Doctoral students in ESE and nutrition honored with Gillings Dissertation Award

June 19, 2013
Ya-Ru Li

Ya-Ru Li
Carmen Piernas Sanchez

Carmen Piernas Sanchez

Ya-Ru Li and Carmen Piernas Sanchez, doctoral students at Gillings School of Global Public Health, have received the 2013 Gillings Dissertation Award, a $5,000 prize that will support their research and dissertation writing.

Li, who is advised by Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, PhD, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School, studies sources of air pollution in North Carolina that have the largest detrimental effects on public health in our state. Her goal is to identify how to target scarce public resources to protect public health from air pollution.
Air pollution causes about 3,000 premature deaths annually and results in more than half a million missed work days per year in North Carolina.
MacDonald Gibson commended Li’s “creativity, scientific insights and self-discipline” in conducting her research.
“Ya-Ru’s extremely strong mathematical abilities position her well to shed light on a topic of great importance to our state,” MacDonald Gibson said. “Her greatest achievement is in developing a way to predict the burden of disease (deaths and cases of chronic illnesses) that can be attributed to different sources of air pollution (traffic, power plants, etc.), rather than predicting only the disease burden of pollution from all sources combined.”
MacDonald Gibson said she directed Li to a general topic for research, suggesting a similar approach to one MacDonald Gibson used in studying environmental burden of disease in the United Arab Emirates.
“To my great delight,” she said, “Ya-Ru conceived of a new approach, on her own, that is a huge improvement over the process I had suggested.”
Piernas Sanchez is advised by Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition. Her research examines the causes and consequences of obesity and related health outcomes; her particular interest is in developing an improved methodology for categorizing foods with caloric and low-calorie sweeteners and studying over time how consumption of these sweeteners affects overall quality of diet in the U.S.
“She has done exceptional work in the diet and obesity area since she arrived at UNC,” Popkin said of Piernas Sanchez. “She works very hard, is one of the most efficient young scholars I have ever mentored and has published her papers in the top journals in our field.”Popkin praised the importance and complexity of his advisee’s research as well as her teaching and mentoring skills.

“Ms. Piernas is not only a talented young scholar, but she is a great role model for her fellow doctoral students. She has been a leader, does a great deal of one-on-one mentoring, and the undergraduate student she mentored won honors for her senior thesis.”

Popkin said Piernas Sanchez became interested in the area of sugar and sweetness preference and published a complex paper based on a randomized controlled trial that he and Deborah Tate, PhD, associate professor of health behavior and of nutrition, led.

“Carmen’s study was the first to test a number of critical issues related to consumption of diet sweeteners and their effects on sweetness preference and was highly praised,” Popkin said. “But I should add that this is the case for a number of her other papers.”

The School’s student awards selection committee evaluated applicants’ dissertation abstracts on criteria including quality, potential for public health impact, dissemination plans, and metrics that measure near- and long-term impact.

The Gillings Dissertation Awards are made possible by a $50 million gift to the School from Dennis Gillings and Joan Gillings. To date, the gift has funded 18 Gillings Innovation Laboratories designed to accelerate solutions to important public health problems, including water and the environment, obesity, disparities and other issues across North Carolina and around the world. Visiting professors and an executive in residence teach, develop opportunities for faculty members and students, and extend the School’s reach into the community. Students are supported through the innovation labs, visiting professorships, scholarships, curricular support, an award for student service organizations, and these annual dissertation awards.

For more information about the Gillings awards, visit


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or