PSC adds Human Health and the Environment program

Lee Ann Sporn speaks at Paul Smith’s College last summer during a presentation on a federal Lyme disease bill. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

PAUL SMITHS — Paul Smith’s College has added several new programs in recent years, but one professor is hopeful that the newest will have a lasting impact on the world while fitting in with the school’s nature-centric ethos.

Human Health and the Environment will train students how to study the effects that pollution, air and water quality and other environmental factors have on human health.

Lee Ann Sporn is the driving force behind the new program. She said the generation of college-aged kids often wants a career in a field related to health care, but don’t want to be nurses or doctors. She thinks PSC’s new program will be a good fit for those kids and noted that there are few schools in the country offer this kind of training.

“There’s a huge aspect in the field of human health that deals with public health and the way our environmental impacts are causing effects on our health,” she said last week. “This program really focuses on that.

“So we train people in biology, but also in the ways that you can use biology to understand how changes in the environment — diseases and toxins and things like that — are improving human health.”

Sporn said there’s a growing demand for trained professionals in the field, and noted that the state Directors of Environmental Health sent a letter to schools asking them to develop programs like this meaning that job opportunities for graduates should be plentiful.

“They could get a masters in community health,” she said. “A lot of the jobs are community centered: responding to outbreaks of disease, people might go on to become epidemiologists, food inspectors, policy making, or education and public awareness.

“It’s an enormous field, and there aren’t really all that many programs that focus on training people to enter that field directly, so that’s what we’d like to do.”

Sporn said people who are already in the human health and the environment field earn degrees in related subjects like biology, but aren’t necessarily trained in college to conduct the type of work that is required.

She also thinks that since Paul Smith’s has a long-standing expertise in studying the natural environment, the program will offer something that similar majors at other schools can’t.

“We’re coming at it from the environmental side as opposed to the health care side,” she said. “So it’s a unique way. And it’s really such an enormous part of our history as a college and a community. I thought that link was really neat,” she said of the area’s connection with tuberculosis and its cure.

“It feels like this program is returning to our roots in many ways, without [tuberculosis] Saranac Lake wouldn’t be here,” she laughed.

While the school will utilize existing classes and staff, Sporn did say that a new faculty member will be hired and new classes will be added.

“The beauty of it is, is that we have most of pieces of the puzzle in place,” she said. “But we are hiring a new faculty member with expertise in this area.

“Most of the courses are already part of our curriculum,” she said. “It’s naturally evolved from both student and faculty interest. Over the past few years we’ve created new courses that really fit the program so we’re putting a few more in place that really tie it all together.

“So it’s not something that’s an outlier of what we already do, it’s filling in a few missing pieces of what we do well.”

Sporn said one of the courses will focus on microbiology, with an eye on bio-remediation and how microbes affect human wellness. Another will study current issues in environmental health and seniors will take on a real-world project that Sporn said will start off by focusing on the spread of the powassan virus — a potentially deadly infection that is spread by ticks.

Sporn has been studying the spread of ticks and Lyme disease, and said when she began her work in that field she realized just how many jobs were involved in the environmental links to human health. She also said that another new program at the college — Ecological Restoration — also fits in nicely with the human health aspect, saying that people who live in healthy environments tend to be healthier.

PSC has added quite a few new programs in the past couple of years, but Sporn thinks that Human Health and the Environment will draw from a growing segment of the student population.

“We know that a lot of high school graduates are seeking careers in human health and we hope to introduce this as a really interesting alternative to careers where you’re dealing with health care for individual people,” she said. “This is healthcare for entire communities.

“I think a lot of students know that health care is a huge industry in this country. But students are attracted to Paul Smith’s because of their love of the environment. So this offers a way they can center their interest on maintaining and restoring and promoting human health, but in a way that combines it with their interest in a healthy environment.”

Sporn said the college won’t start recruiting for the program in earnest until next year, but at least one student has already committed.

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