epidemiology at the undergraduate college level has come from many places.  In 1987, Dr. David Fraser, former president, Swarthmore College, and Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania, wrote an influential article in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled “Epidemiology as a Liberal Art.”  This link includes the entire paper — I highly recommend it.

But perhaps the major force behind the increase in epidemiology courses in colleges has been the Educated Citizen and Public Health Initiative, led by Dr. Richard Riegelman of George Washington University .  (Dr. Riegelman is also the author of an excellent introductory text, entitled Studying a Study and Testing a Test: How to Read the Medical Evidence, which I’ve used in teaching both medical studients and undersgraduates.)

For more information on the Educated Citizen and Public Health Initiative, see:

1. The Educated Citizen and Public Health: A Consensus Report on Public Health and Undergraduate Education

2. Back to the Pump Handle: Public Health and the Future of Undergraduate Education

3. The Educated Citizen and Public Health: Curriculum Guide for Undergradulate Public Health Education

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29 Responses to “Epidemiology is a Hot Topic for Undergrads”  

  1. 1 Jeff


    Good to see that you’re back. Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing a career in stand-alone epi - I don’t know what the correct terms is, I mean an epi practitioner without a nursing or M.D. degree? I’m a senior biology major who’s been an EMT for a few years. Was planning on med school until I learned that public health might better fit my interests and strengths and weaknesses. (I had always thought that MPH programs were just for med school applicants enhancing their chances or health practitioners interested in furthering their research opportunities.) My school doesn’t have any epi or public health classes, so I’m taking a second stats course and an intro to GIS course this semester and plan on getting a couple more GIS classes in my next and final semester before starting an MPH program next fall. I am almost done with a self-study CDC course on intro to epi. I am interested in infectious disease epidemiology, but that could change. I don’t know if I will want to pursue a PhD. As a Texas resident, I almost feel obligated to choose an in-state program because of the cost ($4-6k vs. 18-35k), but I am concerned regarding the role of background prestige in academic careers. Sorry to bombard you with questions upon your return. Any advice or input would be much appreciated.

  2. 2 Ren

    Sadly, from my experience in a very busy State Health Department, not everyone is cut out to be an Epi. Far too many people come out of grad school with a degree (MPH or MS in Public Health) but are completely clueless about other skills necessary of someone who needs to intervene in the community. Too many of my colleagues are introverts, and that’s not a good thing.

  3. 3 EpiWonk


    This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that I come across all the time. Most MPH and PhD programs in epidemiology are glad to accept graduate students with no previous medical training. This is something that potential applicants to graduate epi programs just shouldn’t worry about.

    Also, as far as getting a graduate degree in epidemiology from a “prestige” department, it’s just not very much of an issue these days. A few decades ago, John Hopkins and Harvard had the best programs. That’s absolutely not true now as professorial expertise has spread across the country. Among epidemiologists, the epi department at the University of Texas (Houston) is now better than those at Yale or Columbia.

    In fact, the School of Public Health at UT has great opportunities to study infectious disease epidemiology. There’s a Center for Infectious Diseases ( there filled with hot-shot infectious disease epidemiology professors.

    The University of Iowa is another place that has a Dept of Epidemiology with a strong infectious epi program. The science blogger, Aetiology Tara Smith (, is an infectious disease epidemiologist who teaches there. You may want to contact her at aetiology AT gmail DOT com.

    Also, the Association of Schools of Public Health at has information about every accredited graduate program in the U.S.

  4. 4 Kathryn

    Thanks for compiling all these links - I’m looking forward to reading them. I have also been a TA for an Intro to Epi course for 2nd year med students - a group who MUST be able to interpret the evidence, for the sake of their patients. Sadly, many of the students seemed to think epi was a waste of their time.

  5. 5 The Perky Skeptic

    This is exciting news! I look forward to a future where more people understand epidemiology!

  6. 6 perceval

    so, if you were to recommend a few intro texts on epidemiology and public health, which ones would you choose? I see you linked to the Gordis book? I’m a computer scientist who’s working on telecare and telehealth applications, so some introductory grounding in these matters would be a plus :)

  7. 7 EpiWonk


    My favorites, in order of preference, are:

    1. Essentials of Epidemiology in Public Health, by Ann Aschengrau and George R. Seage (Jones & Bartlett Publishers; 2nd edition, 2007)

    2. Epidemiology for Public Health Practice, by Robert Friis and Thomas Sellers (Jones & Bartlett Publishers; 4th edition, 2008)

