How UC Santa Cruz’s New Global and Community Health Program Will Work at the Intersection of Social and Natural Sciences

March 30, 2022

To UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) alumna Manya Balachander who majored in psychology and community studies, a unique aspect of the UCSC campus is that "you’re constantly surrounded by academic activism rooted in social justice,” she says. This enduring dedication to social justice at the university is why she believes UCSC is perfectly positioned to create a new academic program in Global and Community Health that sits at the intersection of social and natural sciences. The new program offering both a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BS) in Global and Community Health (GCH) integrates a set of shared courses putting health and disease in social, political, and economic context (the program’s launch is pending final Faculty Senate approval).

two, young, female students working together in classroom full of students
Photo Courtesy of UC Santa Cruz

“The program reflects large literatures in public health and global health that show biomedical interventions only work well when they’re successfully integrated into a comprehensive understanding of the social, political and economic determinants of health and health policy,” says UCGHI board member, and GCH program executive director, Dr. Matt Sparke, PhD. This interdisciplinary approach is inspired by the critically contextualizing concerns of the late Dr. Paul Farmer, anthropologist, physician, and co-founder of Partners In Health. His entire career was dedicated to demonstrating how "repair work" in healthcare begins with seeing illness at a personal level as tied to social pathologies and inequalities. “And just as Farmer adapted the Haitian proverb of Mountains Beyond Mountains to describe the globally unending work of repair,” says Dr. Sparke, “we believe our Californian context calls on us to help our students prepare for the Valleys Beyond Valleys of health repair work in our local communities, communities that confront vast valley-like inequalities in health services and outcomes.” The "valleys" Dr. Sparke reference points to local examples such as the inequalities in wealth between Silicon Valley where the privileged can buy high-quality personalized medicine, and the health challenges tied to poverty, poor housing and on-the-job vulnerabilities of farm-worker communities in the Salinas Valley, Pajaro Valley and Central Valley.

Whether students choose to concentrate on the social sciences through the BA program, or the natural sciences through the BS program, they will all complete similar foundational courses, as well as a shared capstone Task Force course that will bring them together to take on real world, community-based health challenges. Coursework will involve both interdisciplinary collaboration and community-centered pedagogy, led by diverse faculty instructors, and community experts. UCSC is well positioned for this interdisciplinary approach as demonstrated with existing programs, such as community studies, which already has deep engagement with local communities, and whose distinguished alumni include figures such as Dr. Barbara Ferrer who currently leads Los Angeles county’s public health department.

five students sitting around a sculpture
Photo Courtesy of UC Santa Cruz

“I think Santa Cruz is such a special place,” says recent graduate Aarushi Saharan who majored in biology and minored in literature. “It’s a space where there are already students making that journey across disciplines…[through] academic activism. They’re understanding what the issues are and finding ways to address them in a clever and nuanced way.”

Both Balachander and Saharan were instrumental in working with Dr. Sparke and other administrators to advocate for the GCH program. Balachander studying social sciences and Saharan studying the natural sciences met in a community studies course where they found a shared interest in doing research around health equity. Seeing a gap in the literature around health equity and health access, they joined forces to conduct community-based research in collaboration with Dr. Sparke to understand how unhoused women navigated access to reproductive and general health services in Santa Cruz. Their research was published in Social Work in Health Care in December 2021. Balachander is now working as a research assistant at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Saharan will begin medical school in the fall at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

This kind of student-led research is what Balachander and Saharan hope to see more of after the launch of the program, and what a cross-disciplinary program like GCH can nurture.

As the co-host for the upcoming UC Global Health Day on May 7, 2022, UC Santa Cruz and the GCH program's approach to academic activism is evident in the event’s theme, Centering Social Justice in Community Health. “The social justice thread ties together so much of the coursework that we have selected for inclusion in the two majors,” says Dr. Sparke. This also is reflected in hiring 11 new faculty in the natural and social sciences and one in Engineering (Dr. Richard Li, PhD who specializes in global health statistics), many of whom are faculty of color and women, and all whose work reflects strong commitments to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Examples of core GCH faculty include: Dr. Valerie Cortez, PhD, assistant professor in biology and on the UCGHD Planning Committee, who researches some of the main viral causes of diarrheal illness in young children; Dr. Naya Jones, PhD, assistant professor in sociology, who research concerns Black geographies of health and healing; Dr. Ashwak Hauter, PhD , assistant professor in anthropology who studies medical knowledge on the margins of war in the Middle East; Dr. Shaheen Sikander, PhD, assistant professor in biology, who studies stem cells and breast cancer; and Dr. Alicia Riley, PhD, assistant professor in sociology whose current research concerns the unequal impact of COVID-19 on Latinx and Black communities in California.

To Balachander and Saharan, this new cohort of faculty offers expanded opportunities for student mentorship in global and community health. They are excited for (and slightly envious of) the future students who will have these faculty as mentors and the new coursework that will offer an expansive view of health and health equity for UCSC students.

“Turning out well-spoken, thoughtful community leaders is what Santa Cruz is an expert in,” says Saharan. “I’m really excited now to see more health professionals come out of Santa Cruz that shake up the way both global and local health systems work.”