BC will offer major in Global Public Health and the Common Good

“The excitement level is off the charts,” says founding director Philip J. Landrigan, M.D.

Boston College will offer a new major in Global Public Health and the Common Good, adding to a popular program that counts more than 100 students enrolled in its minor or pursuing the degree independently.

Under the leadership of the program’s founding director, Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., and administered by the Connell School of Nursing in partnership with the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, the major is expected to eventually enroll approximately 45 students, who must apply for acceptance into the highly competitive program.

The new major reflects Boston College's ongoing commitment to the sciences, one of the key priorities expressed in the University's 2017 Strategic Plan.

Philip Landrigan, M.D., far right, with seniors Ella Whitman, Michael Britt, and Naomi Alter, and junior Sebastian Cota, undergraduates pursuing Global Public Health and the Common Good as an independent major. (Lee Pellegrini)

The Global Public Health major joins the six-course public health minor that was launched in 2018 and now enrolls 110 students. There are currently 13 students pursuing an independent major in public health with approval from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Landrigan said.

“The excitement level is off the charts,” said Landrigan, a 1963 alumnus who returned to his alma mater to help advance early efforts to bring public health programming to students. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a dream come true. This is what many people—particularly [Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning] Thomas Chiles and the late [School of Social Work Dean] Alberto Godenzi”—have been talking about since 2014. The first steps began before I got here and we have taken it in stages since.”

While BCSSW dean and later as associate vice president for global engagement, Godenzi advocated for a range of programs to expand BC’s global reach. Landrigan said he began discussing the program with Chiles, who is also the DeLuca Professor of Biology, in 2014.

Connell School Dean Katherine Gregory said the school is uniquely suited to support students in the new major, particularly in the service-learning aspects of their study. CSON has extensive partnerships with a diverse group of clinical organizations, from large teaching hospitals to community health centers and school-based clinics, to clinical locations around the world.

“We are thrilled to welcome this new academic program to the Connell School, and help position it for success in collaboration with the Schiller Institute,” Gregory said. “We are confident that this program will be successful as a result of the strengths of our faculty, not only in the Connell School where we have many faculty who have long taught in the program and are passionate about public health, but also from across the University.”

Schiller Institute Seidner Family Executive Director Laura J. Steinberg

The Schiller Institute, with a focus on areas of health, energy, and the environment, will help administer the new major. Schiller Institute Seidner Family Executive Director Laura Steinberg anticipates complementing course offerings with the institute’s speaker series, student research grants, and student-driven events in such areas as environmental justice and global equity.

“The Schiller Institute was conceived as a home for interdisciplinary curricular programs at BC, especially those related to health, climate change, and data science,” said Steinberg. “We see a great deal of synergy between the institute’s current work and the focus of Global Public Health and the Common Good major.”

Students in the major will take 12 courses for 36 credits for their degree, Landrigan said. Classes include public health-focused offers on epidemiology, biostatistics and data analysis, ethics, law, and health inequities. Each student will complete a senior capstone project, which could take the form of a traditional thesis, or a service project supporting an organization with a public health focus, he said.

The program joins a growing list of undergraduate majors in a discipline that was previously the province of graduate students, Landrigan said. At BC, there has been strong student interest in public health courses since the development of the first three-course sequence, which was designed by professors from BCSSW, the Connell School, and the Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

The major differentiates itself, Landrigan said, through its emphasis on social justice and the “preferential option for the poor,” a commitment to individuals living on the margins of society first exhorted by then-Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., in 1968.

“Like every other good public health program, we work very hard to teach our students the technical aspects of public health: epidemiology, biostatistics, and similar courses,” said Landrigan, who has devoted much of his career to pediatric epidemiology. “What sets us apart is our very explicit focus on the social dimension of public health, our emphasis on the preferential option for the poor, and our students' strong commitment to public service. The study of public health involves learning how health and disease exist in communities and then taking that knowledge and translating it to advance the common good.”

The approval of the major was especially gratifying for School of Social Work Professor Associate Summer Hawkins, who was among the interdisciplinary working group that initiated the first academic sequence, along with CSON’s former Dean Susan Genarro and Associate Professor Joyce Edmonds, and the Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Professor and former Dean Maureen Kenny, Professor Jim Mahalik, and Professor Jackie Learner.

“The excitement about public health has been building on campus over the years, so it’s wonderful to see the major come to fruition,” said Hawkins. “We’re training generations of students who will help address pressing public health problems through a social justice lens.”

Landrigan said the pandemic shone a light on the need to restore public health systems, which had been underfunded and de-prioritized in recent decades. Gregory agreed the response to COVID-19 reignited new levels of interest in the subject.

“Today, perhaps more than ever before in our history, knowledge of public health has shown to be critical in ensuring the common good for all people around the world,” Gregory said. “Developing this major at Boston College is aligned with our mission to use our education and knowledge in service to others – in this case, to serve people and communities through global public health.”