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Arnold School of Public Health

Three Arnold School researchers win 2022 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Awards

January 18, 2022 | Erin Bluvas,

Arnold School professors Michael Beets (Exercise Science), Sara Wilcox (Exercise Science) and Jiajia Zhang (Epidemiology and Biostatistics) have claimed three of just five spots awarded by the Office of the Vice President for Research to the most elite researchers across the university. The 2022 Breakthrough Leadership in Research Award winners are standouts in their fields who take a multifaceted approach to research through activities such as mentoring junior faculty, establishing centers with a university-wide impact, engaging in community outreach and prioritizing diversity.

Childhood obesity prevention

A leader in the field of public health interventions targeting children’s health, Beets joined the Arnold School for his first academic appointment in 2008. Over the past 14 years, he has risen through the ranks to become the director of the Arnold Childhood Obesity Initiative, associate director for the Research Center for Child Well-Being and a Carolina Distinguished Professor. Beets has published well over 200 papers in scientific journals and has been awarded $17 million as a principal investigator ($29 million as PI and Co-PI) from the National Institutes of Health alone. He is the recipient of the Breakthrough Star Award (2016) and the Arnold School’s Faculty Research Award (2015).

“Dr. Beets’ work in the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity is, to put it simply, prolific,” says Shawn Arent, chair of the exercise science department. “He has, without a doubt, advanced our global understanding of influences on childhood obesity while also making critical local impact on the health and well-being of thousands of South Carolina children. He does all of this while using his position and expertise to positively influence the next generation of researchers.”

Community impact

Wilcox’s work focuses on promoting physical activity and healthy diets in under-resourced populations and communities. Since 2011, she has directed the Prevention Research Center – successfully securing funding for two additional five-year funding cycles so far. Across her 22 years at UofSC, Wilcox has been awarded more than $20 million as a principal investigator ($30 million as PI or Co-I and $50 million as PI, Co-PI or Co-I), publishing over 260 peer-reviewed papers in the process. Her honors include the Arnold School Faculty Research Award (2007) and the UofSC Educational Foundation Faculty Research Award for Health Sciences (2010). She was elected as a Fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology (2015) and the Society of Behavioral Medicine (2016) as well as to the American College of Sports Medicine’s Board of Trustees (2018-2021).

“Dr. Wilcox represents the best of UofSC and has a reputation as not only a thought leader, but also as a thoughtful leader,” Arent says. “I have long been familiar with her work on promoting physical activity and healthy diets in under-resourced populations and communities and have always been impressed with not only the quality of the science, but also the practical application of the interventions and findings. Her work truly emphasizes diversity and impact and elevates the work of those around her.”

Turning theoretical into practical

An internationally renowned biostatistician, Zhang’s research uses survival analysis to investigate the association between certain diseases and their potential risk factors. Her own advanced research methods and statistical software have applications in areas such as cancer survival, HIV treatment/prevention and COVID-19 management/response. Continuously funded since she joined the Arnold School in 2007, Zhang has led 10 projects as principal investigator (plus another 30 as co-investigator) and has published more than 200 scholarly articles. Zhang is a core faculty member of the South Carolina SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality and leads the Electronic Health Records Core of the UofSC Big Data Health Science Center. In 2021, she was recognized with the Arnold School’s Faculty Research Award.

“Dr. Zhang is an exceptional scholar and a leader in the field of biostatistics, where she is held in very high esteem nationally and internationally,” says Anthony Alberg, chair of the epidemiology and biostatistics department. “Her impact extends far beyond her personal scientific accomplishments to include her exemplary teaching and leadership. The overall scope of her achievements and contributions to UofSC is nothing short of remarkable.”


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