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Campus News

SPM changes name to reflect strengths, future development

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published March 27, 2014

Youfa Wang
“The new name better reflects the teaching and research focus and strengths of our faculty, and our future strategic plans of development and to better meet the school’s needs.”
Youfa Wang, chair
Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health

The Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of Public Health and Health Professions (SPHHP), a department formed in 1960 and known for its groundbreaking research in epidemiology, has changed its name to the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.

“The new name better reflects the teaching and research focus and strengths of our faculty, and our future strategic plans of development and to better meet the school’s needs,” says department chair and nutritional epidemiologist Youfa Wang.

“It also honors the work of the many outstanding scholars in these fields who put this department on the map.  The department as constituted was founded in 1960, but work in these areas goes back to its origins in public sanitation around 123 years ago. The department has played a key role in the formation of SPHHP.”

Wang says the new name also reflects the specific outstanding contributions the department has made to our knowledge of the epidemiology of cancer, infectious diseases in children, diabetes, osteoporosis, periodontal disease, eye disease, chronic diseases of aging and cardiovascular diseases, well as women’s health and disease prevention, nutritional epidemiology, genetics and molecular epidemiology, environmental health and occupational health.

The department, which has been known by several names over the years, has an illustrious history dating back to the late 19th century when new university courses in public health, hygiene, sanitation and disease prevention reflected the sea change in medical research and practice occasioned by the development of aseptic techniques and public health principles.

The Division of Hygiene and Sanitation, founded in 1913, reflected and institutionalized this historic change.  In 1919, in the midst of the great influenza pandemic, one of the deadliest events in recorded human history, the UB medical school established the Department of Hygiene and Public Health.

That department was to establish significant affiliations and collaborative ventures with Buffalo City Hospital (now Erie County Medical Center), the Erie County Health Department and Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which continue to this day. It also was influential in the establishment of the medical school’s Chronic Disease Research Institute in the early 1950s

The department remained part of the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health from 1945 until 1960, when it was renamed the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.

In 2003, the department moved from the medical school and became part of the new School of Public Health and Health Professions. It continued its community and cross-disciplinary collaborations and added Master of Public Health graduate programs in epidemiology, environmental health and health services administration to its offerings.

“We have a long history of research in epidemiology and in environmental factors that influence health and disease,” says Jean Wactawski-Wende, associate chair of the department and principal investigator of the NIH-funded Women’s Health Initiative. “In 2010, we formally created a Division of Environmental Health Sciences, which was led by UB Distinguished Professor James Olson.

“The division brings together environmental epidemiologists, toxicologists, chemists, engineers, geographers and professionals from other disciplines to integrate various disciplines that focus on environmental health issues from a wide range of perspectives and research areas,” she says. “This name change represents our epidemiologic excellence, but also our established environmental health program.”

The department’s research covers a wide breath of areas ranging from laboratory-based basic science to large population-based observational and intervention studies, including those related to national policies and environment pollution, from domestic to large international collaboration projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In particular, faculty members are involved in NIH-funded research on the roles of diet and vitamin D in the etiology of cancer, age-related eye and periodontal disease; causes of cancer; cardiovascular and metabolic diseases; obesity and diet, physical activity and other lifestyle and environmental factors related to non-communicable chronic diseases; aging; global population health; influence of environment pollution and occupational exposures on health; genetic influences on diseases; and factors influencing and promoting women’s and child’s health.

Students can earn PhD and MS degrees in epidemiology, and MPH degrees in the fields of epidemiology, environmental health and health services administration. The department also partners with the medical school to offer MD/PhD training and a combined Internal Medicine-Preventive Medicine Residency Program. Other combined degree programs include the MPH with Law, Pharmacy, Management, Social Work and Medicine. 

The department has been home to many distinguished scientists in the field, including the former chair, the late Saxon Graham, one of the fathers of chronic disease epidemiology and a member of the UB faculty from 1957 until his retirement in 1991.  An internationally known expert on diet and cancer, he was a founding fellow of the American College of Epidemiology. His work on the epidemiology of cancer is of enduring significance.

Its faculty and graduates have included distinguished epidemiologists such as:

  • Germaine Buck Louis, senior investigator and director of NIH’s Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.
  • James R. Marshall, senior vice president for cancer prevention and population sciences and chair of the Department of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
  • Phillip C. Nasca, professor of epidemiology and dean of the University at Albany School of Public Health, a noted etiologist and epidemiologist of breast cancer, cancer of the female reproductive organs and childhood cancers.

Other notables include the late Milton Terris, a professor and outspoken advocate for progressive public health policy, former president of the American Public Health Association and founder of the Journal of Public Policy, and Maurizio Trevisan, internationally known physician and epidemiologist in the field of cardiovascular and chronic disease. Trevisan served as professor of epidemiology and founding dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions. He now is dean of the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education at City College of New York.

Today, the department is expanding rapidly and hiring several new faculty members to expand the research and training programs. The department is welcoming strong applications.

In addition to Wang, an internationally known expert on childhood obesity, and Wactawski-Wende, an expert on women’s health, current faculty of note in the department include UB Distinguished Professor Jo L. Freudenheim, a former department chair who is a recognized leader in the areas of diet and genetics in the etiology of breast cancer, and Olson, who directs the department’s Environmental Health Division and is also professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

“Current departmental faculty members maintain a strong research portfolio and their work has been published in some of the most highly regarded scientific journals,” Wang says, citing the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, Circulation, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, American Journal of Epidemiology, International Journal of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Perspectives.

“This is an exciting time and a period of growth in the department,” he says. “The new name reflects more clearly the focus of the department’s research and educational missions.”

Wang, who joined the department recently from Johns Hopkins University, says he was attracted to the department “based on its current strengths and impressive history, and the unprecedented opportunities at UB, including its ambitious UB 2020 initiatives. I look forward to building further on that great foundation.”