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Lei-Shih Chen receives 2023 School of Public Health Dean’s Faculty Research Excellence Award

Chen’s passion for research is tied to her son, who has autism spectrum disorder and infantile spasms.

Lei-Shih (Lace) Chen, PhD, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, received the 2023 School of Public Health Dean’s Faculty Research Excellence Award. The honor, which was first awarded in 2017, alternately recognizes early-career and senior faculty members who are doing outstanding research.

This latest honor is just one of many that Chen received during the past two years. “While we are recognizing her recent research accomplishments with this award, her achievements in education were also recognized in 2022, when she received The Association of Former Students’ Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching, and again in July 2023, when she was selected for the Genomics Education Award from the American Society of Human Genomics,” said Tiffany Radcliff, PhD, senior associate dean of research at the School of Public Health.

Finding her stride

Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy and a master’s degree in occupational medicine and industrial hygiene from National Taiwan University. She then moved to the United States to continue her studies at Texas A&M, earning a doctorate in health education in 2007.

After spending two years as an assistant professor at the University of North Florida’s Department of Public Health, Chen returned to Texas A&M in 2009 as a faculty member. She received tenure in 2014.

Over the past 16 years, Chen has received 33 grants totaling approximately $12 million. She currently serves as principal investigator or site-principal investigator for grants totaling more than $5.3 million.

Chen, who served as chair of the American Public Health Association (APHA) Genomics Forum, has published 68 articles and is a regular presenter at national and international conferences.

Chen’s work continually has been recognized, including the Distinguished Research Award from the APHA’s Genomics Forum; the Cancer Public Health Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award from the APHA’s Cancer Forum; the Young Professional Award from APHA’s Maternal Child Health Section; the Outstanding New Faculty and Early Career Research Excellence awards from Texas A&M’s College of Education and Human Development; and the Armstrong Scholar Award from Texas A&M’s Department of Health and Kinesiology.

A passion for disability research

Chen has a multidisciplinary research agenda that includes genomic and precision health, health disparities, cancer prevention, and disability research. Much of her recent work is focused on individuals with developmental disabilities. “In the public health field, not many scholars are studying individuals with disabilities as far as health behaviors,” she said. “There is a real need there.”

She recently was awarded a grant from the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities as part of the organization’s Health Equity for People with Developmental Disabilities project. Chen is focused on developing a comprehensive, evidenced-based, theory-grounded bilingual (English and Spanish) training and support system to improve health equity in the Brazos Valley among individuals with developmental disabilities that include physical, learning, language or behavior impairments, and their caregivers, parents and guardians.

The training will assist families with disabilities in understanding how to use their patient rights, evaluate their health care providers, advocate about their health care needs, and utilize community, state and federal resources.

Chen’s work with individuals with developmental disabilities also extends to genomic education and smoking cessation. She also is focusing some of her research on cancer, specifically on finding ways to support this population. “People with special needs have more challenges in terms of cancer prevention,” she said, noting that standard cancer preventive tests such as mammograms and healthy lifestyle choices can be difficult for these individuals. “For example, some people with autism spectrum disorder are very picky eaters who will only eat certain foods. That makes it hard to educate those people.”

Ultimately, Chen’s passion for this research is tied to her son, who has autism spectrum disorder and infantile spasms (a rare and severe type of epilepsy).

“Because of my son, I found the meaning of my life, and my passion for research,” she explained. “I feel like I can do many things to help him and people like him.”

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