SPH Digest

SPH Digest

Quiz: What percentage of Americans are obese? What cancer kills more American women than any other cancer? If the average life expectancy in America today is 77, what was it a century ago? These and other questions were part of the fare on Day One of HMP 200, “Health and Society: Introduction to Public Health,” the University of Michigan’s first-ever undergraduate introduction-to-public-health course. (Quiz answers.) School of Public Health Dean Ken Warner is teaching the class to 140 UM students, some of whom are taking the course because they want to combine it with careers in medicine or dentistry, and some of whom just want to know more about a field that’s increasingly in the news. The course filled up within weeks, says Warner, who adds, “I’m having a ball teaching what is not only the school’s first-ever undergraduate intro to public health but also the first-ever undergraduate course I’ve taught.” Although Warner teaches a majority of the classes, a sizable number on specific topics are presented by other SPH faculty.

Julio Frenk, MPH ’81, PhD ’83, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and former Mexican Minister of Health, made what he called a “pilgrimage of gratitude” when he visited Ann Arbor in April to deliver the 2009 SPH commencement address. He told the school’s newest graduates—of whom there were nearly 400—they live “in transit in a world in the midst of a tense and intense health transition.” With patterns of disability, death, and disease changing due to globalization and the “globesity” of harmful lifestyles, Frenk said the next generation of public health leaders will take its place in what is nonetheless an era of hope. As members of the UM’s 400,000-strong group of alumni, he added, the SPH class of 2009 can expect countless doors to open for them. “Wolverines,” Frenk joked, “are out to colonize the world.” 

As of mid-October, University of Michigan scientists and engineers—among them 12 School of Public Health researchers—had received 159 federal stimulus-package research grants totaling close to $100 million. (The SPH portion of that sum exceeds $26 million.) The total UM funding includes 113 National Institutes of Health stimulus awards, more than any other United States university. Among the recipients are SPH biostatisticians Goncalo Abecasis and Michael Boehnke, who received awards from NIH to sequence 4,000 complete human genomes and develop tools to allow other researchers to deploy the same technology to study a variety of diseases. Abecasis and Boehnke say their four NIH stimulus awards will support 21 positions.

New on campus: the UM Center for Injury Prevention among Youth, a joint effort of UM SPH, the UM Office of the Vice President for Research, and the UM Transportation Research Institute. Given that unintentional injuries—including motor vehicle injuries—are the leading cause of death between the ages of one and 44, “we need to build capacity in the field here at Michigan,” says center director Jean Shope, a research professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education. The center’s chief goal is to build on existing strengths at UM in order to conduct research and train researchers and practitioners to reduce injuries and fatalities among youth, and to reduce the economic cost associated with those injuries. As part of that effort, the center is offering a one-credit course this fall and plans to offer a three-credit intro-ductory course on injuries during the winter 2010 term.

UM SPH faculty member Stephen Gruber is the new associate director of Cancer Prevention and Control at the UM Comprehensive Cancer Center. Gruber, who holds joint appointments in internal medicine, human genetics, and epidemiology, studies the contributions of environmental and genetic risk factors to cancer susceptibility. Last year he authored a study that identified a new gene which, if mutated, may increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer by more than a third.

At the 2009 UM SPH graduation ceremonies, John Griffith, the Andrew Pattullo Collegiate Professor of health management and policy, received the Excellence in Teaching Award; Ken Resnicow, professor of health behavior and health education, received the Excellence in Research Award; and Matthew Boulton, associate professor of epidemiology and associate dean for practice, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Speaking to her fellow graduates, MPH candidate Darla Williams spoke of “the history we are in the process of making.”

Answers to the HMP 200 public health quiz: Sixty-seven percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Lung cancer kills far more American women than any other cancer. (Eighty percent of the students in HMP 200 guessed breast cancer.) The average life expectancy at the turn of the last century was 47.

From the Archives

From the Latin rabere—to rage or rave—comes the English rabies, a disease that has ravaged both animal and human populations for thousands of years. Writing in 400 B.C., Aristotle spoke of dogs who “suffer from madness. This causes them to become very irritable, and all animals they bite become diseased.” In 18th-century London, people were ordered to shoot dogs on sight in parts of the city where rabies flourished.

School of Public Health alumnus George Baer, a virologist, veterinarian, and lifelong lover of animals, devoted his career to combating rabies. In 1969, he and a team of scientists and researchers developed a method for the immunization of wildlife against the disease, working in laboratories at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. Baer’s creation of an oral rabies vaccine led to the eradication of wildlife rabies in most of Europe—and to his being credited as the “father of oral rabies vaccination.” His book, The Natural History of Rabies, has been a worldwide reference since its publication in 1975.

Baer, MPH ’61, died in July at his home in Mexico City. In his honor, the International Steering Committee of the Rabies in the Americas Conference has established the George M. Baer Latin American Investigator Award for the best submitted abstract from a Central/South American scientist.

A Public School Inspires

SPH studentsSPH Dean Ken Warner knew something was up when he sat down to lunch on the first day of the new academic year with four students in environmental health sciences and discovered they’d all graduated from the same public school system. It turns out they’re not alone—at least eight current SPH students are graduates of southeastern Michigan’s Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. 

So what’s the deal? “It’s a pretty progressive high school, with a lot of student environmental groups, and public health is pretty forward-looking,” says PCS grad Syma Khan. Fellow PCS alumna Katie Conlon notes that the curriculum at PCS includes such atypical—and inspirational—high school classes as cultural anthropology and zoology, and faculty members actively encourage students to get involved with community service, so it’s hardly surprising that graduates of the school would go into a field like public health. Khan and Conlon are pictured above, together with fellow PCS alumni Timothy Finch, Mozhgon Rajaee, Imari Patel, Tejaswi Paruchuri, Suketu Patel, and Ben Dzialo.