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Arnold School of Public Health


Hébert and Liese receive 2016 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Awards

January 15, 2016

Recipients of Breakthrough Leadership in Research Awards represent the very best of the best at the University of South Carolina, according to Vice President for Research Prakash Nagarkatti. “These are the researchers making a positive impact, both in their fields of study and in the education of their students, and who we know will continue to make even more outstanding contributions throughout their careers,” he says.

Bestowing just a handful of these elite awards on USC faculty members each year, the Office of the Vice President for Research knows exactly what they are looking for: successful mentorship of junior faculty, establishment of research centers with university-wide impact, promotion of research to K12 students, community engagement, and creating programs aimed at increasing diversity. The Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics’ James Hébert and Angela Liese meet and exceed these criteria, representing the Arnold School as two of only six researchers selected for this honor from across the university.

When he joined the Arnold School in 1999 as the chair of his department, Hébert brought three federal grants with him. Since then, he has added a total of 43 federal grants, maintaining an average of about six NIH grants over the past 16 ½ years at USC. Since beginning his career as a cancer epidemiologist in 1985, Hébert has served as Principal Investigator (P.I.), co-P.I., or subcontract P.I. on 48 federal grants (including administrative supplements to his major network grants) totaling $86 million. The Health Sciences Distinguished Professor is currently the Principal Investigator on the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded South Carolina Disparities Community Network, one of 23 located throughout the US. He has served as director for the Cancer Prevention and Control Program since he established it in 2003, building it to 65 individuals including 14 core faculty, staff, students and other trainees.

Equal parts Cancer Epidemiologist and Nutrition Epidemiologist, Hébert has deliberately overlapped his two primary research areas. His invention of the dietary inflammatory index (DII) offers a great example of this marriage by demonstrating that the inflammatory properties found in food are linked to cancer and a wide variety of other chronic diseases. Since the publication of the paper describing the development of the DII in August 2014, it has been used by over 100 research groups in 36 countries, resulting in 49 publications in high-impact journals. To make the DII even more impactful, Hébert and his collaborators are transforming it into clinical tools through his Columbia-based start-up company, Connecting Health Innovations LLC (CHI).

But his work extends beyond his focus areas to include a range of topics (e.g., community-based participatory research, the effects of psychosocial stress, epigenetic factors), which he collaborates on with colleagues from across the university, the nation and the world. In 2009, Hébert received a five-year K05 Established Investigatory Award from NCI—one of only 25 in the nation—that enabled him to mentor a wide variety of junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows and students. “One of the most important things that I have learned from working with James is that with good intentions, creative thinking, hard work, and intestinal fortitude, academic investigators can make a difference in society through their scholarly work,” says protégé and Associate Professor Jim Burch.

The numerous connections he has built through mentorship and collaboration have helped lead to an extremely high level of productivity in terms of scholarship. To date, Hébert has published 431 papers in peer-reviewed journals with a new article published every six days currently—a rate that puts him in the top 0.25 percent in the U.S. His success appears to be rooted in the passion he commits to his work. “My career path in public health has been, and continues to be, motivated by a deep conviction that the only way to make effective change in the world is by combining excellent science with a strong commitment to social justice,” says Hébert.

Liese has fueled her passion for public health and developed her own areas of expertise throughout her career as well. Since joining USC as a Research Assistant Professor in 2000, she has risen rapidly through the ranks and was promoted to professor in 2010. Internationally-renowned for her research in nutritional epidemiology, diabetes epidemiology, and public health nutrition, she is sought out to provide expertise to committees that shape related policies that impact the health of all Americans. Based on her 15 years of experience studying dietary patterns, Liese spearheaded the NCI’s Dietary Patterns Methods Project to establish an evidence-based link between nutritional guidelines for healthy eating patterns and reduced mortality.

Her authority on these topics is further solidified by the important role she plays in the world of scholarship. Liese’s 144 peer-reviewed publications have been cited an average of 23 times each, with 11 of them making such an impact that they have been cited more than 100 times each. This high-impact work contributed to Liese being honored with the Arnold School’s Faculty Research Award in 2011. She was also asked to direct the School’s Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, which she built to include 50 affiliated scholars from across the university and an annual symposium that attracts more than 100 nutrition researchers, students and practitioners from across the South East.

This talent for turning small investments into big returns is evidenced throughout other aspects of Liese’s work as well. For example, in 2013 she received an ASPIRE II grant, “Positioning USC for National Prominence in Food Security and Food Access Research.” Leading a team of 17 faculty and scientists, Liese and her colleagues transformed this humble project into 29 grant applications totaling $32.2 million. Eight of them were funded for a total of $10.8 million, and five are pending. Under her stewardship, the team members authored 33 peer-reviewed publications on the topics of food security and food access.

“Angela has the unique ability to bring people together toward a common goal and encourage them to succeed through positive interactions and high standards of excellence,” says Associate Professor Susan Steck. “What sets her apart and makes her so deserving of recognition is her continued interest in helping others succeed and in identifying and building new initiatives for research success.”

The James A. Keith Teaching Award winner is viewed by students as an extremely effective and highly respected teacher, and there are many individuals who consider Liese to be their most important mentor. “She has motivated, supported, and encouraged me to reach my highest academic potential,” says Assistant Professor Kellee White. “I have noticed positive, transformative changes in myself that I can directly attribute to the guidance I received from Angela.”

Hébert, Liese and the four other 2016 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Award recipients will be featured in a special supplement of Breakthrough magazine and honored at the Breakthrough Awards Dinner in the spring.