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Exercise Science undergraduate Elizabeth Rizor to spend her summer in prestigious biostatistics program

June 16, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

As a high school student from Agoura Hills, California, Elizabeth Rizor applied to universities around the country that offered good health programs—ones that would provide the very best preparation for her future career in the health field. UofSC first caught Rizor’s attention by sending her information about the Honors College and scholarship opportunities for out-of-state students. Then she made the transcontinental flight for her first visit.

“I loved the gorgeous campus and the impressive Arnold School of Public Health!” Rizor says. “USC had the whole package and it just felt right, so I decided to become a Gamecock.”

With a goal to enter into healthcare, Rizor chose exercise science for her major because of how well the pre-professional program prepares students for graduate health programs such as medical school. The focus on the human body and human health was also appealing.

“If you are considering a graduate professional program in healthcare, I would highly recommend majoring in exercise science,” says Rizor. “Also, if you aren't athletic or interested in sports, don't let the word ‘exercise’ in the major scare you away! While there are classes that focus on sports science, there are many others for a wide variety of interests.”

If you are considering a graduate professional program in healthcare, I would highly recommend majoring in exercise science.

-Elizabeth Rizor, B.S. in Exercise Science Student

Rizor also found opportunities to gain research experience within her department. She works with Jill Stewart, assistant professor and director of the Motor Behavior and Neuroimaging Laboratory, which investigates how the brain controls and learns skilled movement with a focus on improving motor rehabilitation in individuals such as stroke survivors.

With funding from the Honors College’s Scientific Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program, Rizor’s work as an undergraduate research assistant has involved organizing and analyzing MRI and behavioral data related to hand function after stroke. It was this work that helped her realize that she might be interested in statistical analysis as a career—broadening her perspective as to which health-related graduate programs she should explore before making a final decision.

Based on her work in Stewart’s Lab, Rizor recently received an honorable mention for the poster she presented at Discover USC. She will also present at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in Washington D.C. this fall and is currently assisting Stewart with a manuscript to be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Dr. Stewart has been an incredible mentor during my time in her lab,” Rizor says of the guidance and opportunities Stewart has provided. “I admire her because she has shown me that treating those who are younger and less experienced well can bring both you and them success. She also has both PT and Ph.D. degrees, manages a lab, and is a working mother, which is impressive.”

For her part, Stewart sees tremendous potential in her mentee. “Elizabeth displays an interest in learning and is not intimidated by complex topics and methods,” says Stewart. “For her stage of training, Elizabeth has strong skills at reading and interpreting research articles; she pays attention to the details and looks at the information presented with a depth often not seen in undergraduate students. She has a logical, thoughtful approach to research that sets the stage for her to excel in her field of interest with continued training.”

I want to encourage other students not to look past certain career fields and opportunities just because they don't see themselves in those areas. 

-Elizabeth Rizor, B.S. in Exercise Science Student

Outside the Arnold School, Rizor is the Vice President of the Changing Carolina Peer Leaders, a group of students who work with Student Health Services to promote physical, mental, and sexual health on campus. Through this work, she found another mentor in the group’s coordinator, Michael Crowley. “He has helped me build confidence in my leadership abilities and has worked hard to provide many opportunities for CCPL members,” Rizor says of the two-time Arnold School alumnus (B.S. in Exercise Science, Master of Public Health in Physical Activity and Public Health). Over the past year, she has volunteered at Clinica El Buen Samaritano, a free health clinic in West Columbia that primarily serves the Hispanic community. “Volunteering there has opened my eyes to health concerns in the surrounding area and has allowed me to improve my medical Spanish vocabulary,” Rizor says.  

It was these experiences and Rizor’s outstanding academic performance that helped lead to her acceptance into the Colorado Summer Institute in Biostatistics. This six-week summer program is supported with funding from the National Institutes of Health and is highly competitive. With spots for only 20 students, the Institute aims to introduce advanced undergraduates and early-stage graduate students to the field of biostatistics and data sciences through instruction in the theory and application of statistical methods and biomedical research.

“If you are a math genius but have little background in health, demonstrate in your essay that you are interested in the human beings behind the numbers. Answer the question: Why did you choose biostatistics instead of just statistics?” Rizor advises other students who might be interested in applying to the program. “Likewise, if you have a background in biology and health but little mathematical experience, demonstrate to them your willingness and ability to learn new analytical concepts. Try learning a bit about computer programming and statistical analysis online so that you can build familiarity.”

Rizor considers the field of biostatistics to be a path worth exploring because of its multifaceted nature, which integrates mathematical proficiency, biological knowledge, and a passion for public health. “Though I have always done well in math classes, I didn’t consider pursuing a career involving mathematics until now” she admits. But she’s finding that when it comes to career options in the health field, her aptitude for learning new things seems to adapt according to her interests and effort.

“I never imagined myself attending a summer program involving statistics, data science, and computer programming,” Rizor says. “I want to encourage other students not to look past certain career fields and opportunities just because they don't see themselves in those areas. College is a great time to explore other subjects, so don't be afraid to step out of your major!”