In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Disease ecologists study patterns of diseases in populations, with an emphasis on understanding the principles that underlie disease patterns. They look at interactions of populations with each other and with the environment, and ask how those interactions influence the emergence of new diseases, the spread of familiar ones, and the appearance of outbreaks and epidemics. Some disease ecologists study the evolution of drug resistance and virulence among infectious agents, and the development of resistance to infection among potential hosts (such as humans). Not all disease ecologists do work that is likely to inform public health directly. However, there are some ecologists studying how climate change is likely to impact infectious disease in human populations, how environmental changes may contribute to the emergence of new diseases, and how biodiversity can influence the risk of diseases in humans. Some are directly involved in investigating outbreaks and creating policies to prevent disease. Some work largely with computer models or in laboratories, while others do field research.
Education and Certification
Disease ecologists generally have PhDs or other doctoral degrees. There are now some university departments specializing in disease ecology, but infectious disease ecology, especially, is still an emerging field. Many established disease ecologists earned their PhDs in fields such as microbiology, ecology, entomology, or zoology, and some are veterinarians. There are a few roles in applied disease ecology for people with BS or MS degrees.
Core Competencies and Skills
- Ability to collaborate with people who have different types of expertise
- Ability to communicate complex ideas on paper and in person
- Interest not only in clinical manifestations of disease, causes, or risk factors, but also in what causes patterns of disease to occur
- Appreciation of the interactions among epidemiology, ecology, genetics, and medicine
- Good math and statistical skills and an understanding of how research is designed and carried out
- Willingness to work both in the laboratory and in the field
Because “disease ecologist” can refer to people from many different disciplines, there are no national salary statistics. In 2008, the median salary for professors in the biological sciences was about $71,000 and for environmental sciences, $65,000. Low-end salaries were in the $30 to $40,000 range and high-end salaries in the low to mid-$100,000s. Variations in salaries make it hard to compare academic and nonacademic jobs, but microbiologists who were not also educators had a median salary of about $65,000, with most earning $38,000 to $111,000; salaries for zoologists and wildlife biologists tended to be a little lower. (These numbers include jobs with various responsibilities and areas of focus, not just disease ecologists.)
Disease ecologists focusing on public health issues work at universities, including schools of public health, at nonprofit organizations that support research, and at government agencies including USGS, CDC, USDA, and some state health departments. There are also opportunities at organizations that do work in the developing world.
Competition for jobs varies. Recent PhD graduates may find it challenging to locate a job that matches their specific research interests, but attending scientific meetings and networking with others in the field is often a good way to find opportunities.
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