Advancing Global and Community Health at UC Santa Cruz

April 1, 2020
Photo source: Shutterstock

As countries across the globe fight the coronavirus pandemic, UC Santa Cruz is creating a new program that will prepare students and provide research to solve current and future global health problems.

The university’s new global and community health program will offer a multidisciplinary bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of science degree. The program will also coordinate university-wide community and global health research efforts.

 “It's a bit surreal to have a conversation about building a global and community health program in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matthew Sparke, a member of the UCGHI board and of the team developing the new program. Sparke is also a professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz.

“But the pandemic certainly shows why these issues of global and community health matter. It has made painfully clear why we need to study the natural science of disease emergence, spread, and impact. And it is also showing why social science on vulnerability, resilience, and how we respond to health challenges globally and locally is critical,” he added.

The team developing the program includes faculty and administrators from departments across the biological and social sciences. Faculty from engineering, the arts, and humanities disciplines are also participating.

This diversity, with viewpoints from many departments represented, is a strength that will help ensure the program’s success, said Grant Hartzog, a professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the team.

The process “brought people from multiple departments together and to think more deeply about how the collaboration is going to work and how the program will work. And it gets people talking to one another and working with one another,” he said.

“It’s an elegant way of beginning to build the relationships that will make it a strong program.”

With the introduction of new courses and expanded elective offerings, an existing major, Human Biology, will transition into the new BS track of the global and community health program, Hartzog said.

“What we're hoping to do, through our collaboration with our colleagues in the social sciences, is to build a richer set of opportunities for students to not only see the science of medicine, but the human aspects of it, the political aspects of it, the social aspects of it,” he said.

Photo source: Vlad Tchompalov

The university is hiring to fill six new positions for the program. For the four in human biology disciplines, the hiring committee searched for specialists in the microbiome, stem cell biology, structural biology, and parasitic and infectious diseases.

For the two positions on the social sciences side, the list was less specific. “Anyone who could find a home in any one of our social science departments was a viable candidate,” Sparke said. With the search in the finalist stage, likely fields include anthropology, sociology, politics, environmental studies, and Latino and Latin American studies, he said.

All students in the program will start and end their studies together through an introductory course called Foundations for Global and Community Health and a capstone course.

The introductory course will be designed to help students determine whether they want to pursue a BA or BS. “We'll give them an early taste before they really have to decide which academic track they're going to go into,” Hartzog said.

The introductory course will provide five to six case studies of global health challenges, including a parasitic disease, a bacterial disease, and, as appears to be the case with the novel coronavirus, an example of “infectious agents jumping species barriers,” Hartzog said.

The case studies will cover both biological and social science aspects of a disease. An example might be the parasitic disease elephantiasis. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 900 million people in 49 countries need preventive treatment to stop the disease, which is caused by three types of parasitic worms, from spreading. Students would gain a biological sciences perspective of the disease by learning about the life cycle of the worms, drugs that treat the condition, routes of infection, and how the disease causes limbs to swell dramatically.

Elephantiasis is not a lethal disease, but it is a debilitating and socially isolating one, Hartzog said. People with the condition depend on family members to care for them. Effective treatments exist but are too expensive for the public health budgets in many countries where the disease is common. Treatments must also be administered over a relatively long time.

“If you have poor people who have to travel a long way to get to medical providers, and then they need to take a course of drugs for six to twelve weeks, it's just really not practical to do that,” Hartzog said. “Those sorts of social and societal-level problems make solutions that might work in the developed world are not appropriate in many of countries where elephantiasis is common,” he said.

After the introductory course, students in the two tracks will continue with different courses until their senior year. They’ll then combine their respective learning and training and work in teams on a capstone project that aims to provide solutions to a major challenge in global and community health.

To solve global health problems “you need the epidemiologists, you need the scientists that can talk about disease biology, but you also need policy studies and people who can study the vulnerabilities of certain groups like the homeless and farmworkers,” Sparke said.

“And you need to put all that together to work out a coherent response to health challenges. That's what we envision doing: training our students to be able to participate in that kind of real-world work,” Sparke said.

With its long history in social justice, UC Santa Cruz is a natural home for a global and community health program, Sparke said. The program will appeal to students who feel pressure to find a career that will support them once they graduate but who also want to address injustices and alleviate inequality.

“I think global health is one compelling way to achieve that very challenging balancing act,” Sparke said.

Though options for students to work with new faculty will begin once the faculty members are hired, the degree programs won’t start until April of 2022 at the earliest. Hartzog looks forward to the program beginning.

Photo source: UC Santa Cruz 

“I think we're going to do great things for our students,” he said. “And I think the extent to which we can show students the possibilities of contributing to public health and to health-care careers, which after all, are 20 percent of our economy, we're going to do good things both for our local community, but more broadly for the country and the world,” he said.

Thomas J. Coates, UCLA professor of medicine and director of the system-wide University of California Global Health Institute, applauded the new program at UC Santa Cruz as the goal is to provide students at all campuses the opportunity for a global health major or minor. “UC Santa Cruz brings its unique focus on community health across the globe and will offer students a truly multidisciplinary learning experience to prepare them to address major health problems across the globe.”