Though we haven’t yet found a cure for AIDS, we do know some of the things that lead to its transmission, like unprotected sex and shared hypodermic needles, and we have reason to believe that it originated through blood contact with monkeys in West Africa that were consumed as food. Those important discoveries—as well as thousands of others—were made by epidemiologists. Epidemiology is, according to the University of Alabama, “the study of the distribution and determinants of diseases in human populations.” If you choose to major in epidemiology, you’ll be studying the origins and causes of diseases, as well as the demographics most affected by them and those most at risk. You’ll study factors such as environment, occupation, and nutrition to determine their relationships to specific diseases. Through an exploration of the external factors that cause disease you’ll learn how to identify, prevent, and control infectious diseases. Statistical methods will be used to investigate health issues as you develop the ability to analyze and interpret the research of others and eventually perform independent research of your own.
Though you may not be asked to specialize as an undergraduate, knowing some of the specialized fields within epidemiology is important. The University of Pittsburgh, for example, offers specializations in chronic disease epidemiology, women’s health epidemiology, infectious disease epidemiology, psychiatric epidemiology, and alcohol epidemiology. You’ll gain a basic understanding of some or all of these areas in your undergraduate studies. Epidemiology is, in many ways, a multidisciplinary field, dealing heavily with biology, chemistry, pathology, psychology, and medicine. You’ll draw from these fields during your studies and interact and work with experts in these fields once you begin your career. Epidemiology deals with humans from preconception through old age—the whole life span is rich with opportunities for research and study. Your efforts in college and beyond might pave the way for vast improvements in our quality of life.
Building a strong foundation in the sciences is vital to getting a head start on your epidemiology major. Bulk up on with courses in biology and chemistry, and be sure to take advantage of any laboratory components offered. Math courses will be valuable as well—you’ll be doing a lot of work with statistics in college. Health courses might be useful, as well as humanities courses that will help you improve and strengthen your reading, writing, and communication skills.