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Arnold School of Public Health

Three doctoral candidates win 2023 Breakthrough Graduate Scholar Awards

February 23, 2023 | Erin Bluvas,

Fourteen graduate students from across the university have been recognized with 2023 Breakthrough Graduate Scholar Awards. Arnold School doctoral candidates Gabriel Benavidez (Epidemiology and Biostatistics), Maggie Carson (Environmental Health Sciences), and Valerie Yelverton (Health Services Policy and Management), are recipients of these prestigious honors, which are given to students based on their classroom excellence, research/scholarship contributions and potential for future success.

Gabriel Benavidez

Inspired by the rural, impoverished area where he grew up, Gabriel Benavidez is determined to address the social, economic and environmental barriers that negatively impact health and quality of life. He is particularly interested in the intersection of cancer care (e.g., screening, treatment, survival) and health policy.

Benavidez is a Behavioral Biomedical Interface Program T-32 Predoctoral Fellow, Health Policy Research Scholars Fellow (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), co-investigator on a Health Policy Research Scholars COVID and Anti-Racism Pilot Project, SPARC Award recipient, and a research analyst with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center.

“Gabe has a passion to effect change on poverty and discrimination in the health care system and among rural, minoritized groups,” says Susan Steck, professor of epidemiology and director of the doctoral program. “He has a promising future as an epidemiologist and is poised to be a leader in health disparities research.”


Maggie Carson

Maggie Carson discovered her interest in environmental health sciences during her Master of Public Health in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior program. That spark quickly turned into a passion for how human health is affected by contaminants found in water – whether through drinking water or recreational exposure.

As a researcher with the NIEHS Center for Oceans and Human Health and Climate Change Interaction, the Norman J Arnold Doctoral Fellow studied toxins found in Lake Wateree, assessing both ecosystem and human health effects. She is/has been a Southern Regional Education Board Fellow, SEC Emerging Scholar, Native Forward/American Indian Graduate Center Science Post Graduate Scholar and is the recipient of the SPARC Award,  Doctoral Student Excellence Award, Outstanding Graduate Student Award for Excellence in Diversity, and Dean’s Award for Excellence in Leadership. This month, she joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a John Knauss Fellow in the White House.

“Maggie is an outstanding oceans and human health scientist,” says Geoff Scott, department chair and director of the Ocean and Human Health Center. “She embodies the qualities recognized by this award and is a leader in addressing the global environmental issues that affect ocean and human health.”


Valerie Yelverton

Previously a physical therapist in Germany, Valerie Yelverton originally planned to spend just one year at USC as a visiting scholar estimating treatment preferences for people living with HIV. Her initial interest expanded to health disparities in the prevention/treatment of infectious diseases (e.g., HIV, COVID-19, HPV), and her initial stay expanded to include the better part of a decade.  

Yelverton is a Norman J Arnold Doctoral Fellow, a SPARC Award winner and the recipient of the  Outstanding Research Award. For her dissertation research on patient experiences and disparities in telehealth HIV care during the COVID-19 pandemic, she received an R36 research grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. She has spent two years as a Junior Scholar with the South Carolina SmartState Center for Healthcare Quality, where she researches telehealth in HIV care in South Carolina and how the legal environment impacts HIV prevention and care for sexual and gender minorities in Zambia. She is planning an academic career promoting patient-centered, equitable care.

“Valerie’s research agenda addressing health disparities in the U.S. and globally is of the highest public health significance,” says Jan Ostermann, associate professor of health services policy and management. “Her work is aligned with the goals of the nation’s leading public health agency to end the HIV epidemic and prevent diseases through vaccination.”

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