Dr. Yiliang Zhu’s hands-on career of improving lives

| Departments, EPI-BIO, Monday Letter, Our Accolades

Dr. Yiliang Zhu’s journey to the halls of the USF College of Public Health began half way around the globe.

Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1970s Zhu, affiliate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, was sent to work as a farmer upon graduating high school.

Dr. Yiliang Zhu. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

“While not so much a ‘professional’ experience, it was a life experience that taught me perseverance and empathy for the underprivileged,” Zhu said.

Zhu would go on to earn his BSc in computer science and computational mathematics from Shanghai University (of Science and Technology), a MSc in statistics from Queen’s University Canada, and a PhD in statistics from the University of Toronto before joining the COPH in 1993.

During his time as a professor at the COPH, he returned to China in 2012 to continue working among the land, but this time as a Fulbright Fellow conducting health policy research.

Zhu conducting household interviews in Gangu County, Gansu Province, August 2013. (Photo courtesy of Zhu)

“I had a fundamental change in my view of research and career development during my Fulbright Fellowship research,” Zhu said. “I was a farmer in a rural area for two years. That made me really connected to the land. I care about what’s happening to those rural people.”

During his one year Fulbright Research Fellowship, Zhu evaluated China’s cooperative medical insurance program, where he examined the health care given to villagers.

He noted that the rural village clinics in northwestern China would be what most Westerners would consider primitive. He observed that technical training of village doctors was very limited with some not even being able to read medication labels. He also noted the types of services that could be provided were either limited due to scarce resources or government restrictions. On the consumer side, the health literacy was extremely poor and trust level of the system low.

This motivated him to develop the Loess Plateau Health Project in 2013.

The project is a multidisciplinary and international study of health and development on the Loess Plateau.

“I was able to start the Loess Plateau Health Project (LPHP), an 18-year cohort (2013-2030) in which we are be able to conduct long-term follow-up in conjunction with a series interventions to observe development, to evaluate health policy, and to promote health in the most under-privileged rural areas in China,” he said. “We want to make LPHP a platform from which to better understand the interplay of the environment, development, education, health system, and culture and behaviors, and its impact on health. Our research is driven by and for the need of the local people.”

Zhu was also a Science and Technology Policy Fellow from 2013 to 2015 with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was hosted by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. where his studied the health impacts of indoor exposure to biological agents.

He studied integrative modeling in which diverse datasets from high-throughput experiment to human data are combined along adverse outcome pathways to quantify toxicity of chemically-induced endocrine disruption.

When asked what interested him the most about public health, the challenges for using multidisciplinary research methods to address health issues were at the forefront.

“It’s the opportunity of looking into health issues from a multi-disciplinary way and the potential to address a real problem that people face using data evidence and science,” he said.

Zhu’s colleagues in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics bid him farewell. (Photo by Natalie Preston)

During his tenure at the COPH, Zhu was instrumental in advancing USF’s biostatistics PhD program, serving as the founding director of Florida’s first such program, and the Center for Collaborative Research.

Zhu has taught routinely on more than ten biostatistics courses at doctoral, master’s and undergraduate levels.

Farewell notes from his colleagues before he departed. (Photo by Natalie Preston)

On August 10, his public health journey led him to take on a new position with the University of New Mexico School of Medicine as a professor of Internal Medicine and directing the Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design (BERD) Core at the Clinical and Translational Research Center. He is also director of the BERD core of the Clinical and Translational Research Infrastructure Network, a consortium of 13 public universities in seven Mountain West states.

Although he no longer calls Florida home, he will remain an affiliate professor at the COPH.

“I appreciate the years at USF and Tampa,” he said. “I have raised a happy and health family. I made life-long friendships in the community.”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health