Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Assistant Director, Graduate Studies
Epidemiology – the study of the frequency, distribution, and determinants of disease in humans – is a fundamental science of public health. Epidemiologists use many approaches, but the ultimate aim of epidemiologic research is the prevention or effective control of human disease.
The Department of Epidemiology has a long tradition of teaching and research in a wide variety of areas that include, but are not limited to, the epidemiology of cancer, cardiovascular and other chronic diseases, and infectious diseases and epidemiologic methodology. Current research in the department involves the role of infections in the etiology of cancer; the connection between diet and risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other major chronic diseases; the relationship between exposure to chemicals in the workplace and the development of cancer; the epidemiology of infectious disease; factors in early life predisposing individuals to chronic diseases; case identification and risk factors in mental disorders; health effects of drugs, vaccines, and medical devices; and causes of human infertility.
Degree Programs in Epidemiology
The department offers both an 80-credit and a 42.5-credit SM program, together with a doctoral program leading to an SD degree.
All departmental degree requirements are in addition to the school-wide degree requirements.
Students in all departmental degree programs choose from among 12 areas of interest:
Cancer epidemiology and cancer prevention In addition to research methodology, the curriculum in this area includes courses on the biology and genetics of cancer; the basic concepts and issues of cancer epidemiology; the roles of lifestyle factors, such as diet and physical activity; environmental and occupational exposures in the etiology of cancer; the integration of biomarkers (e.g., plasma, genetic, and tumor markers) into research; the prevention of cancer; and research methods. Research opportunities for students include a large number of ongoing cohort and case-control studies conducted within the department or at associated institutions and in conjunction with the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
Cardiovascular epidemiology This area provides training in research methodology and the epidemiology of cardiovascular diseases. Doctoral students conduct research in a substantive or methodological area related to cardiovascular epidemiology. Research opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral students include a broad area of topics, including the role of diet, genetics, plasma markers, lifestyle characteristics, clinical interventions, and environmental predictors of primary and secondary onset of cardiovascular disease. Trainees have the opportunity to work with several large ongoing cohort and case-crossover studies and to interact with other trainees and investigators through forums and other activities organized by the program in cardiovascular epidemiology centered at HSPH.
Clinical epidemiology The clinical epidemiology area is designed primarily for clinicians and other health care professionals in the 42.5-credit SM program who wish to develop the quantitative skills needed for clinical research. Students take core courses in epidemiology and biostatistics to develop basic skills in study design and analysis that will allow them to examine clinical questions related to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Additional courses in epidemiology and courses offered by other departments address related topics of potential interest, such as health status and quality-of-life measurement, decision analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, health services research, and quality improvement of health care.
Though the appropriate content for this area may be covered by taking courses offered during the regular academic year (fall and spring semesters), requirements for the 42.5-credit SM degree in epidemiology also may be partially fulfilled by taking courses offered through the Summer Program in Clinical Effectiveness and the Summer Session for Public Health Studies. In this schedule option, students begin their program by taking a core set of courses during an initial summer period. They complete the SM program by taking advanced courses during the regular academic year and, if desired, during two or more summer periods. Alternatively, students can satisfy the requirements for the 42.5-credit SM degree by taking courses during summer periods and completing a supervised research project. The content of this project typically entails the design and implementation of a clinical study, the analysis of the resulting data, and the creation of a manuscript suitable for publication. An outline for this project must be submitted at the time of application.
Environmental/occupational epidemiology This area is closely associated with the concentrations in exposure, epidemiology, and risk and in occupational health in the Department of Environmental Health. Students take courses in epidemiology, environmental health, occupational health, biostatistics, toxicology, genetics, and environmental exposure assessment. Doctoral students conduct research in a substantive or a methodological area related to environmental or occupational health. Research emphases include the relationships between environmental and occupational exposures and cancer, children’s health, cardiopulmonary disease, neurodegenerative disease, reproductive health, and gene-environment interactions.
