Three Epidemiology Ph.D. students awarded in the UF PHHP Research Day

Three Epidemiology doctoral students, Nicole Fitzgerald, Xiaoxiao Wen, and Wenjie Zeng, were awarded at this year’s PHHP’s 36th Annual Research Day on February 9, 2023. They were three of six students who had the top-scoring abstracts in the two categories of Basic, Foundational, and Pre-Clinical Research and Applied, Clinical, and Community Research. Each award winner receives a stipend to support their travel to a conference of their choice.

Wen won first place in a three-way tie in the Basic, Foundational, and Pre-Clinical Research category. She presented her abstract titled, “Blood DNA methylation predicts differential metabolic outcomes induced by different types of weight-loss interventions: an epigenome-wide association study.” This research, under the supervision of Dr. Jinying Zhao, is the first to demonstrate that DNA methylation prior to intervention can modify the glycemic outcomes of bariatric surgeries and non-surgical weight-loss intervention. These findings provide evidence that baseline patterns of DNA methylation resulting from obesity and other exposures may be potentially used to individualize obesity management interventions in the future.

Wen encouraged others to “Be confident that your research is meaningful [because] in this big puzzle of human health and disease, we are all contributing big or small pieces to make it a clearer picture for future research.”

Zeng won first place in the Applied, Clinical, and Community Research category. She presented her abstract titled, “A novel classification criterion for childhood Sjögren’s disease developed by combining machine learning and causal discovery approaches.”  Zeng is under the mentorship of Dr. Takis Benos. 

“The recognition of our work has attracted collaboration opportunities across the college,” Zeng said. “Working with experts from the International Childhood Sjögren Syndrome Workgroup, for the first time in the field, we developed a novel algorithm to diagnose and classify Sjögren’s disease in children. We believe in the impact of our research and hope one day it can be written into the clinical guidelines.” 

Fitzgerald won second place in the Applied, Clinical, and Community Research category. She presented her abstract titled “Prevalence and Correlates of Self-Reported Novel Psychoactive Substance Use among Adults in 13 US Cities, 2021–2022: Results from National Drug Early Warning.” This research, conducted under the mentorship of Dr. Linda Cottler as part of the NIDA-funded NDEWS study, examined characteristics of individuals reporting the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in a large, multi-city sample of US adults. Among those reporting the past 12-month drug use, 9.1% reported any NPS use. The most frequently reported NPS classes were synthetic cannabinoids (5.5%), phenethylamines (1.4%), and novel opioids (1.4%). NPS use was most common among older adults, those reporting multiple drug use, and those reporting adverse effects from drug use. Results can inform prevention and harm reduction efforts in this at-risk population.Many epidemiology students presented and had a chance to view other PHHP presenters. Zeng added, “It was a great honor for me to present…the research day offered me a chance to learn about research from other students and faculties. “