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Public Health Certificate Program

February 19, 2019

The field of public health goes hand in hand with biomedical research to keep people healthy and safe through disease prevention. Doctoral students in Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) looking to form a bridge between their research and public health can do so through the Public Health Certificate Program (PHCP), which is offered through the Master of Public Health Program (MPH Program). Founded in 2006, PHCP complements graduate studies by teaching students population-based approaches to research that allow them to think broadly about the effect of biomedical research on public health.


Training biomedical scientists from a public health perspective is of critical importance. Hillary Nelson, a co-director of PHCP, emphasizes that epidemiology provides graduate students with a broader context for their research, priming them to “better understand disease incidence and disease prevalence in a way that [they] aren’t trained in [during their PhD programs].” Part of this broader context includes placing biomedical research within a social context.


Dan Ju, a second year CAMB student in the certificate program explains that “public health considers both environmental and social issues, which allows for appropriate sensitivity when performing population studies.” As biomedical research does not occur in a vacuum, it needs to consider the wide range of problems that society faces in order to be as effective as possible.


PHCP requires students to take public health courses, attend a PHCP seminar series, and complete a public health project. Required courses include “Introduction to Principles and Methods of Epidemiology”, a biostatistics course, and three elective courses in public health. Although most of the coursework is typically completed in the first two years of graduate school, the certificate program allows students to take one public health course per semester during later years.


Central to PHCP is its bi-weekly seminar series. In this series, speakers both within and outside of Penn are invited to discuss their research and careers, exposing students to a wide variety of public health issues. To highlight the diversity of research presented in the PHCP seminar series, Ju recalls a particularly fascinating talk given by Michelle Kondo, a scientist with the USDA Forest Service, Philadelphia Field Station, that related urban planning to gun violence. Thus, students can expect to learn about public health issues that are both biological and social in nature.


In addition to hearing invited speakers discuss their research, students present their project in progress reports and, ultimately in a final presentation as a part of the seminar series. Students decide on their public health projects at the end of the second year. While the public health project is encouraged to address a question related to one’s PhD thesis, it can also be more open-ended and separate from one’s thesis work. Projects may range from focusing on a public health issue from an epidemiological perspective, to being based in social or community service work. This flexibility allows students to work on a public health project that is tailored to their interests. As an example of a community-based approach, Nelson highlights the work of Prioty Sarwar, a third year CAMB student, who works to provide sex education to local schools through a program that both the MPH Program and Center for Public Health Initiatives conduct.


PHCP students can expect to finish the program equipped with key skills that will serve them well in their careers. The public health courses expose students to a different kind of teamwork not seen in their graduate programs, and students also gain new writing and presentation skills.


Nelson has served as a reference for numerous PHCP students, and she observes that “[these skills] give students an edge, especially those going into industry.” Additionally, the certificate program provides a jump-start to students who go on to pursue public health fellowships or master of public health degree.


While PHCP is competitive and primarily accepts students who applied to the certificate program in concurrence with their graduate programs, the PHCP seminars and MPH courses are open to all students. Overall, PHCP provides a supportive environment for students interested in public health, and participants of the program leave well prepared for the next phases of their careers. 

More information about PHCP and the application can be found here. The PHCP seminar schedule is listed on the website, and attendance is open to all. Registration is required for MPH courses. Students interested in taking MPH courses may contact Hillary Nelson about enrollment.




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