It seems like we hear stories about new diseases on the news every
night. And many of us think of these stories when we hear the word "epidemic."
But epidemiologists study a huge number of issues. This variety, and the current
importance of many of those issues, can create a lot of opportunities for
people who work in this field.
"This field is rapidly growing and evolving and is an important and exciting
place to focus," says Dr. Christine Friedenreich. She works with a cancer
board studying population health. "There is increasing understanding for the
need to prevent disease, and epidemiology is one of the key disciplines to
be in for this type of work."
What do Epidemiologists Study?
One of the definitions of epidemiology is "the branch of medicine that
deals with the study of the causes, distribution, and control of disease in
This could be a disease like avian flu. Or it may mean the study of how
an anthrax attack might affect the population. However, it could also include
areas that may be less obvious. Mental health, natural disasters, aging, obesity
and gambling are just some examples.
Living conditions also have a definite impact on areas of study. Because
those conditions change, the studies themselves must keep up.
Dr. Stephen Schwartz is the graduate program director for the University
of Washington's department of epidemiology. "One of the fun things about being
an epidemiologist is that the risk factors we study are constantly changing
due to how we humans change our environment," he explains.
"One example is that new drugs are introduced all the time to treat certain
health problems. But these drugs have side effects that need to be quantified
[measured] in order to determine whether they are too severe.
"Another example is that our cities and towns are increasingly designed
for cars to move about, but not for people to move about. This contributes
to less regular physical activity, which probably contributes substantially
to obesity and its associated problems."
Friedenreich explains that epidemiology is "really a set of research methods
and analytic approaches that can be used to study any disease. So all diseases
can be examined using epidemiology."
Schwartz expands on this. "Any adverse health condition, no matter what
the cause, is a target for an epidemiologist to study. These could include
cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, or intentional injuries
like those caused by violence.
"Then there's diabetes, hearing loss, depression and unintentional injuries
-- like those caused by automobile collisions, for example. If you name it,
epidemiologists have probably studied it."
But epidemiologists do more than study. They act as a front line against
diseases of all types. Some do this by working in health departments and tracking
different diseases. Others may choose a more academic life and conduct research
studies. Whatever their chosen path, their role in public health is critical.
And with all of those paths to choose from, a lot of opportunities can
be found in this field.
Promising Outlook for Trained Epidemiologists
Vickie Brown is a representative of the Association for Professionals in
Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). She believes that the future looks
promising for those seeking a career in this field.
"There will always be a need for epidemiologists," she says. "Most people
working today as epidemiologists have had little to no formal training. The
need for academically trained epidemiologists is urgent."
Opportunities within the field in general are expected to remain strong.
But certain specific areas may experience additional growth.
Current Areas of Growth
Areas of study that include genetics, in particular, fall into the growth
category. These areas include genomics, which is the study of genes and their
function. Molecular epidemiology also falls into this category. In short,
this type of research helps to identify which people may be at risk when exposed
to certain external factors.
"This field combines biology and epidemiology," explains Friedenreich.
"It is used to improve ways of measuring exposures to external factors and
to determine if someone is at risk for a disease. These are the so-called
'biomarkers' of exposure and disease effect."
Other growth sectors include infectious disease epidemiology and disaster
epidemiology. These are growing because of the occurrence of terrorism and
natural disasters and the threat of pandemic (widespread) disease.
"For those working in communicable disease epidemiology, a major focus
has been on the flu pandemic," says Friedenreich.
And what about those nightly news stories? Do they affect this profession?
Some within the field believe they do.
Dr. Nicholas Smith is an associate professor in the University of Washington's
department of epidemiology. "The popular press has some impact on the direction
of research," he explains.
"Often, these issues come to the attention of Congress, who mandate research.
But most topics in epidemiology are less sexy and usually build upon existing
Advice for Students
Students wishing to enter this hot field should select courses in life
sciences and mathematics. Science courses include biology, human biology,
genetics and human health. For mathematics, statistics is a must. Future epidemiologists
must also possess excellent analytical skills and an understanding of research
"Take college courses that are rich in analytic content and biology," advises
Schwartz. "Get some experience by working at a local health department or
medical center on a project that involves population health. Or work in a
laboratory that is doing human health research."
"Students should explore their interest in health-related topics and develop
their mathematical and analytical skills," adds Brown. "They can try to interview
an epidemiologist in their community by contacting their health department,
local hospital or a health-related industry."
Epidemiologists may need to know how to write grants. Grants provide the
money needed to run a research study. People working in this field should
also be able to manage people, be organized and analytical, and be able to
clearly present results both verbally and in written form.
Clearly, it takes a lot of preparation and hard work to become an epidemiologist.
But the personal satisfaction and other benefits make it worthwhile.
"Epidemiology is a fantastic discipline that is broad and all-encompassing
and can be adapted to a wide range of interests," says Friedenreich. "It is
making important contributions to scientific knowledge and will continue to
do so. I strongly endorse students to consider a career in this field."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Information and data from U.S. government health department
Infectious Diseases Society of America
Includes career and education information
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology,
Focuses on infection control in health settings
World Health Organization
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