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Saint Leo University Offering Several Degrees that Prepare Graduates for Work Considered Critical in Times of Crisis

The experience of the coronavirus has highlighted the ongoing need for professionals in certain fields.

One twist of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has helped bring to light career fields that often receive little mention in the public, while reinforcing the importance of others. High school graduates who are exploring career options may find interest in these fields of study, which have played an important role during the pandemic. People early in their working lives or those considering changing careers can also benefit from knowing about these fields.

As a liberal-arts based institution with nearly 60 academic programs, Saint Leo University employs faculty from many different specialties and pre-professional programs. Educators agreed to explain how a number of different fields contribute to society’s well-being, and how specific degree programs prepare students for these important professions.

Data science Behind the graphs and charts on the computer dashboards (Photo: Dashboard from Johns Hopkins University) that states and county government offices are assembling each day to show public health statistics such as the number of coronavirus cases, new cases, hospital occupancies, and so on, are data scientists. They draw upon and assemble vast arrays of information to create views of situations to provide overviews and evidence of patterns that could not otherwise be detected.

COVID Data Dashboard"We're literally talking about millions of data points,” explained Dr. Brian Camp, associate professor of mathematics. “The amount of data involved means using computers and data science to find patterns and predictions is a natural next step." Camp created the curriculum for the Bachelor of Science in data science at Saint Leo. (Students can also choose a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics with a specialization in data science.)  

Appropriate training in probability, statistics, and other math and computer science courses provides the technical foundation for someone to enter the field, Camp said. Additional knowledge in other subject areas such as psychology, biology, and finance—to name a few—aid in applying the right techniques to working with these large data sets. Camp emphasized that data scientists need to be able to identify when some form of bias might creep into data inquiry and data reporting, and guard against that. In terms of Saint Leo’s core values, Camp said this is a matter of integrity. Data scientists have a duty to report findings as fully and accurately as possible so that decisions made using findings are effective, he said.

Without the advent of data science and mathematical models (for estimating), it would be even harder to understand how the coronavirus moves through populations, said Dr. Jacob Aguilar. In addition to teaching mathematics at Saint Leo, the assistant professor has worked with fellow researchers at other institutions “to estimate the dynamics behind the spread of various infectious diseases, including coronavirus.” Many biological parameters involved cannot be directly measured, so modeling is employed, he added. 

Aguilar and his fellow researcher estimated a person infected with coronavirus, even without symptoms, could infect, on average, six others or more. Current thinking among scientists generally now employs six as the estimated number of transmissions possible from one infected carrier, he added, even though the general public was hoping to hear that coronavirus is less contagious than that. “In the beginning of the outbreak, the public wasn't ready to accept asymptomatic transmission or such a high number of six, but as scientists we had to report what the data suggested,” Aguilar said, adding that the situation echoes what his Saint Leo colleague Brian Camp says about maintain integrity with data findings.

Health education and health promotion  A brand new Bachelor of Science degree program is starting this fall at University Campus and will prepare professionals who can help bridge the gap between the health information that is available, and what individuals, families, and communities understand about their well-being. As people emerge from Saint Leo with the health education and health promotion degree, they will become health education specialists hired at community organizations, health care agencies, and workplaces. Their mission will be to help people learn to prevent disease and to support healthy behaviors. The coronavirus is a vivid example of a disease where health education specialists play a role in safeguarding communities, said Dr. Kathleen Van Eerden, associate dean of the College of Health Professions. Providing education about correct handwashing techniques and social distancing are examples of current topics where education has made a difference, she said. The health education and health promotion major at Saint Leo includes courses in designing and implementing health teaching, health literacy, workplace wellness, and health behavior, among others, Van Eerden said. Diabetes and heart disease are just two other examples of conditions where health education specialists can make a positive difference in individuals’ lives.

