While studying for his medical degree at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Jonathan M. Metzl also completed bachelor's degrees in biology and English literature.
Understandably, he recalls, "pretty much everyone said, 'What the hell are you doing?'"
Undaunted by such questions, during his medical residency at Stanford University he earned a master's degree in literature. While establishing a practice in psychiatry, he earned a doctorate in cultural studies from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
That breadth of study prepared him to become, last year, the director of Vanderbilt University's Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. To cope with swelling interest, the center has recently hired its first five core faculty members.
Some 335 students are now pursuing majors through the center, which has evolved from an interdepartmental program of teaching and research begun in 2006. They are learning about how medical health, policy, and practice intersect with cultural, social, economic, and political forces.
Until now, the program has coordinated courses taught by some 50 Vanderbilt faculty members in subjects as diverse as economics, ethics, literature, ethnomusicology, and obstetrics. The center focuses on undergraduate teaching, in many cases to students headed for careers in medicine or public health. But Dr. Metzl and his staff are venturing into other parts of the university, including its law and medical schools. By his estimate, some 20 percent of Vanderbilt medical students take courses listed by the center.
Around the country, interest is booming in interdisciplinary approaches to health and medicine, says Dr. Metzl, 46, whose own research focuses on the history of psychiatry, race, and gender. Nationwide, he says, medical-school administrators are acknowledging that "the skill sets that doctors need is changing to incorporate more critical thinking, and more social awareness."
His center's five openings attracted thousands of applicants, and those took a year to sift through.
Among the successful candidates is Amy L. Non, 30, a molecular anthropologist who in the fall will begin as an assistant professor at the center and in the anthropology department. She will teach, and continue her research into the effects that genetic ancestry and social and cultural factors have on racial disparities in the incidence of hypertension. Since earning a master's degree in public health and a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Florida, she has been a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellow at Harvard University's Center for Population and Development Studies. While at Harvard, she says, "I was concerned I wouldn't find a department that was bringing together social scientists, physicians, and bench scientists to tackle these kinds of problems. The tradition in most disciplines is that people are trained in one discipline, and then they stay in it."
Another of the new hires, Derek M. Griffith, 41, believes that by being open to the complexities of health phenomena, researchers can devise better research questionnaires, he says. Mr. Griffith has moved to Nashville from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he was director of the Center on Men's Health Disparities and assistant director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health. He says the "beauty" of Vanderbilt's center is that it has "a diverse team of folks looking at things from various perspectives, taking lessons from literature, and history, and from qualitative approaches, and from talking to folks."
The last has proved particularly beneficial, he says. Participatory-research projects by civil-rights and AIDS activists—"efforts that grew organically out of the communities where the problems were occurring"—have influenced both health policy and the provision of care.
Joining Ms. Non and Mr. Griffith as new hires at the Vanderbilt center are three others.
Dominique P. Béhague, 42, has moved from Britain's Brunel University to become an associate professor at the center. She studies the intersections of psychiatry, reproductive health, and the politics of global health research.
Kenneth T. MacLeish, 33, a recent anthropology Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin and a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, has been appointed an assistant professor at the Vanderbilt center. He studies how wars affect the everyday lives of soldiers, their families, and their communities, the subject of his forthcoming book from Princeton University Press.
Laura Stark, 36, now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt, studies medicine, morality, and the modern state, and is the author of Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research (University of Chicago Press, 2012). She has been an assistant professor of sociology in the Program in Science in Society at Wesleyan University.
Corrections (8/13/2012, 9:20 a.m. and 1:56 p.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly identified the photo of Dominique P. Béhague. Also, Jonathan M. Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University's Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, is not the first to have directed the center, as the original version of this article stated. Those two errors have been corrected.