Path to PhD begins with dad’s inspiration and a professor’s encouragement


Published: June 2, 2020

By Sally Crocker

Jialiang LiuWhen Jialiang Liu was a little girl, she wanted to be just like her dad.

Her father is a pediatrician in China, and both parents have always encouraged their only child to go for her personal best, even if it meant spending years away from home to pursue graduate school in another country.

“I always dreamed of going into medical practice like my dad, but along the way I discovered public health and research science,” said the graduating HSC student who has spent seven years in Fort Worth, working first on an MPH and now the completion of her PhD in Biostatistics through the School of Public Health.

“Now we are both doctors, with the same goal in mind, just in different types of practice,” she said. “The role of a pediatrician and a public health scientist are complementary, in that they both focus on improving health, whether it be the health of individual patients or larger populations and communities.”

Commencement ceremonies are online this year, and while Liu’s parents won’t be traveling to Texas due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the family will still be celebrating this proud moment – just remotely.

Liu is graduating with high honors as this year’s SPH Dean’s Award winner for scholarly excellence in research.

Among other things, she’s been recognized for her work as a graduate research assistant on a Texas Center for Health Disparities Pilot Project led by SPH Assistant Professor Dr. Menghua Tao, studying minority population nutritional and health status, as well as for her work as a biostatistics consultant for HSC’s Biostatistics and Epidemiology Consulting and Collaboration Services (BECCS).

She has also published two peer-reviewed articles in the scholarly journal Nutrients with Dr. Tao and other colleagues, analyzing essential dietary intake among minority women of childbearing age and magnesium intake among Hispanic adults.

In addition, she’s worked on projects impacting probationers, geriatric patients and vulnerable populations through the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, HSC’s m.chat health coaching technology program and the HSC Center for Geriatrics.

Liu first became interested in public health as an undergraduate in China, where she provided statistical support for epidemiologic research at a public health institute.

She found that she really liked biostatistics, deciding to pursue that field to improve lives through quantitative research.

She wanted to see more of life in other countries as part of her graduate studies, ultimately settling on Texas as an interesting place to be. When she found HSC, the journey began.

Liu hadn’t considered going for a PhD, but the encouragement she received from her SPH faculty advisor, Dr. Sumihiro Suzuki, early in her MPH program inspired her to take her talents one step further in making meaningful contributions to public health research.

“I never thought about one day working toward a PhD – it just wasn’t anything I ever considered,” she said.

She decided to go for it, and now her goal is to become a public health academic expert.

At this point, she is working on publishing her dissertation and presenting one of her dissertation topics at the upcoming Joint Statistical Meetings, one of the largest gatherings of statisticians held in North America.

Interacting online has pretty much become a way of life now for most people during the pandemic, and Liu said she’s ok with that, as long as it helps people stay safe and healthy.

“Family Zoom get-togethers, my dissertation defense, commencement, job interviews and professional activities are all different at this point,” she said.

“When the time is right, I plan to take a little break to just enjoy my personal life a bit, maybe take a trip, see more places and experience more of the world before launching into my next steps.”