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Arnold School of Public Health

Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior Professor Emerita Ruth Saunders wins alumni award for lifetime achievement

January 8, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Already revered by her colleagues and students from her three decades at the Arnold School, Ruth Saunders as been selected as the 2020 recipient of the Psychology Department Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award at her undergraduate alma mater, Clemson University. The Professor Emerita of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior was honored for her 30-plus-year career of exemplary research and practice.

On paper, Saunders’ path to public health may appear to be a winding one, but she can trace its essential stepping-stones back to her childhood. By second grade, her love of science books had led her to conclude that a scientist’s main tool is observation. 

“I was good at this and decided to be a scientist,” Saunders says. “I didn’t need to wait until adulthood to take up my chosen profession  I had already started.”

In the ensuing years, she discovered a fascination with behavior – with people as the most puzzling of the animals she studied. As an undergraduate at Clemson University, Saunders majored in psychology with an emphasis on the experimental side of the field.

“This excellent program proved to be a key step in my career path, providing a background in research methods for studying behavior,” Saunders says. “The professors supported and encouraged me as an individual and provided me tools to develop as a researcher through mentoring, coursework and connections to research-related student work opportunities. They were student-focused and served as the models for my teaching approach later in my career.”

After graduating in 1974, Saunders pursued the field of animal behavior before returning to school in 1978 – this time at UofSC – to earn a Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling, a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology and a Ph.D. in Public Health Education. “All these degrees dealt with different aspects of behavior, and each one added tools and perspectives that served me throughout my career as a behavioral researcher,” Saunders says.

The public health field paired well with her personal passion for exercise/physical activity and its relationship to health and wellbeing. Much of her life has been filled with sports, running and bicycling, followed by walking, swimming, yoga and weight training in more recent years. It was intuitive for her research interests to center on physical activity.

“Public health’s emphasis on prevention and applied problem solving in real-world settings was a great fit for me,” Saunders says. “I love the complexity and ambiguity of the real world and was committed to conducting research in these settings. My career home was in academic public health. In this setting I was paid to be curious, explore ideas, teach, and write about what I had learned.”

Her first academic appointment took her to the University of Virginia, but by 1988, Saunders was back at UofSC. She spent the next 27 years teaching and conducting research in the Arnold School’s Department of Health, Education, and Behavior. Saunders retired from full-time teaching in 2015, but she remains engaged in multiple research projects.

For example, she serves as co-investigator on the CDC-funded national implementation study of the Prevention Research Center’s Faith, Activity, and Nutrition (FAN) program. She also continues to contribute to research led by the Children’s Physical Activity Research Group, such as the translation of a physical intervention program into an online training format for preschool teachers

“I have been fortunate to work on research teams which share the commitment to create health-promoting change by working with them in partnership,” Saunders says. “This work is challenging, but success brings population impact.”

The final piece of the puzzle in Saunders’ career success and satisfaction stemmed from her love of educating. Her passion for teaching was renown in her department and across the School, resulting in Saunders’ selection to receive the James A. Keith Excellence in Teaching Award in 1997.

“My curiosity and joy of discovery comes with a strong interest in sharing methods and discoveries with others, especially students,” she says. “Over my career I was fortunate to be able to develop and teach core and elective master’s and doctoral courses that enabled me to connect my teaching and research.”

Around the time of her retirement, Saunders published a career’s worth of lessons in research and teaching in the textbook, Implementation Monitoring and Process Evaluation. The book was informed by her participation in eight large-scale research projects that focused on conducting program, policy and practice change in organizational settings (e.g., preschools, elementary schools, after-school settings, children’s group homes, faith-based settings).

Saunders’ career has been filled with achievement. She has published more than 150 peer-reviewed research articles and taught/mentored countless students. It comes as no surprise that she was selected as the recipient for this award.

“Dr. Saunders’ work in the context of school settings is particularly impactful and impressive,” Clemson University Psychology Chair Pat Raymark said in a press release. “It is very inspiring to know that one of the initial graduates of our program has had such a profound impact on the lives of so many of the youth in our state.”


Researchers successfully translate physical activity intervention program into online training for preschool teachers

HPEB’s Ruth P. Saunders publishes Implementation Monitoring & Process Evaluation textbook, serves as practical guide

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