Biology and medical humanities majors Doctors, medical researchers, and other professionals who will eventually enter medical school or another graduate course of study first have to choose a major for an undergraduate degree. A popular choice from Saint Leo has been a Bachelor of Science in biology, and the university has a record of producing future doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and other professionals. In recent years, more flexibility has been added. Majors in biology can pursue a general track, an ecology track, or the biomedical and health sciences track, which provides the opportunity to take courses such as virology, immunology, and biotechnology. There is valuable knowledge to be gained from each of the biology concentrations, and all of them can prepare students to make needed research contributions to the kind of public health scenarios the world is experiencing now with COVID-19, according to Dr. Audrey Shor, an associate professor of biology who holds a Master of Public Health degree, along with her doctorate.

“Gaining the upper hand in controlling the spread of such viruses requires an interdisciplinary team of scientists working in concert with one another. These teams include ecologists, basic biologists, virologists, epidemiologists and a myriad of other professions trained in scientific study, including clinicians,” Shor said. Because Saint Leo fosters in students critical thinking skills, as well applied skill sets in the biology curriculum, graduates can become leaders in these endeavors, Shor said.

Medical humanities, a Bachelor of Arts degree, also provides a pathway into important areas of medicine and health. Those who opt for the pre-medical track intend to go into the kind of patient care that emphasizes the well-being of the whole person. The health humanities track is intended for those who would like to work in patient advocacy, at medical-related nonprofits, or to prepare themselves for graduate study leading to even more options.

Some foundation courses are required, and apply to both tracks. They include two courses that expose students to the study of medicine from the standpoints of recorded history, the arts, spirituality and religion, and another course on bio ethics. Two faculty members support the medical humanities program: Dr. Cheryl Kozina, an associate professor of biology, who oversees the pre-medical offerings, and Dr. Allyson Marino, associate professor of English.

The two remarked on how the pandemic has simultaneously underlined the need for science education for healers and researchers, and an appreciation of the role arts can play in training doctors and in helping everyone navigate a time of extra stress. For instance, Kozina said, “training in literature/writing can teach us to become good listeners—critically important for physicians who often only have nine to 12 minutes with their patients. How do you get all of the information that you need from your patient, especially things that the patient may not think are relevant to the current disease?”

Additionally, Kozina is convinced that “Those who have been trained to read and write also become more perceptive in their approach to medicine as they have learned to look at the whole picture.”

Medical DiscussionThe humanities and arts have provided the wider public with a much-needed balm for the isolation that the public has endured as by-product of the pandemic, Marino pointed out. It will be important to note the way the public and artists are responding, and to remember helpful strategies as society proceeds through this disruption and encounters other possible source of widespread anxiety in the future.

“From theater productions that have continued online through live-streaming, to hundreds of museums putting their videos and choreographed dances created in people's living rooms, music, movies, theater, and art create a platform for coping, self-expression, and even activism during uncertain times. Calls for artistic representation of the Covid-19 crisis have arisen all over the internet, many calling on the experiences of first responders and essential workers in particular,” she added.

Marino said the medical humanities field also takes stock of societal questions that are emerging with the handling of the virus and the fallout, such as disparities in rates of infection and treatment options for poorer communities and people of color. Another area of concern is the economic toll on those who cannot work from home and, if they have children, whether they have suitable childcare and education options available to them. “This social justice work has been part of the medical humanities field since its inception,” she said. 

In fact, students who enrolled in the first cohort of the medical humanities major in the 2019-2020 academic year got an introduction to many of these questions during the Spring 2020 Semester, when their class transitioned to online learning mid-semester because of the virus. “I've heard from students who can't wait to get back to the classroom, face-to-face or virtually, to continue these important discussions,” Marino said. 

Social work and human services The coronavirus pandemic is drawing also on the talents of professionals such as medical social workers, often employed in hospitals to help patients and their families, said Dr. Rhondda Waddell, who is a professor of social work herself and associate dean of the College of Education and Social Services. Social workers with advanced credentials can become licensed counselors, Waddell noted, so in some instances, they are providing counseling services—though “telehealth” services that provide talk therapy by computer connection have been ramped up because of social distancing needs.

