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Arnold School of Public Health

COVID-19 pandemic reveals need for more interdisciplinary research training among graduate students

May 26, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

When SARS-CoV-2 first emerged as a novel coronavirus and rapidly escalated from outbreak to epidemic to pandemic, researchers launched into action. From how it was spread to who was more likely to get really sick, scientists learned more about this new virus every day.

The subsequent outpour of COVID-19 publications has been vast – surpassing more than 116,000 peer-reviewed articles on PubMed as of March 2021. Yet despite an abundance of support for and findings from COVID-19 research, the lessons learned often appear in silos – with few collaborations across disciplines.

“We noticed there was a large amount of COVID-19 publications but very few seem to answer the essential question about why the pandemic trajectory was happening the way it was happening in the U.S.,” says Ph.D. in Epidemiology student Gabriel Benavidez of his conversations with health promotion, education, and behavior doctoral candidate Jennifer Mandelbaum. “Specifically, we were interested in why racial/ethnic minorities were significantly more likely to be infected, hospitalized and die from COVID-19.”

For Benavidez and Mandelbaum, the problem was clear. Many of these papers focused on the biological factors of the pandemic but ignored the social aspects. They traced the root of this problem back to the typical training offered by most graduate programs and its implications (or limitations) for the researchers’ future perspectives, approaches and potential partners. One of the solutions, they believe, is to place more of an emphasis on interdisciplinary research training during graduate school.

The recommendation aligns with UofSC’s efforts to promote interprofessional education and interprofessional practice across disciplines, particularly in the health sciences. Transforming Healthcare for the Future is an academic course designed to engage health sciences students (e.g., public health, social work, nursing, medicine, pharmacy) in learning about interprofessional education core competencies. Since 2015, the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders has organized interprofessional practice events where collaborative teams of students have an opportunity to apply their knowledge while treating speech-language pathology patients, often with complex medical needs.  

After receiving a call for papers on student perspectives of the COVID-19 pandemic, Benavidez and Mandelbaum recruited sociology doctoral student Calley Fisk to add the perspective of a third discipline – this time outside the broader field of public health. Together, they laid out their ideas in an article published in Public Health Reports.

In their paper, the authors recommend that students are trained to employ multiple perspectives and collaborate with other disciplines to answer complex scientific questions that are affected through biological, social and political processes. They also suggest specific ways that Schools and programs of public health can facilitate interdisciplinary training: prioritizing interdisciplinary research groups (e.g., Carolina Consortium on Health, Inequalities, and Populations; Carolina Center on Alzheimer’s Disease and Minority Research; Rural and Minority Health Research Center), offering competitive funding to support research that incorporates interdisciplinary approaches, creating policies that require coursework and dissertation/thesis committee members from external departments, and adopting a multiple-mentor model.

“We hope that deans, department chairs and academic mentors will encourage and invest in students to take an interdisciplinary approach to public health questions because our society is complex, and no one discipline has the answers,” Benavidez says. “We will need a variety of disciplines working together to produce the most robust scientific evidence moving forward.”

This publication was made possible in part by grant no. T32-GM081740 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)–National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NIGMS or NIH.

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