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Arnold School of Public Health

Doctoral student selected to join Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Health Policy Research Scholars Program

October 6, 2020 | Erin Bluvas,

Gabriel Benavidez was already pursuing a career in health science when he took his first epidemiology course as an undergraduate student at Montana State University-Northern.

“I had an interest in health from an individual perspective, but my epidemiology class really helped me understand that health was much more complex than individual-level factors,” Benavidez says. “From that point on, I knew I wanted to study how the health of populations were impacted by a combination of personal, environmental and policy factors.”

Following his 2017 graduation, Benavidez enrolled in a Master of Public Health program at Baylor University. There, he delved into community health and gained research experience with a full scholarship.

When Benavidez began looking at doctoral programs, he was particularly interested in UofSC’s Behavioral Biomedical  Interface Program – a National Institutes of Health-funded predoctoral fellowship that offers interdisciplinary training in epidemiology, exercise science and psychology to better prepare the next generation of behavioral scientists. Having grown up in a rural, agricultural town in California’s Central Valley, the opportunity to collaborate with the Rural and Minority Health Research Center was also a good fit.

“The Arnold School of Public Health has a proven track record of producing high-quality research, and I knew that along with BBIP, UofSC was going to be the right place for me to develop as a student and researcher in the field of epidemiology,” Benavidez says. “In addition, Dr. Jan Eberth agreed to be my mentor, and I knew we would be a great match as she has proven to be an exceptional researcher in the field of cancer epidemiology and health disparities.”

Just one year into his Ph.D. in Epidemiology program, Benavidez has added another layer to his training and education. He was recently selected to join the Health Policy Research Scholars Program, which is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As a member of the 2020 cohort, Benavidez will receive funding for the next four years to participate in this national leadership program for doctoral students who plan to apply their research to help build healthier and more equitable communities. 

“The RWJF Health Policy Research Scholars Program will enable Gabe to become part of a network of up-and-coming health policy leaders,” Eberth says. “A unique aspect of the program is its interdisciplinary training approach, centered around how to communicate and translate population health research into action. Gabe has a unique perspective and voice to bring to the discussion of health equity, particularly as it relates to rural health. This program will help establish his professional relationships, leadership potential, and knowledge base to address health equity in rural America.”

Benavidez points to his passion for conducting interdisciplinary research from multiple angles to address complex health issues and Eberth’s commitment to serve as his mentor as important factors in his selection. In addition to Eberth, who is an associate professor in the Arnold School’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the director/principal investigator for the Rural Health and Minority Research Center, Benavidez has also found a mentor in Center research assistant professor Whitney Zahnd.

“Both Dr. Eberth and Dr. Zahnd have helped me grow immensely during my first year in the Ph.D. program,” he says. “Their passion for studying health disparities is infectious and is the primary reason for my desire to remain in academia. I hope to someday be a mentor who is equally passionate about my work.”

Long term, Benavidez would like to conduct research in the field of cancer epidemiology. His goal is to help shape policy and guidelines so that all individuals receive quality healthcare regardless of income, gender, race or living environment.


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