The Public Health Undergraduate Program: Past, Present, and Future


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Undergraduates make important contributions to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health community. Just ask Tony Soyka, who has served as the academic adviser for the Public Health Undergraduate Program (PHUP) since its inception in 2003. “I enjoy working with undergraduate students, especially with helping them to become responsible adults and leaders,” he says. “They bring energy, enthusiasm, and optimism.”

The current PHUP represents the third time UC Berkeley has offered a bachelor’s degree in public health. The original undergraduate program ended in the 1960s. Then the major was briefly revived in the 1970s, but only for a few years. The 2003 reinstatement of an undergraduate major in public health was part of a national trend to develop bachelor’s programs in public health in order to address the growing need for a trained public health workforce. That trend was spurred in part by the Institute of Medicine’s 2002 report, Who Will Keep the Public Healthy? The reinstated program also helped the School of Public Health— a professional school offering graduate degrees—enhance its presence on the campus.

The PHUP attained success almost immediately; not only did it quickly become a very popular major, it also received the Educational Initiatives Award in 2006. The award, administered by the Center for Teaching and Learning, is essentially a programmatic version of the Distinguished Teaching Award. Since then, the program has continued to grow–necessitating the introduction of a formal application procedure–and it now graduates approximately 120 to 150 students every year.

Students who pursue the major are drawn to its focus on the “big picture” aspect of health, especially in global matters. Although public health is considered a bio-related major, this big-picture focus is a key difference from the other bio majors on campus, particularly those focusing on the molecular aspects of health. This difference is evident in the fact that the prerequisites for the program not only include math and biology, but also the social sciences such as anthropology, psychology, and economics. Upon entry into the major, students then focus on upper-division core courses such as biostatistics, epidemiology, health policy and management, and microbiology.


“I chose this major because it is a great way to study the applied biological and social science,” says Hilary Iskin, a fourth-year student and peer adviser for the program. “Since getting into the major, I have realized how many challenges could be addressed by relatively simple preventive measures.”

Even though students in the program are just beginning to explore the different emphases of the field of public health, it is that energy of inquiry that makes many faculty members enjoy working with the undergraduates. Malcolm Potts, Bixby Professor of Population and Family Planning, explains, “I like the undergraduates because they are still exploring the world and looking for subjects that fire their enthusiasm.”

Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology and associate dean of research, says of the undergraduates, “They are a bright, highly motivated group of students. They have been a terrific addition to the School of Public Health and public health activities.”


Cal Public Health Undergraduate Coalition presents a public health panel.

Not surprisingly, public health undergraduates boast numerous accomplishments. On campus, they have formed student groups such as Cal Undergraduate Public Health Coalition, which provides a professional and support network, and Sather Health, which provides online health information to the student population. Outside of campus, public health undergrads captured first place in the California Association of Healthcare Leaders College Bowl Competition in 2012, , and a few even earned medals in swimming in the 2012 Summer Olympic games in London.

PHUP students have made notable contributions in the research arena as well. In the 2011-12 academic year, 12 undergraduate students successfully completed their honors thesis research, exploring topics such as the future health impacts of nanotechnology and the prevalence of diabetes in Tanzania. Some of these same students also won awards during the poster session for the School of Public Health Spring Visit Day. Additionally, PHUP students can also be found conducting research in the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program and the Haas Scholars Program, working on projects such as African American Women’s Heart and Health Study with Associate Professor Amani Nuru-Jeter and assessing the costs of using antiretroviral drugs in HIV prevention with Adjunct Professor George Rutherford.

“I know that the undergraduate students are vital to the energy at the School of Public Health,” notes Robin Flagg, lecturer for Public Health 150D: Introduction to Health Policy & Management. “I am constantly learning about all the great projects…that my undergraduate students are involved in.” One such project involved the work of Associate Clinical Professor Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, who has been focusing on global pediatric dentistry and the need for preventative care in such diverse global locations such as Nepal, Ecuador, and Vietnam; quite a few public health undergrads have joined her.

Adviser Soyka reports that PHUP received additional resources from campus to both expand enrollment from a maximum of 300 to 350, and to revive PH14: Introduction to Public Health, offered again in Spring 2013 after a two-year absence. The program also recruited more peer advisers, and the academic adviser is currently pursuing social media as a way to increase the visibility of the major.

Despite the ongoing budget cuts and a limited number of faculty members available to mentor the undergraduates, Soyka believes the undergraduate program will continue to thrive. “Although the major remains capped, we do encourage all qualified students to apply,” he says.

Reingold views the undergraduates and the program as having great potential. “I think there is strong evidence that our undergraduate public health program is one of the very best programs of its type in the country, and a source of pride for the School of Public Health,” he says.

Keng Lam is a 4th year student majoring in Public Health and minoring in Public Policy. A peer adviser for the Public Health Undergraduate Program, he is also a cofounder of Sather Health.

1 Comment

  1. John M Hayakawa on

    I am a graduate of the UC SPH undergraduate program. B.S. (1951). Several people I recall in that early class were Ernie Bertellotti, who passed away in March 2012, and Prof. Betty Matthews, who subsequently taught at the Univ. of Washington School of Public Health. Our professors were Dorothy B. Nyswander and Edith Lindsay. Dr. Lindsay had primary responsibility for the undergraduate program. Professor Smith was dean.
    I was under the impression that after our class, the undergraduate program was discontinued. I don’t recall its existence when I was a graduate student in 1953-54. In those days, applicants to the SPH were required to have three years of experience. With limited availabilty of public health positions, it was difficult to find the appropriate experience. Fortunately, Ann Haynes, Chief, Bureau of Health Education, California State Health Dept., created a traineeship, allowing Ernie and me to use that vehicle to satisfy part of the experience requirement. I was also a World War II veteran and, being older, that helped. Reading your article suggests that the current academic requirements are considerably more stringent than those required of us in the 50’s. John M. Hayakawa

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