Pandemic Serves as ‘Ready-Made’ Case Study for Epidemiology Course

With the number of coronavirus cases continuing to rise across the United States, Blair’s epidemiology class needs no textbook to learn about the process of disease identification, spread control and treatment. “With the greatest public health crisis in our nation’s history unfolding around us, we simply have to read the news or watch TV to see epidemiology in practice,“ said Michael “Doc” Sayers, PhD, a veteran Blair faculty member who is teaching the course virtually this year from Bogle Science Center. “We have spent a lot of time looking at the pandemic, acknowledging that we are in a mess. But we have the ability to think and execute our way out of it, if we pay attention to the right things.” 

That is the focus of the course, which examines a wide range of public health issues by first assessing what scientists know and what they are testing for, and then ascertaining whether or not something is true and identifying a course of action. Through that process, Blair’s epidemiology course introduces students to basic vocabulary, ideas and methods used in the discipline of identifying and tracking health-related events and the populations they impact. In that way, the course largely centers on medical or social detective mystery-solving, as well as data collection and statistical analysis, scientific modeling and recommending future policies to protect public health. Another theme interwoven throughout the course is disparity of disease effects and healthcare access for different populations across the United States and world. 

“Students have different levels of concern about the pandemic, but I try to remind them that there is hope and that it will end because of our collective work,” Doc explained. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at vaccine development and how it can be compressed into months instead of years, which naturally takes us to how studies are designed to find the information you want. In the next few weeks, we will look at the logic and statistics of clinical trials and how we know what is being studied is safe.” 

Throughout the curriculum, Doc reminds students that epidemiology requires scientists to make value judgments about how to apply science and that there can be consequences of those decisions. “At the heart of it, I ask our class, ‘What story does this data tell you? Don’t depend on media or political figures to tell you what they think it means.’ When making difficult technical decisions, we must be data-driven. We can control our fates if we use our heads.”

Recent class assignments have included studying the biology of viral action and disease outbreaks in both urban and rural areas. Admitting that students can get a little tired of all things COVID-19, Doc notes that epidemiology and public health go well beyond the current pandemic. “We’ve looked at situations that seemed like they’d be the end of the world but weren’t,” he said. “It is reassuring to know that we will also get through this.” 

Looking to the second semester, Doc is excited to possibly incorporate a curriculum developed by former student Elizabeth Meiselman ’12 into the class. Throughout the winter, the course’s focus will increasingly turn to clinical trials and deciding the meaning of study results. “Every day, we are reading or watching videos where folks are presenting data and viewpoints,” Doc explained. “We analyze that as objectively as we can. What are the stakes of the study? Are conclusions based on data and standards of validity? These considerations apply well beyond science, and our students will have to make those decisions throughout their lives about non-scientific topics, so these are important skills to practice.”

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