Epidemiology students study how and why disease spreads in human populations.
They raise questions about disease and look for answers in health-related
research. Biostatistics is a related field. Students learn complex mathematical
techniques for understanding health-related questions.
Does smoking cigarettes have a negative effect on the health of a population?
Epidemiologists have proven that it does. And now many cities are smoke-free
and public buildings don't allow smoking. This is the power of their research.
Faculty and students in epidemiology and biostatistics programs work together. Medical
research often combines these two fields of study. As health researchers,
epidemiology students need biostatistics students to help them understand
the large amounts of data.
Epidemiology and biostatistics are offered at the master's and PhD levels.
That means you'll have to earn a four-year undergraduate degree first.
Expect another one to three years for post-graduate study.
"The sorts of undergraduate (specific) courses we like to see in our students
are things like statistics, epidemiology, research design and health-related
courses. Most of our students have a university science degree -- a range
from bio-medical, life sciences, health-type courses," says Duncan Hunter.
He is an epidemiology professor. He adds that some applicants have psychology
or sociology degrees, but that's not the recommended path to an epidemiology
"Our program is the fundamental science underlying public health," says
Hunter. He says competition to enter the master's program is steep.
Only high-caliber students make the cut. Recently, 15 students out of 70 applicants
were accepted to the program.
Linda Cowan stresses that the work of epidemiologists can have a tremendous
impact on communities. She is an epidemiology professor at the University
"To me, one of the most exciting things is that this is the singular way
to directly study potential causes of disease in humans," she says.
The results of epidemiologists' research are used to keep societies safe
from disease and prevent illness. The possibility of making the world a
better place by preventing disease is what motivates a lot of epidemiology
There are different specialties in the field. Population epidemiology is
the study of how and why disease spreads in human populations. This type of
research helps promote health and prevent illness. Students in this area usually
have a background in biology, sociology, psychology, statistics, economics,
political science or health care.
Students of clinical epidemiology research health-care practices. They
may try to determine how valuable certain medical tests are, or test the value
of certain procedures. Students in this field usually also require a degree
in health care, such as a medical degree.
Other divisions of epidemiology include environmental, occupational, quantitative,
community, molecular and genetic epidemiology.
Students entering biostatistics need an undergraduate degree in an area
such as statistics or math. Its use in medical, biomedical or environmental
applications makes this area of study much narrower than statistics.
Cowan says there will be opportunities for those who want to develop new
theories and methods for use in research. Graduates of epidemiology and biostatistics
programs find careers in academics, industry, government, health agencies
and medical institutions.
Hunter says, for high school students interested in epidemiology, "science
and math certainly seem like a good place to start."
He says schools also look for "non-academic stuff" when selecting students
for the master's degree program. That "stuff" can include health-related or
epidemiology-related summer jobs.
Occupational Outlook Handbook
For more information related to Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Degrees, see Epidemiologists
Bam! Body and Mind
Kids' resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
A scientific journal where you can find the latest research topics