By Victoria Schlesinger
On topics ranging from the rising asthma rates in urban youth, to the foods expectant mothers should avoid, to the spread of animal-borne diseases, and to the causes of cancer, epidemiologic studies increasingly inform thinking about health management.
To further advance this research on human populations, UCSF will start a new doctoral program in epidemiology and biostatistics this fall, one that is poised to train leaders in the field. Applications to the program will be accepted through August 1.
The new program is a joint effort between UCSF’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute at UCSF. Students who enroll will be trained through rigorous academic study and a broad array of applied research opportunities. The partnership is positioned to provide graduates with an exceptional set of skills.
“Most degree programs in epidemiology are housed in schools of public health, and our program is unusual because it’s housed at the UCSF School of Medicine,” says Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Co-Chair Neil Risch, PhD.
“The distinction is that our program is probably more clinically oriented. Our students will have a lot more opportunities for engaging in clinical research. It is atypical for epidemiology programs to require rotations, but we will.”
Demand for Comparative Effectiveness Research
There is rising demand for epidemiologists with these clinical skills, according to Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics Co-Chair Robert Hiatt, MD, PhD. The new national health-care-reform legislation includes funding for comparative effectiveness research to examine treatments for various medical conditions to determine which treatments work best for particular groups of patients.
“This is an area where epidemiology will play a strong role,” Hiatt says.
New courses will ensure that graduates are equipped to examine the genetic basis of common diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, as well as the environmental factors that play a role in those illnesses.
“There’s nothing like it at UCSF, pure and simple,” Hiatt says. “Epidemiology is key to translational science and for trying to move discoveries out of the lab. UCSF can use epidemiology in a way that it hasn’t been used at other UC campuses.”
The program’s strong backing is evidenced by its approval despite lean budgets.
“We’re in a fixed sum game,” says Graduate Division Dean Patricia Calarco, PhD. “In the California budget situation, there is no expansion of resources to support graduate studies.”
“It is truly a big deal when a completely new doctoral program is launched. It means there has to be substantial support for it, because everybody has to get nudged a little bit to the side. In other words, we have to share what’s available.”
The program and its students will be funded through a mix of UCSF resources and federal grants.
Although individual reviews of new degree programs are confidential, Farid Chehab, PhD, chair of the committee overseeing the review of proposed University of California graduate programs, relayed that external reviewers praised the program for having tremendous potential and for presenting the opportunity to make substantial contributions to the training of epidemiologists.
Program Has Been Long Anticipated
Dean Calarco said that many have felt that the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics has been “ripe for at least 20 years” to offer a doctoral program, and that the current co-chairs are the reason it is finally happening.
“With both Bob Hiatt and Neil Risch being relatively new to our campus, the dynamic shifted, and I think we finally had leadership that was interested in training leading to the PhD,” Calarco says.
Hiatt is renowned for his cancer research. In addition to co-chairing the epidemiology department, he is the director of Population Sciences for the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as deputy director for the Cancer Center.
Risch is a statistical geneticist and genetic epidemiologist, who explores the intersection of genetics, populations and health. He directs the Institute for Human Genetics at UCSF and is co-director for Kaiser Permanente’s Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health.
Hiatt and Risch anticipate accepting four students with diverse backgrounds each year. Some may have a master’s degree in one of the basic sciences, while on the other side of the spectrum; some may be physician-scientists interested in steering their research toward epidemiology.
Admission standards will be consistent. “We want outstanding students because we expect this program to produce outstanding graduates, and the training they’re going to get is rigorous,” Risch said.