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Arnold School of Public Health


EPID candidate Jiali Zheng named finalist for Donna and Andrew Sorensen Graduate Student Fellowship in Cancer Research

March 8, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Jiali Zheng, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, has been named a finalist for the Donna and Andrew Sorensen Graduate Student Fellowship in Cancer Research. Sponsored by UofSC’s Center for Colon Cancer Research, this highly competitive fellowship provides $5,000 stipends to graduate students who are conducting their dissertation research in an area related to cancer. As a finalist, Zheng received a $500 award and was honored at a Center for Colon Cancer Research luncheon.

After studying nutritional science as an undergraduate in China, Zheng moved to the United States in 2011 to earn a Master of Public Health in Biostatistics from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She decided to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in nutritional epidemiology because it combined her previous academic background.

“In the Ph.D program, my research primarily focuses on dietary patterns and cancer risk and survivorship,” says Zheng. “In addition to my academic background, I chose this specific field also because I have a strong interest in cancer prevention and I want to know whether people’s eating pattern will influence cancer development.”

While investigating doctoral programs, Zheng particularly focused on finding a mentor whose research interests aligned with hers. During this process, she learned that Associate Professor Susan Steck’s research in nutrition and cancer prevention offered an excellent match. She also noted the department’s national reputation in diet and cancer prevention as a compelling reason to choose UofSC.

In developing her expertise in these areas, Zheng has worked with Steck on many research projects with various topics. With her mentor’s guidance, she has learned about grant development and writing, study proposal preparation for data acquisition, large complex data analysis and management, manuscript development, oral/poster presentation in national and regional conferences, even press interactions.

“Dr. Steck really plays a key role in my research development and in the success of receiving this fellowship finalist award,” says Zheng. “She not only encouraged me to take advantage of many valuable opportunities to promote myself, but also she gave me systematic training step by step from one project to another and always provided me with detailed and constructive suggestions when I confronted difficulties in projects through which I learned critical thinking and many useful approaches to solve all kinds of research-related problems.”

In addition to her finalist award, Zheng’s educational success has been reflected in her productive scholarship and other honors. She had one top-ranked abstract among junior investigators at the 2016 American Society of Preventive Oncology annual meeting. She has also published eight papers in peer-reviewed journals with several more under review or in preparation.

Most recently, Zheng was one of ten Arnold School students (out of 54 university-wide) to be awarded a Support to Promote the Advancement of Research and Creativity (SPARC) Graduate Research Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research. Her dissertation project will examine the association between the inflammatory potential of diet and pancreatic cancer risk.

After her 2017 graduation, Zheng intends to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in nutrition and cancer prevention as she believes there is still so much to learn. With that mindset, she is continuing to soak up the education, research, and mentorship that her program offers.

“First I think you need to know what your interest is and what you are good at, which is the key. In addition, you should take a series of systematic training in your focused research area, especially work hard on where you need improvement,” Zheng advises. “Always keep in mind that you can ask for help or academic advice in the department; I think the faculty members in our department are very helpful and you will make a wise decision after hearing from their suggestions.”