Epidemiologic methods Study in this area provides training in the development and application of new methods in epidemiologic research. Students learn to use and justify classical epidemiologic methods in study design, data analysis, and interpretation of results. Students also receive training in the biostatistical areas most relevant to epidemiologic research. Recent innovations in epidemiologic methodology are introduced through advanced courses and tutorials. Doctoral students conduct research with faculty members in the development of new methodologies and in novel applications of existing methodologies. Those enrolling in this area of interest ordinarily have completed four semesters of college calculus and one semester of linear algebra. Students have an opportunity for collaboration with researchers working on causal inference in epidemiology and allied sciences.
Epidemiology of aging This area is geared toward those interested in the diseases and conditions, as well as research methods, specific to older populations. Social and cultural aspects of health in older persons also are covered. Core courses focus on the epidemiologic aspects of the study of aging and include topics in biology, statistics, and other relevant fields. Numerous research opportunities on a wide range of issues – including neurological diseases, osteoporosis, incontinence, and others – are available in the department and also in the Department of Nutrition, Channing Laboratory, Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Hebrew SeniorLife.
Infectious diseases Research in this area focuses on the biological and dynamic features of infectious diseases, with emphasis on the use of epidemiologic approaches to study the social, behavioral, and biological determinants of infectious disease emergence, transmission, pathogenesis, and immunity. Courses in the department cover the common features of communicable diseases and their dynamics; methods for the analysis of transmission dynamics; and advanced topics in the epidemiology of certain specific infectious diseases, especially HIV. Courses in other departments provide introductions to the epidemiology of additional specific infectious diseases and to additional relevant methodologies, including spatial and time series analysis. Students in this area ordinarily join the interdisciplinary concentration in the epidemiology of infectious disease.
Molecular/genetic epidemiology This area introduces students to the application of molecular and genetic methods in epidemiology. These methods may be useful as measures of exposure, disease susceptibility, or disease outcome. Training encompasses family-based association methods, genome-wide association studies to identify the chromosomal localization of genes associated with disease, and fine mapping and identification of these genes. Population-based studies correlate variation in genes with disease risk and prognosis and assess gene-environment interactions. Relevant courses explore the genetic epidemiology of complex diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, psychiatric illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, and asthma, as well as individual variation in drug response (pharmacogenomics). Students can collaborate with the HSPH Department of Environmental Health, Channing Laboratory, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and other research groups.
Neuropsychiatric epidemiology Within this increasingly integrated area of interest, students typically elect one of two focal areas:
- Neuroepidemiology, which provides training in research methodology and the epidemiology of neurological diseases. Current research emphasizes the roles of diet, infections, and environmental exposures in the etiology of neurodegenerative diseases – such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – and it integrates biomarkers and genetic factors. Doctoral students conduct research in a substantive or methodological area related to neuroepidemiology.
- Psychiatric epidemiology, which introduces students to concepts and methods for studying the genetic and psychosocial factors that relate to the prevalence, incidence, and outcome of different types of psychiatric illnesses. Emphasis is given to issues of reliability and validity in studying such disorders among children, adolescents, and adults. The curriculum consists of six specialized courses, as well as related courses offered in the HSPH Departments of Epidemiology; Biostatistics; and Society, Human Development, and Health. A wide range of research opportunities is available, particularly in psychiatric genetics, mental health services, pharmacoepidemiology, clinical trials, prevention, and community and cross-cultural studies.
Nutritional epidemiology Through courses in the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition, students in this area learn methods of nutritional assessment and their related strengths and weaknesses. Students also receive advanced training in the nutritional determinants of disease and in methods for analysis specific to research in nutritional epidemiology. They can conduct research within several large, prospective ongoing studies at HSPH and Harvard Medical School, including an examination of dietary factors in relation to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases; a study of the interactions between nutritional and genetic determinants of disease; and the assessment of nutritional supplementation in relation to infectious agents and malnutrition.
Pharmacoepidemiology This area focuses on the determinants of both unintended and expected effects of drugs, vaccines, biologics, medical procedures, and medical devices. Patterns of utilization, cost-benefit and risk-benefit analyses, and investigation of the distribution of diseases possibly amenable to medical intervention represent important secondary themes. The department offers courses in pharmacoepidemiology and a variety of ongoing research projects. Relevant courses elsewhere in the school cover such areas as clinical trials, meta-analysis, drug regulatory affairs, decision analysis, and health services research. Students in pharmacoepidemiology have the opportunity to attend courses and congresses outside the school and are encouraged to undertake internships in regulatory agencies or pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Students ordinarily have a prior degree in medicine or pharmacy. Those without such a degree are expected to acquire substantially equivalent expertise in areas related to their research.
