Environment and Disease

Michael F. Tibbetts

Associate Professor of Biology,
Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Bard College.
Biology Program Director


Environment and Disease is a team-taught laboratory course for first-year students at Bard College that explores the link between environmental factors and large-scale human health problems. The key topics covered are the relationships between global warming and malaria, ozone depletion and skin cancer, habitat fragmentation and lyme disease, and the health impact of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT. To understand these topics students must acquire some basic knowledge in several disciplines, including physics, mathematics, computer science, biology, and chemistry. But students also discover that there are certain ideas and practices that bridge all of these disciplines, including risk assessment, the necessity of evaluating the quality of data, the advantages of using models and their limitations. The course is taught by faculty from multiple fields and each section ends with lectures from a political scientist that offers students a chance to use the scientific knowledge they have gained to inform their discussions of the political issues.

The laboratories are designed to give the students an appreciation of the challenges of collecting data that could be used in the formulation of public policy. There are laboratories that focus on computer modeling, the use of statistics as they are applied to epidemiological studies, and the acquisition of proxy (indirect) data to infer conditions present before reliable measurements could be made. These laboratory experiences give the student a hands-on experience in the collection of scientific data specifically as it is used in public policy debates.

To further reinforce the connections between science and public policy, students are required to write a paper on an article or set of related articles from the popular or technical press that addresses a topic related to one of the problems addressed in the course, but not directly covered by it. It is expected that the paper will integrate both the scientific and political aspects of its subject.

Course Learning Objectives

- Expose students early in their careers to the value of multidisciplinary approaches and to faculty from multiple fields.

- Expose students to the laboratory. Specifically, to: different strategies for asking questions, the importance of how data is gathered and the use of quantitative techniques in interpreting data.

- Give students the opportunity to engage in informed discussions of the topics covered in the course and the public policy surrounding them.

- Give students a sense of the importance of models in scientific inquiry.

- Foster the development of "fearless scientists", who pursue answers to questions without being hindered by disciplinary boundaries.

      Next Page »