Research on Health Threats to Athletes Captures Highest Honors in Nation's Leading Public Health Competition for High School Students

    • April 18, 2011


Research projects on injuries among long-distance runners and on a major infectious disease affecting high school athletes captured the top prizes today in the Young Epidemiology Scholars (YES) Competition, the nation’s leading public health competition for high school students. The YES Competition was created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the College Board to inspire the next generation of public health leaders and encourage the brightest young minds to enter the field.

Rebecca Leong, a senior at Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Wash., was recognized for her epidemiological research on injuries associated with the popular trend of barefoot running. Michelle Lee, a junior at North Allegheny Senior High School in Wexford, Pa., was recognized for her research on MRSA, a superbug infection with a growing impact on high school athletes. Each received a $50,000 college scholarship.

After running cross country for four years and dealing with various injuries and footwear issues, Rebecca Leong, 18, became interested in studying running-related injuries. Barefoot running has gained attention for its claim to reduce running-related injury and promote a natural running stride. Rebecca’s study, “The Effect of Footwear Habits of Long-Distance Runners on Running-Related Injury: A Prospective Cohort,” tells a different story. Her research suggests barefoot running in industrialized countries does not appear to reduce running-related injury.

“Barefoot running is capturing the attention of many people today,” said competition judge Kenneth Moritsugu, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P.M., former Acting Surgeon General and currently Vice President, Global Strategic Affairs, LifeScan, Inc. “Ms. Leong has done some remarkable work in assessing injury in the categories of those who wear running shoes, those in the transition to barefoot running, and those who are barefoot runners.”

Rebecca has received honors in math from the American Association of University Women and placed in the top 15 at the Washington Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. She plans to pursue a career as a doctor or biomedical engineer.

Michelle Lee’s project, “Routine Outpatient Testing of Skin Infections for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in High School Athletes,” investigated whether it is cost effective to require testing of all high school athletes who have skin infections for MRSA. She developed a computer simulation model and found that routine testing becomes cost-effective when the prevalence of MRSA is greater than 10 percent.

“Ms. Lee did an outstanding job in modeling the cost-benefits of screening athletes to identify those who may have this infection,” said Moritsugu. “It was a well thought-through model which determined at what point screening would be cost-effective.” Since the prevalence rate of MRSA varies among young athletes according to factors such as close skin-to-skin contact, cuts and contaminated surfaces, her findings could be useful in determining when routine outpatient testing should occur.

Michelle will receive a U.S. Congressional Award gold medal this year in recognition of 400 hours of volunteer work. This 17-year-old is an international award-winning pianist who has performed solo six times at Carnegie Hall and once at the United Nations. She plans to major in bioengineering or biology and chemistry and aspires to a career that combines medical research, medical engineering and public health.

This year, 562 students entered the YES Competition. Sixty Regional Finalists from 22 states and Puerto Rico were invited to compete in Washington to present their projects to a panel of distinguished judges comprised of leading public health experts and educators. In total, 12 National Finalists received scholarships today, ranging from $15,000 to $50,000. The remaining ten National Finalists and their award-winning projects are:

  • $35,000 Scholarship: Sarah Hardtke, Ossining High School, Ossining, N.Y., “A Socio-Cognitive Model of Adolescent Depression: Underlying Mechanisms of Perceived Competence.”
  • $35,000 Scholarship: Caroline Trezza, Roslyn High School, Roslyn Heights, N.Y., “The Relationships between Academic Procrastination and Beliefs about Effort and Capability in High School Students.”
  • $20,000 Scholarship: Carly Barker, Marshfield High School, Marshfield, Wis., “High School Students’ Attitudes and Beliefs towards the Risks and Benefits of Raw Milk Consumption.”
  • $20,000 Scholarship: Gita Bhattacharya, Troy High School, Fullerton, Calif., “Wake Up When Your Ears Ring: Implications of MP3 Use for Tinnitus.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Jazmin Branch, Morgan Park High School, Chicago, Ill., “Analysis of Existing Disparities in Breast and Cervical Cancer among African-American and Latina Women.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Neel Koyawala, Columbus Academy, Gahanna, Ohio, “Sleep Problems and Suicide Attempts among Adolescents: A Case-Control Study.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Mary Sun, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Va., “Assessing the Role of Alcohol Use to Address Gender Differences in Adolescent Depression.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Udayan Vaidya, Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, Denton, Texas, “A Novel Computational Framework for Modeling the Outbreak, Spread and Containment of Dengue Fever.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Sarah Yazji, South Texas High School for Health Professions, Mercedes, Texas, “Family History, Diabetes Risk Perception, and Health Behaviors: Findings from College Students in South Texas.”
  • $15,000 Scholarship: Zizi Yu, Amity Regional High School, Woodbridge, Conn., “Investigating the Hygiene Hypothesis: A Case-Control Study of Food Allergies and Age of Food Allergen Exposure in High School Teenagers.”

The remaining 48 Regional Finalists each received a $2,000 scholarship.

“Students who compete in YES often go on to pursue important research in national and global health,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We look forward to seeing what this year’s outstanding scholars bring to the field in the years ahead.”

America has a growing need for qualified public health professionals. To address the predicted shortage of 250,000 public health professionals by 2020, Schools of Public Health would have to increase their graduates threefold over the next 10 years, according to the Association of Schools of Public Health.

“The critical thinking and problem-solving skills students learn in YES will be useful in many fields of study and the scholarships they earn will help them as they go to college,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton.

Established in 2003, the YES Competition has awarded $500,000 in college scholarships annually to 120 high school students for a total of $3.7 million in scholarships to date. Nearly 5,000 students from all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and American Samoa, have entered the YES Competition since its inception. Five-hundred-sixty-two students entered in 2011. Past winners have investigated rising consumption of energy drinks among adolescents, emerging threats of Dengue Fever in Southwest Florida, and community factors affecting childhood obesity, among many other urgent public health challenges of our time.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health-care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the quality of the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful, and timely change. For more than 35 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime.

The College Board

The College Board is a mission-driven not-for-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Founded in 1900, the College Board was created to expand access to higher education. Today, the membership association is made up of more than 5,900 of the world’s leading educational institutions and is dedicated to promoting excellence and equity in education. Each year, the College Board helps more than seven million students prepare for a successful transition to college through programs and services in college readiness and college success — including the SAT® and the Advanced Placement Program®. The organization also serves the education community through research and advocacy on behalf of students, educators and schools. For further information, visit