What happens when you take the dean of the Yale School of Public Health and put him in the same room with a dozen middle school students? Will they have anything to talk about?
The answer is yes, and then some.
Dean Sten H. Vermund was peppered with questions for a steady hour Wednesday by New Haven public school students participating in the Ulysses S. Grant Summer Program run by Yale undergraduates. He was there to talk about public health—and did they respond.
What is his favorite topic in public health? one particularly inquisitive student wanted to know. Vermund thought about it for a second and said it was infectious diseases. He loves to wipe out the bugs that cause human disease. “It’s a fascinating [microscopic] world that is out there,” he told the gathering in Dwight Hall.
What is the scariest infection today? another student asked. In terms of virulence, it’s probably the Ebola virus, Vermund said, adding a host of relevant information about the disease and its transmission.
This prompted another student to chime in. What is the worst common infectious disease? Vermund said that it was probably influenza, which continues to take a heavy toll, particularly on the young and the elderly.
And so it went, one question after another about the intricacies and challenges faced by modern day public health professionals, or epidemiologists, a term introduced by Vermund and picked up by the curious students. At times, four or five students had their hand raised at the same time. Vermund had trouble keeping up.
Worst parasitic disease? For sure, it’s malaria, he said.
Does he like to work in the lab? Vermund explained that lab work is essential, but is not his forte. What he really likes is working in the field directly engaging people.
Does he travel much to promote public health? Vermund explained that he’s traveled extensively during his career, averaging about four months each year. Public health takes you everywhere.
Another student wanted to know if his being away from home so much was difficult for his family. Vermund admitted that there were many times when it was, especially when his sons, now adults, were young. He missed some important family events and contact with his family was hampered by the relatively primitive communications technology available early in his career. But he said that he had a supportive wife, also a doctor, who understood the demands of the job.
The discussion veered to the Black Plague in medieval Europe, smallpox (Vermund explained that President George Washington was a victim), and the near global eradication of polio and Guinea worm.
The U.S. Grant students have been discussing the social determinants of health, and it was great for them to learn about how this plays out in every day work and life, said Sana Aslam, a Yale student and their program teacher.
“Dr. Vermund's visit to our epigenetics class was such an awesome opportunity for the students! They were excited to spend a class time asking him questions and drawing inspiration from his commitment to public health, prevention and patient care," she said.
Earlier in the week, Vermund met with 29 visiting college students in a YSPH summer environmental health course spearheaded by Vasilis Vasiliou, Ph.D., the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology, and with 18 high school students in a summer biostatistics program headed by Lisa Calvocoressi, Ph.D., a research scientist in biostatistics.
“All of these young people were amazing,” Vermund said. “The future of public health is bright if we can lure a few of these imaginative minds to our discipline.”