    3. Research Methods in Community Medicine: Surveys, Epidemiological Research, Programme Evaluation, Clinical Trials, by Joseph Abramson and Z. H. Abramsom (Wiley; 6th edition, 2008)

    4. Epidemiological Studies: A Practical Guide, by Alan J. Silman and Gary J. Macfarlane (Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition, 2002)

    5. Foundations of Epidemiology, by David E. Lilienfeld and Paul D. Stolley (Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition, 1994)

    Once you’re sure you understand the epidemiological principles explained in one of the above books, I also recommend a more advanced text:

    Interpreting Epidemiologic Evidence: Strategies for Study Design and Analysis, by David A. Savitz (Oxford University Press, 2003)

    Finally, if you can get a copy (It’s out of print), the following is a true classic:

    Causal Thinking in the Health Sciences: Concepts and Strategies in Epidemiology (Oxford University Press, 1973), by Mervyn Susser

    However, please note that Susser’s Causal Thinking is not an easy read. Be ready for a challenge.

  8. 8 Ren

    One more reason to go to Univ. of Texas… Dr. CJ Peters, formed Special Pathogens Branch Chief at CDC, is on the teaching staff there. He was on the ground during the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and when Hantavirus reared its head in the Four Corners region in the Southwest. I highly recommend his book, “Virus Hunter”. It’s a combination biography and intro text to what it is to be an Epi, and what you have to give up to do so. The book “The Hot Zone” and the movie “Outbreak” are based on his life as well.

    (Disclaimer: I went to the George Washington University in DC, which is also a quality program in my honest opinion.)

  9. 9 perceval

    Thank you, EpiWonk - I’ve bookmarked this :)

  10. 10 Brent Jamison

    So I’m thinking about epi probably infectious disease BUT I’m hoping to do something outdoors… investigating, tracking down. What undergrad ideas do you have ?

  11. 11 EpiWonk


    Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you. For undergrad, I’d suggest majoring in biology or zoology. But I’m not an infectious disease epidemiologist. If I were you, I’d put this question to some truly experienced infectious disease epi folks. My first two suggestions are science bloggers:

    1. AETIOLOGY TARA: Contact info at:

    2. REN at THE EPI TIMES (
    E-mail: rfnajera AT gmail DOT com

    3. Professor Sten Vermund at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Global Health. His contact info is at:
    E-mail him and tell him Dr. John Kiely told you to ask him about career paths for future infectious disease epidemiologists who want to do something outdoors.

    Hope this helps.

  12. 12 Brent Jamison

    HOping to combine biology, epidemiology and wilderness research. Any suggestions on where to go for for college starting in 2010? I’m in Texas.

  13. 13 Dr G

    Great discussion! In terms of what to major in to be an epi, I would like to throw out some suggestions. I am an infectious disease epidemiologist. My PhD is in medical sociology. An understanding of social behavior has been invaluable to me. Other infectious disease epis I have worked with have had backgrounds in medical anthropology, counseling psychology (fantastic interviewers!), microbiologists, and veterinarians (who better to help out with zoonotic diseases?). In today’s market, I think you need to have the MPH to be competitive, but I having experts from a variety of disciplines only enhances the work we do.

  14. 14 MK

    Hi Epi Wonk,

    I am so happy to see this website, and the links to some great texts. I have a B.A. from the Univ of Md in biopsychology (1995), Ph.D. in Epi from the Univ of Pgh, and recently completed a postdoc in perinatal psychiatric epidemiology with a focus on substance use and mood disorders during pregnancy. Unfortunately, the entire second year of my postdoc was marred by my getting vertigo which was quite severe. As a result, I could not travel, read or write for long periods of time, go into the office daily, or present very often. I simply was too physically ill, and for about a month of that time, I could not even move around my house. Thankfully I am much better now, although still not 100%, and I am faced with some tough decisions. I know I cannot commit to a FT office job, I do not have enough experience to teach online courses (yes, I’ve applied), and I am not ready to give up on an academic career. Writing, data analyses, and epidemiology are activities which just make my heart sing, but I cannot figure out how to make money using these skills from home. I am trying to find online positions which involve writing OR analyses, but it takes time to find these and get noticed (yes, I have open applications for these). My frustration has led to avoidance and I was hoping that you’d have some career advice for me. What avenues do you recommend I follow now? I’m even considering going back to school just to have something to keep my mind active, something that will make me more competitive, but I’d rather make than spend money. What advice do you have so that when I can start looking for an asst professorship, it looks as though I stayed as active as I could? This entire situation has me very sad. I just didn’t envision my career going so wrong.

    BTW, I love this website. It’s been bookmarked. Peace!

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