Epi-Bio Specialization Offers Transdisciplinary Focus, Equity Lens | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
Lora Iannotti Teaching in Classroom
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Epi-Bio Specialization Offers Transdisciplinary Focus, Equity Lens

Public Health; Faculty; Students

Epidemiology is the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why. Biostatistics involves the design, analysis and interpretation of data for studies in public health and medicine. At the Brown School, a specialization combines the two, resulting in a multifaceted approach for improving health and changing lives.

Lora Iannotti, associate professor and the associate dean for public health, said the Brown School’s Epidemiology/Biostatistics specialization blends these two areas of study to better prepare students for real-world use.

“It strengthens methodologies and approaches resulting in greater scientific rigor and problem-solving in public health practice,” she said. “These tools go hand in hand. By combining them, our students receive deep training for analytical thinking around complex public health challenges.”

The specialization also differs from those at other institutions in its emphasis on applying those skills across the public health field while prioritizing equitable outcomes. The school focuses on work across disciplines to achieve change, and epi-bio training is in demand in a variety of applications.

“Our diverse faculty use cutting-edge epidemiology and biostatistics research and teaching methods,” Iannotti said. “We blend the best, hard science and data with a focus on how we can use that data to increase health equity and work toward eliminating disparities using transdisciplinary tools and perspectives.

Epidemiology/Biostatistics is the most popular of five available specializations in the Masters of Public Health (MPH) program, selected by about 30 percent of MPH students. Topics within the specialization include nutrition epidemiology, chronic disease prevention, cancer epidemiology, psychiatric epidemiology, dissemination and implementation science, social epidemiology, environmental epidemiology and research reproducibility.

“We’re the disease detectives,” said Kimberly Johnson, the associate professor who chairs the specialization. “We find out where and why diseases occur to help inform practices that will prevent disease from happening,” such as a recent Washington University discovery of the virus that caused a polio-like paralysis in children. “We also try to figure out why some people die from their disease and why others do not.”

The Brown School places a particular importance on using epi-bio in innovative ways to advance health equity across race and class in local communities and around the world. An example is the work of Deborah Salvo, an assistant professor who focuses on using spatial and place-based epidemiological methods to understand the relationship between the built environment and health. That information is used to identify and resolve disparities in access to places for physical activity and healthy eating, which are partially responsible for the disproportionately high levels of obesity and chronic disease among disadvantaged groups both local and globally.

“We’re extremely focused on impactful research at the Brown School,” Johnson said. “We really want to solve the most pressing problems in health, like health disparities, with research policymakers will pay attention to.” A paper Johnson recently published on the effects of insurance on childhood cancer survival was an important way to be able to understand the impact that policy can have on children’s mortality.

Expert Instruction and Student-Centered Support

At the Brown School, students receive personal instruction and mentoring from top-tier, full-time faculty who are dedicated to student success.

Ruth Katumba

“The instructors at Brown are great,” said, Ruth Katumba, a second-year epi-bio student from Uganda. “They’re experts in their field and passionate about what they do.”

Through their course work, epi-bio students develop portfolios with highly marketable data management and analytic skills.

Joe Steensma, a professor of practice, teaches biostatistics and applied linear models. He said some students approach statistics with trepidation, fearing being overwhelmed by the numbers.

“We don’t teach that way,” Steensma said. “We teach how to apply these tools to real-world situations we run into every day.” He encourages students to think of statistics as a language. "We have incredible students here who want to solve big problems. We want to show them how to translate numbers into usable information that has an impact on people’s lives.”

A series of hands-on, intensive, one-credit hour Skill Labs include topics like statistical analysis platforms, GIS and spatial mapping, data visualization and grant writing. Another key support resource at the Brown School is the StatLab, a peer-tutor service that assists students with biostatistics and epidemiology related coursework.

“The tutors go the extra mile to make sure you understand,” said Katumba.

School of Medicine and Key Partners

The Public Health program has strong ties to the top-ranked Washington University School of Medicine. Many faculty members at Brown also hold appointments at the Med School, and many research centers, such as the Prevention Research Center and the Center for Diabetes Translation Research, span both institutions.

There are rich practicum opportunities for Brown students at the School of Medicine as well.

In her practicum last summer, Katumba used her epi-bio skills in working with a School of Medicine researcher finding ways to improve the treatments for brain cancer. The experience was inspiring. “I enjoyed working with a team of people with different specialties including oncology, neuro-oncology, public health, social work, information technology, data analytics, and drug trials and development all working towards the same goal: to improve survival of brain cancer patients,” she said.

“I love the fact that making transdisciplinary connections like those is a skill I’m constantly making use of. It’s important. That’s what keeps me going.”

Students can also venture outside of the Brown School for a number of courses offered at the School of Medicine including: Randomized Controlled Trials, Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis; Development, Validation, and Application of Risk Prediction Models; Multilevel Models in Quantitative Research; and Using Administrative Data for Health Services Research.

Epi-bio skills are in demand at the school, leading to jobs such as study coordinators and data analysts in research. “The medical faculty appreciate that our students and graduates bring that training and research design rigor to their research,” Johnson said. Many epi-bio students have gone on to top medical schools and PhD programs, and played leading roles in state and local health department.

Pratica for epi-bio students is also available through other top-tier public and private organizations: The National Institutes of Health, Centene, the Los Angeles Health Department, Siteman Cancer Center, Washington University Medical School Bioinformatics Research Core, the St. Louis Zoo, and many others.

“Our rich relationships with these organizations result in a wide job market for epi-bio students, whose skills address a range of needs in collaborative research,” Iannotti said. “They’re interested in our students.”

Epi-Bio Faculty

A full list of full-time faculty with an epidemiology/biostatistics focus is below, with links to their bio pages:

  • Ross Brownson: chronic disease prevention, evidence-based public health implementation science
  • Alexis Duncan: psychiatric epidemiology and behavioral genetic epidemiology
  • Christine Ekenga: environmental epidemiology, breast cancer
  • Shenyang Guo: quantitative research methodology child welfare, child mental health
  • Jenine Harris: reproducible research, employing new media for public health surveillance
  • Angela Hobson: environmental epidemiology, occupational health, exposure assessment, environmental justice, epidemiology of Parkinsonism
  • Darrell Hudson: social determinant of health, racial/ethnic disparities, mental health)
  • Lora Iannotti (nutrition epidemiology, global health
  • Kim Johnson: cancer epidemiology, human genetics, and cancer policy, childhood cancer
  • Doug Luke: social network analysis, systems science methodology, tobacco control and prevention policy
  • Deborah Salvo: spatial epidemiology, physical activity and capacity building, chronic disease prevention, global health disparities, Latin American populations and U.S.-based minorities
  • Joe Steensma: biostatistics, environmental health, occupational health and safety