UNMC field epidemiology course puts student scientists in the real world

They've collected grasshoppers and studied them for mites.

Treated toads for intestinal protozoans.

Exposed small, freshwater crustaceans to predation from beetle larvae.

And gotten great tans.

As the annual Field Epidemiology course wrapped up its sixth summer last week, instructor Devin Nickol, M.D., called it "another very successful year.”

"The students continue to surprise me with their enthusiasm and creativity," Dr. Nickol said.

Besides great weather -- temps in the first week were in the 80s and 90s at Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala -- the class has included field exercises designed to illustrate principles of epidemiology and evidence-based medicine, including prevalence (the grasshopper/mite study), mortality rates (the unfortunate crustaceans) and randomized trials (the toad intestinal treatments).

The course was created in 2008 by Dr. Nickol, in part to introduce real-world aspects of evidence-based medicine that are difficult to reproduce in the classroom. Sometimes called "shoe leather epidemiology," field epidemiology involves direct observation and investigation of interactions between a disease and the affected population.

Students dig through mud, search tall grasses and wade in streams as they learn to apply evidence-based methodology under real-world conditions.

Dr. Nickol said this may be the only introductory-level epidemiology class in the world that includes real-world field exercises and experiments to reinforce the material.

"Students read about concepts like randomized trials, and then they have the chance to do one," he said. "They learn the theory of topics like biostatistics, and then use them to answer actual experimental questions. These are the skills they will use during the rest of their scientific careers."

This year's enrollment of 17, mostly undergraduates from UNO and UNL, is the most ever -- evidence of the steadily increasing popularity the program has enjoyed, in part due to word-of-mouth among students.

"Class size is limited by the amount of cabins and space in class vehicles, but I don't think I'd want the class to get much bigger than its current size anyway," Dr. Nickol said.

"This seems about optimal for the sort of interactive learning that the class emphasizes."

The class is rewarding for Dr. Nickol, as well.

"Not a class day goes by when I don't learn something new about the biology of the Sandhills," he said. "An even more rewarding part of each day is watching students make the leap from the theory they read in a book the night before to a real-world application they'll remember forever."

Participants are listed alphabetically below by hometown:

Grand Island – Caleb Schmid, John Wagoner

North Platte – John McKenzie, Michael Hill
Omaha – Macy Potts
Randolph – Emily Gubbels

Wilber – Brandee Samples

Sioux Falls, S.D. – Samuel Hudson
Winner, S.D. – Abby Tobin
Circle River, Minn. – Erin Jones
Des Moines, Iowa – Brittany Grannan

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu.


Lisa Spellman
UNMC Public Relations
(402) 559-4353