Keck offers new progressive degree programs

Photo of the Keck School of Medicine, a tall gray building with a banner reading “Keck School of Medicine of USC.” There are stairs leading up to the building, surrounding foliage, another building, and a blue sky in the background.

Photo of the Keck School of Medicine, a tall gray building with a banner reading “Keck School of Medicine of USC.” There are stairs leading up to the building, surrounding foliage, another building, and a blue sky in the background.
The Keck School of Medicine offers 14 different progressive degree programs, including new programs in narrative medicine and public health data science. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

The Keck School of Medicine added two new progressive degree programs — narrative medicine and public health data science.

The school also has another new program — speech-language pathology. The creation of the program was inspired by the need for work in the field matched with a lack of previous educational opportunities. The speech-language pathology program, which is admitting their first class in Fall 2021, is a terminal degree that trains and helps students obtain the appropriate certification and licenses to practice in the field.  

“There’s a lot of patients out there that have speech impediments, swallowing disorders and other diseases or conditions that prevent them from properly speaking, or from properly chewing and swallowing food for example,” said Richard Watanabe, associate dean for Health and Population Science Programs. “There’s a need for technicians to be out there helping these people train to talk again and to be able to swallow. And so, the pathology program felt that there was a need that was unfulfilled.”

These PDP programs allow undergraduate students to get a jump start on their master’s degree by receiving both an undergraduate and master’s degree in five years. 

The public health data science program welcomed its first class last fall. Created by the Department of Preventive Medicine, the program seeks to train students in the quantitative, statistical and computational skills necessary to manage and analyze large-scale “big data” in public health.

“It was felt that it was a niche that was unfilled at the moment,” Watanabe said. “You know big data or data science is a big area now, and the health sciences field didn’t really have a training program in it. We felt like creating a master’s [program] and having training students to work in that field was important.” 

The narrative medicine program, one of the newer programs, seeks to train those in the clinical field or those involved in health, social justice and community on how to record and retell stories related to clinical encounters. Founded two years ago, it’s the only program of the three to have current graduates. It involves physician-patient interaction, patient medical conditions and the translation of technical medical terms to a wider audience.

“ [The narrative medicine program] actually has a much broader student body because it not only includes people that are interested in medicine, like you know physicians or nurses or whatever, but it also includes … people who want to be journalists, or filmmakers, or even storytellers,” Watanabe said.

Meredith Franklin, associate professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine, helped in the planning process for the new public health data science progressive degree program.

“It was really to address the needs of our students to have a master’s program in a field where there’s a high demand for data science. A lot of students were looking for a program that combines biostatistics with computer science, and so that’s why we developed a program,” Franklin said. “It’s supposed to meet a need for a surface area where there’s a lot of jobs right now and a lot of interest from students to be trained in that area because the job market is so hot.” 

According to Franklin, the first class for the public health data science PDP has been doing well in their classes, taking courses like  “Introduction to Health Data Science,” a new class created for the program. Students also learn modeling, machine learning and statistical computing.

“So [the program] is nice in that regard, where we get to really train students in a very specific area, but it’s also nice that the students are very motivated,”  Franklin said. “You know there’s a clear end goal in mind with the program.” 

Prior to these additions, Keck already offered 11 progressive degrees, including programs in applied biostatistics and epidemiology, global medicine and public health. However, the need for more workers in specific fields sparked the creation of the new programs. 

“When these programs were created, the faculty that created them had sort of a target audience in mind,” Watanabe said. “These programs were created with specific sorts of deficiencies in the job market in mind.” 

Students enrolled in the progressive degree program face an additional challenge of balancing both their undergraduate and graduate-level courses, Watanabe said. 

“The biggest challenge is making sure these students can keep up, and so, I can’t speak for other programs, but at least within preventive medicine, we keep a close eye on these students and make sure they’re doing well in their classes,” Watanabe said. “If they seem like they’re struggling, we try to provide them with some help, because it is a challenge to be doing both at the same time.”

However, when a student can take on this accelerated degree, they are provided with many bonuses as well, such as graduate student resources and significant time saved in pursuing their master’s degree. Students come with a range of interests and reasons that help them get a better understanding for the medical field, Watanabe said.

“A lot of students, they’re all pre-med and so they think that [the progressive degree program] will help them get into medical school,” Watanabe said. “But once they start doing the program, some of them actually realize that, you know, this is something they’ve never been exposed to and they learn something new, and then they may change their mind and decide that they want to do something in public health, for example.” 

Isabella Hauptman, USC’s Class of 2020 valedictorian, is enrolled in the applied biostatistics and epidemiology progressive degree program. She finished the curriculum for her master’s degree a semester after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and is currently spending the spring semester on her thesis.  

“It’s an incredibly supportive environment, and people are excited to see somebody who’s young and excited about what they’re studying,” Hauptman said. “Everything has been just a really good experience for me getting to know the professors and working with my advisors.”

Hauptman said she had always been interested in epidemiology and that the progressive degree program influenced her decision to go to USC. She was interested in being able to pursue a master’s in applied biostatistics and epidemiology through the program so she could save time and access additional resources to begin her career early. 

“That was really appealing for me, to be able to get this master’s in an accelerated time because then, I enter the workforce a little bit sooner and get my hands dirty before I eventually do apply to a PhD program,” Hauptman said. “The master’s program here is very good and I feel very trained, and so I’m excited to go ahead and be able to start a little bit sooner than most.”

Some students enrolled in the progressive degree program complete it before attending medical school, while others use it as a way to learn more about a field, to take a step towards acquiring a PhD or to jump into the professional world sooner.

Connor Fausto, part of the class of 2020 with a degree in business administration, is also pursuing a master’s degree in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, and plans to attend medical school.

“The stem cell biology program seemed like something that I was interested in because I was trying to decide on if I should pursue research or pursue medicine. That’s why I chose this because it kind of gave insight onto what was happening, specifically in the field of regenerative medicine,” Fausto said. “Now that I’m in the course and I’m taking a lot of the classes, I think it’s cool that I actually see myself being able to do both.”

For Hauptman, she said she feels that USC did a great job preparing her and supporting her throughout the process of the accelerated master’s program. 

“I felt so much support from USC, to be able to go and pursue my dream and so and that’s all I can really ask … to be able to talk to people and pick their brains and get their advice has been so valuable, not to mention you know all the foundational skills that I’ve been developing and learning,” Hauptman said. 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that the speech-language pathology program has a progressive degree element. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.