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Interim Dean Melinda Pettigrew applies an integrated approach when teaching complex topics in public health

April 20, 2023
by Mike Honsberger

Spotlight on Teaching: Melinda Pettigrew, PhD '99, Interim Dean of Yale School of Public Health (2022-2023) and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases)

In addition to being interim dean of the Yale School of Public Health and a renowned scholar of anti-microbial resistance, Melinda Pettigrew, PhD ’99, Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases), is an excellent teacher.

Teaching infectious diseases is a highly complex endeavor. To understand prevention and control, you need to understand not only the biology of the disease and the host, but also the epidemiology, structural factors, and human behavior associated with it.

When teaching Principles of Infectious Diseases I (PID I) , therefore, Pettigrew adopts a theme-based, integrated approach.

First, her students are tasked with learning the fundamentals of infectious disease epidemiology. Once these basic tools are mastered, the course traverses multiple modules, each based on different types of infectious diseases. The tools learned in the first modules are applied and reinforced within each of the subsequent modules. For example, R0 (the mathematical value representing how contagious an infectious disease is) can be used to understand transmission and prevention strategies for gonorrhea, SARS-CoV-2, or measles. This kind of frequent repetition of learned material is a fundamental teaching tool that leads to robust retention.

I strive to develop a real community feel to the class outside of what is going on in the lecture.

Melinda Pettigrew

This structure allows Pettigrew’s assessments to transition from being fact-based in the first module to incorporating increasing degrees of application and complexity. Students must demonstrate that they have taken into account multiple dimensions of a specific issue before coming to a final decision. Public health problems are never simple, so preparing students to make evidence-based and informed decisions is critical.

Pettigrew approaches the design of this course as a common starting point for the rest of the EMD curriculum. Since all EMD students are required to take PID I, she regularly surveys EMD faculty about what they need students to know when they come into their classes.

“We want this class to be a building block for the second year of the MPH program,” said Pettigrew, who served as the YSPH senior associate dean for academic affairs prior to her current appointment as interim dean.

Even though PID I tends to be a medium-large class (consistently enrolling around 40 students), students often comment on their perceived intimacy of the course. This is something that Pettigrew works intentionally to foster. From day one, she aims to learn the names of all her students. She also ensures that she is in class before it starts to mingle with students and talk with them. Pettigrew feels this is a crucial element in developing a community of learners that support each other throughout their time at YSPH.

“I strive to develop a real community feel to the class outside of what is going on in the lecture,” she said.

Pettigrew’s teaching success and popularity among students have led to several awards. She is a recipient of both the 2018 Inspiring Yale Award (issued annually by the Yale Graduate & Professional Student Senate to faculty who inspire students both in and out of the classroom) and the YSPH 2018 Distinguished Teaching Award.

Over the last decade of teaching PID I, Pettigrew’s approach to many aspects of teaching has shifted. When she first started teaching, she thought that part of the role of the student was to learn everything from the course. Now, she is much more explicit about where students should focus their efforts. She starts every lecture by describing to students the key learning objectives they should focus on.

“I feel like once they’re relieved of all the stress of trying to figure out what I’m looking for, they can just relax and focus on the learning,” she said.

Another perspective that has shifted over her teaching career is that she stopped focusing on getting students to memorize every detail about infectious diseases. Instead, she starts with the minimum that her students need to know – what are the core concepts that they will remember in five years? – and then finds different ways to tell the same story. Once she shifted her focus, she said, she discovered that she was able to relax and enjoy the process more.

One of Pettigrew’s favorite assignments – which she only started using during the pandemic – is a reflection essay where students are asked to describe a new insight that they’ve had, how it has changed the way they feel about infectious disease, and how it will apply to their future career. They must back up their perspective with data. Not only is this a compelling assessment of students’ metacognition (thinking about their own knowledge), but it provides her powerful insights into what aspects of the class excite students the most and how she might improve the course in future years.

As a leader at YSPH, Pettigrew sees immense value in being in the classroom. Not only does it give her firsthand access to what students are facing at YSPH, but it also allows her to experience the challenges that instructors have when teaching. This shows her how the infrastructure of the school impacts the experiences of the students and faculty. Her teaching also informs aspects of her leadership. At the end of the day, people are people. And the qualities of her teaching, such as transparency and empathy, are just as relevant in leading a faculty meeting or discussing the future of YSPH with the provost as they are in the classroom.

One of the characteristics of Pettigrew that underlies her success as a teacher is that, regardless of the fact that she is interim dean of YSPH and a world-renowned expert in her field, she is willing to form relationships with the people around her. She ensures that her students know she is striving to have a dialogue with them. And if something goes wrong, or she’s having an off day, she will acknowledge it. This develops a feeling of trust critical for creating a safe space where students can explore the boundaries of their understanding.

Ultimately, she wears her passion for teaching on her sleeve, and that passion is infectious.

Submitted by Fran Fried on April 20, 2023