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By Sofie Bates on June 20, 2018

For students interested in both the hardcore science of disease and the social and cultural factors that influence health, UC Davis’ major in Global Disease Biology is a perfect fit. Kevin Hatley, senior and transfer student, chose the major for that exact reason.

“I wanted to learn about the science behind health but also the people that need healthcare,” Hatley said.

The Global Disease Biology major, housed in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, teaches students how human, animal and environmental health are interconnected and interdependent in a global “one health” network . David Rizzo, a UC Davis professor of plant pathology who helped spearhead the program in 2014, describes it as a “super-sized public health major.”

Because it is a collaboration between the Department of Plant Pathology, the School of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Medicine, the Global Disease Biology major is a unique opportunity for students to expose themselves to multiple disciplines.

“There are only a few universities in the country that have a medical school, a vet school, and a college of agriculture that studies plant diseases that are physically co-located on the same campus, and [UC Davis is] the only one on the western United States,” Rizzo said.

Through this collaboration, the major exposes students to many facets of global health. They study diverse species — from plants and fungi to animals and humans — and how the interactions of these species span continents and the five kingdoms of life.

One of the most flexible majors at UC Davis

Danielle Kroll discusses the condition of gorilla bones with professor Tim Weaver in an anthropology class.
Danielle Kroll discusses the condition of gorilla bones with professor Tim Weaver in an anthropology class. Global Disease Biology majors choose their elective courses from many subjects, including anthropology. (UC Davis)

Global Disease Biology is one of the most flexible programs for UC Davis undergraduates in the sciences. Students first build a strong foundation in math and science before taking core courses in microbiology, epidemiology, and disease intervention and policy. They then choose from a wide array of restricted electives in science, political science, psychology, science writing, sociology and anthropology.

Students can tailor their undergraduate education to their passions and career goals by choosing 25 units of restricted elective classes that pique their interests.

“The versatility is what drew me to the major,” said senior Sarah Solar. “I got to learn a whole lot of things that I had no idea I wanted to know!”

To get a more holistic education, Global Disease Biology majors are encouraged to expand their education with minors. Sarai Acosta, senior transfer student, explained how her two minors – Medical and Veterinary Entomology and Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology – improved her understanding of global health.

“Both of my minors have helped me see diseases in a very interesting way, and my animal emphasis has truly allowed me to understand disease transmission at a deeper level,” she said.

The College of Agricultural and Environmental Science also offers a minor in Global Disease Biology for students seeking to expand their major with the wide lens of a global health perspective.

Senior research project: learning from the lab bench

Rino Oguchi, a Global Disease Biology major, uses a pipette to extract a DNA sample during a plant pathology class.
Rino Oguchi, a Global Disease Biology major, uses a pipette to extract a DNA sample during a plant pathology class. Global Disease Biology majors get lab experience in both their classes and research projects. (UC Davis)

Global Disease Biology majors are required to complete a senior research project. Conducting their own research allows students to take their education into their own hands – literally. This requirement gets students behind the lab bench or out in the field, conducting research under the guidance of renowned faculty at one of the top research universities in the nation.

Topics for student research projects are as broad as the coursework for the major. Past students have studied the biology of particular diseases, domestic abuse in refugee populations, water contamination, and many other global health questions for their research projects.

“Now that I’ve been working in the lab for almost a year, it’s been one of the most valuable experiences because I got to see the whole process and learn how labs work,” Solar said. Sarah is researching the effectiveness of warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages with Dr. Jennifer Salbe, an assistant professor of nutrition and human development at UC Davis.

The senior research project is a perfect opportunity to foster relationships with faculty mentors, practice using a pipette, and tackle those difficult-but-intriguing questions that make science so fascinating.

Students often share the findings from their projects in a presentation at the annual Undergraduate Research Conference. Pablo Badra, a senior in the major, gave an oral presentation on his research project – evaluating the efficacy of a Zika vaccine under the mentorship of Dr. Koen Van Rompay – at the 2018 conference.

“I learned how to condense everything I’d been researching into a short presentation that explained the project in the right time frame and kept the audience interested,” he said.

Putting the “global” in global disease biology

UC Davis Study Abroad offers programs around the globe (in Thailand, the UK, Japan, Ireland, India, South Africa, and others) that fulfill core courses and provide global health internship opportunities worldwide. There are also opportunities to learn about global health in the United States. Clínica Tepati and the Imani Clinic provide medical internships in Sacramento, and UC Davis study abroad offers a community health internship in Hawaii.

“When we say global, it doesn’t have to be overseas,” said Rizzo. For example, Badra did an internship with Clínica Tepati, a non-profit student run medical clinic in Sacramento, where he served as co-head of the mental health committee.

Study abroad and internships are yet another way students in Global Disease Biology can customize and augment their learning experience.

Students interested in Global Disease Biology should contact an advisor for further questions about major/minor requirements, research projects, and how the degree could help their future career. To learn more, follow the Global Disease Biology page on Facebook. The Global Disease Biology club at UC Davis also provides opportunities for students to network.