Academics Blog

Public Health (Natural Science)

Name: Samantha Dolan

Year: Class of 2010

Hometown: South Pasadena, CA

Major: Public Health, History of Science and Technology


Hi! I’m Sam, and well, let’s face it, I’m special. Yes, very special, rare, unique…. I’m one of the few natural science emphasis Public Health majors at Hopkins who is not, I repeat, NOT, pre-med. Yes, many of you didn’t think that we exist and I have to say that I have only met one other of my kind in my two and a half years at Hopkins, but I want to believe that there are more or at the least, that I can convince others to join me.

When I inform the non-Hopkins community of my major, most people question me about what people actually do in the public health field. I usually inwardly sigh, and think to myself, “if only these people knew how much public health affected their everyday lives!”, but instead I politely smile and inform them of the many reasons why public health is so important. Like the fact that 46 million people don’t have health insurance despite the fact that the US spends more money on health care than almost every other country in the world. Or all the different regulatory committees set up to ensure that food and water is safe for the public to consume. During these conversations I usually like to emphasize that although the field of medicine, and doctors in particular, are most definitely a strong part of public health, they really only account for a relatively small piece of occupations in the public health “pie”.

Now, I have to admit that I too was like my uninformed questioners for many years. I had always assumed that any subject I studied involving medicine would ultimately lead me down the med school path and I had never had any ambitions to become a doctor. I considered the possibility of work in medical research. Sitting in a lab, ultimately finding the cure for cancer, but somehow this seemed unrealistic.

Bill and melinda gatesFortunately, when I came to Hopkins I saw the light. My interest in public health started by signing up for a freshmen seminar on a whim entitled The Invention of Tropical Disease. I barely understood what the title of the class meant, but I was completely submerged in topics I knew nothing about and soon became completely fascinated. We discussed everything from the writings of Hippocrates to how the Victorians dealt with disease to how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded public health initiatives. I was introduced to fields of study I never new existed, like epidemiology (the study of factors affecting the health of a population) and yet I somehow felt like I had found my calling. Upon the completion of that class I immediately registered as a Public Health major and I have not looked back since.

The Public Health (PH) major with a natural science emphasis requires knowledge of the basic sciences and math. One year of chemistry, biology, physics, and calculus are necessary. Although I know like myself, many PH majors have been able to use their AP credit to pass out of a couple of the first year classes. There are five mandatory upper division classes, four of which are very specific to public health and include such topics as health policy, biostatistics, and epidemiology. The fifth class is organic chemistry, which may sound scary, but trust me you will survive. Upon completion of these classes, the major is very flexible, it requires a couple of English classes and an assortment of social science classes all of your own choosing. The flexibility of the public health major has allowed me to not only pick up a second major, History of Science and Technology, but it has given me the opportunity to study abroad for a semester (Galway, Ireland Spring 2009!), and be a committed member of the Hopkins women’s fencing team.

Now, if the requirements I mentioned above don’t excite you, well then what I have to mention Bloomberg sealnext will. In your senior year at Hopkins, all public health majors have to take classes at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. That’s right, you are allowed to dip your toes into the pool of graduate studies. I know this fact held great weight for me when I was deciding whether to become a public health major. Your choice of classes is very flexible here too, you’re allowed to take classes in any department.

I have only become more increasingly aware of the variety and volume of public health opportunities that only a Hopkins student could be exposed to in the Hopkins academic community. Being so close in proximity, as well as institutionally, to the Bloomberg School of Public Health makes these opportunities all the more real. The academic community that the Bloomberg school supports creates such an optimistic atmosphere for lowly undergraduates who pine for future careers in public health.

Epidemic proportions This connection to the Bloomberg school has recently allowed me to take a research assistant position with a study on AIDS and intravenous drug users. Many of my peers have found similar positions and they have worked in areas from stem cell research to aiding the less fortunate who are undergoing treatment at the Hopkins hospital. Besides the numerous positions available on the multiple campuses and their affiliates, the undergraduate campus is home to various public health oriented organizations and clubs, such as Project Health and the Red Cross Club, as well as publishes its own public health undergraduate journal entitled Epidemic Proportions.

Personally, now that I’ve been exposed to so many areas in public health, it has seemed daunting at times when I try to figure out which area of public health to pursue for a possible future career. Over the years, I have been able to more concretely pin point my areas of interest. My experience at my internship with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department last summer was particularly helpful in defining the areas I would like to study more in depth. I had the opportunity to speak with many public health professionals who took the time to discuss my future career plans. By the end of the summer, I could confidently say that I was interested in pursuing studies in epidemiology and global health. Based on my studies at Hopkins, what I’ve learned in my limited experience in the public health field, and my own personal goals, I have been able to greatly narrow my academic interests.

At the moment, I would like to say that I have developed a plan for my education after Hopkins. Upon completion of my bachelors degree, I plan to apply to the Masters International programs run by the Peace Corps. These programs are offered by a number of public health graduate schools and require the enrollee to complete a one or two year masters degree program and then write a dissertation while working abroad in the Peace Corps for two years. It may seem like a large commitment, but I feel it will prepare me for my hopeful future career in global health.

Fortunately, the beauty of being a natural science PH major who is not pre-med, is that it is extremely feasible to find a position which could lead to a career without going to graduate school. One of the messages that has been carved into my brain multiple times since I entered the public health world is that one of the most important assets to an aspiring public health professional is experience. This might require you to work in a specific sector for a number of years and work your way up the ladder to more ambitious jobs or you might try out a few jobs before deciding to go to graduate school. The important thing is to find your niche. If finding your niche means you decide after a couple of years that you do in fact want to go to medical school, well that’s perfectly fine and you’re in luck that your public health bachelors degree from Hopkins has sufficiently prepared you to take the MCATs. Either way, flexibility and experience are key.

As one of the few advocates of my major I’ll hopefully leave you with a preferable impression. Just remember that an interest in medicine and health does not necessarily mean you have to become a doctor. Being a public health major at Hopkins will expose you to the numerous possibilities and opportunities offered in the field. So if you have even the slightest inclination towards joining me and representing my kind, please give Hopkins a more serious look. I truly believe there are not many places better suited for interests in public health than the Johns Hopkins community.


Click here to access more information about the Public Health Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the Public Health question thread.