In other instances, social workers are the experts who connect families to other resources they need. That can include food or housing assistance, or more, and social workers have long been doing this kind of work. But the pandemic is throwing more families into economic strife, whether because of illness or job loss, so the need is broader.

Saint Leo offers degree programs in social work and human services at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

Human services professionals are employed in some similar areas, but unlike social workers are not licensed and are not able to work as clinical counselors. They can, however, work in running social service programs, and serve as case managers or administrators in agencies and nonprofit groups ranging in focus from elder services to food and nutritional care, disability services, and many more specialties. In human services work, as in social work, technology is being used more to carry out work with clients, and work done on behalf of clients, in place of visits, said Dr. Nancy Wood, associate professor of human services. This modality is classified under the slightly different name “telecare” and can involve vital work, such as making sure a client is continuing to receive insulin shipments, or receiving other kinds of therapies and treatments as needed.

Both Waddell and Wood said they are considering offering workshops for practitioners in the field on the new technological means of rendering or overseeing care, as well as adjustments to the content of some relevant courses in their disciplines.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Wood said, some agencies may have a hiring freeze,     even while more human services professionals are needed to assist individuals and families struggling with the economic decline.

She has been advising that anyone in the field looking for temporary work or an added job to apply for the new positions opening up for contact tracers—the people who receive paid training to help identify individuals who came into contact with patients recently discovered to be infected with coronavirus. Tracing is one of the methods being used to try to contain the spread of the virus.

Wood said human services professionals have the underlying skills of empathy, active listening, and attention to detail necessary to do the job well. The specific pre-job training covers the steps and tasks involved in reaching people and asking specific questions.

Saint Leo offers degree programs in social work and human services at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

Emergency management Usually, the public thinks of emergency management skills as the ones needed for hurricanes, floods, riots—calamities whose origins we can see and hear. A virus is a different story. But it turns out that the knowledge students gain through an undergraduate program in emergency management, or through a master’s program in emergency and disaster management, or in criminal justice with a focus in critical incident management (available at some education centers as well as online), can be put to use in a pandemic. For instance, in some states, governors have had emergency operations officials with them during important community announcements. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been asked to provide nurses to certain states.

Emergency management typically involves solving large problems while protecting public safety and allocating resources and personnel. It also necessarily involves working with different experts, and agencies that are experts in different realms, explained Dr. Ernest Vendrell, professor of public safety administration. In this pandemic, the need for cooperation is even more apparent, and many managers are taking their leads from health authorities, Vendrell said.

“COVID-19 is demonstrating we can’t do it alone. It requires a combined effort of different experts and different disciplines. We can help provide that level of coordination,” he explained.

A professional in the field who teaches part-time for Saint Leo provided a vivid example to underscore Vendrell’s point. Dr. Wendy Nesheim, who is both a nurse and a commander of federal disaster medical assistance team, recounted the experience of a colleague deployed to a Texas county hit by coronavirus. The colleague described to her the effectiveness of a local emergency manager, or EM. “Seemingly from minute to minute, the EM gathered information on available hospital and ICU beds; medical staffing needs and shortfalls; COVID testing availability and locations; what organizations were in his area and what services they provide; and so on.” The manager was so well-informed because he had invested so much time earlier in getting to know—in addition to the community’s first responders—hospital executives, public health officials, the local mental health authority, nonprofit leaders, and medical volunteers, as well as specialists in business management and information technology, Nesheim recounted. As a result of that manager’s strong working relationships, the community was well served in a time of stress.

All the degrees discussed above are available through one of Saint Leo University’s four colleges. They are the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education and Social Services, the Tapia College of Business, and the new College of Health Professions.

Next: Watch this space for a story coming soon on the skills students acquire in a variety of business, administration, and technology degree programs and why they are proving so important during the coronavirus era, and will remain so in the future.

Topics: Featured, Academics

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