Reproductive, perinatal, and pediatric epidemiology Research in this area centers on the determinants and consequences of reproduction, including women’s health and male infertility. Students can explore pubertal development, gynecologic disorders, sexually transmitted infections, the menstrual cycle, menopause, fertility, conception, assisted reproductive technologies, and pregnancy as endpoints or as factors influencing disease outcomes. The Obstetrics and Gynecology Epidemiology Center, based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, offers the opportunity to gain experience in data collection and analysis of large-scale population- and clinical-based epidemiologic studies. Students may collaborate with faculty members at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. They also have the opportunity to pursue gynecologic and reproductive health research at the many resources available in the area, including the Channing Laboratory, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and the Division of Preventive Medicine and the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Students are encouraged and given guidance on how to submit their own research proposals for private or federal funding.
Program Prerequisites and Requirements
SM in Epidemiology, 80-credit program
Minimum prerequisites for entrance: Bachelor’s degree or non-U.S. equivalent and a strong background in mathematics and other relevant disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, genetics, physiology, bioengineering, and related social and computational sciences).
Program requirements: Through coursework students gain essential skills in epidemiology, quantitative methods, and computing as well as studying basic medical sciences and the biological aspects of public health problems. In addition students are required to complete a master’s thesis resulting in a publishable manuscript or grant application. Graduates either continue on to a doctoral degree or take positions as professional epidemiologists in such settings as universities, hospitals, public health agencies, and private companies.
SM in Epidemiology, 42.5-credit program
Minimum prerequisite for entrance: A medical degree or master’s level background in relevant disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, genetics, physiology, bioengineering, and related social and computational sciences).
Program requirements: Required courses cover topics in epidemiologic methods and biostatistics. Additional elective credits may be earned in areas of special interest and, for students in the summer only degree program, include supervised research. Students acquire basic skills in epidemiology, quantitative methods, and computing in preparation for research or academic careers. Graduates have taken positions as researchers in university and hospital settings and as epidemiologists for public health agencies and private companies.
SD in Epidemiology
Minimum prerequisites for entrance, SD program: Bachelor’s degree or non-U.S. equivalent and a strong background in mathematics and other relevant disciplines (e.g., biology, chemistry, genetics, physiology, bioengineering, and related social and computational sciences). For most individuals, the degree generally takes four to five years to complete. Candidates with an HSPH master’s degree may complete the program in three years.
Degree requirements, SD: The first two years are devoted to coursework. Course requirements for the SD provide for advanced work in epidemiologic methods and biostatistics. Ten credits also are required in substantive courses offered by the department. Of the two minors required, one must be in biostatistics.
Funding may be available for students enrolled in the doctoral programs. Sources of funding support for doctoral students, in addition to tuition and stipend awards granted directly by the school or the Department of Epidemiology, include research fellowships in cancer epidemiology, nutritional epidemiology of cancer, cardiovascular epidemiology, environmental epidemiology, infectious disease epidemiology, psychiatric epidemiology, and reproductive epidemiology. Eligibility for these fellowships is dependent upon U.S. citizenship or Permanent Resident status.
The doctoral programs are designed for students who plan careers in epidemiologic research or teaching or for those who aspire to leadership roles in the health professions. Recent graduates are working in major universities, medical schools, and research institutes. They also serve as epidemiologists for the National Cancer Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other domestic and international governmental institutions, and private industry.
- Exposure, epidemiology, and risk and occupational health concentrations, department of environmental health
- Interdisciplinary concentration in maternal and child health/families
- Interdisciplinary concentration in obesity epidemiology and prevention
- Interdisciplinary concentration in the epidemiology of infectious disease
- Interdisciplinary concentration in women, gender, and health
- Summer program in clinical effectiveness
Assistant Director of Graduate Studies
Department of Epidemiology
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Schoolwide degree requirements