Tuesday, June 05, 2012
Footprints of a great teacher pave the way for future generations of public health researchers and practitioners
Certain teachers have an impact that extends beyond their lifetimes. In spite of her sudden death in May 2011, the work of associate professor Renée Royak-Schaler, PhD, MEd in the areas of health disparities, health behavior, women’s health, cancer prevention, and community engagement continues to spark interest among another generation of public health students.
At the request of the Schaler family, the Renée Royak-Schaler Memorial Fund was established by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health (EPH) to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Royak-Schaler. The endowed fund recognizes excellence in student work in areas deeply important to Dr. Royak-Schaler, and provides up to two merit-based awards each year to EPH students in the MPH, MS, or PhD programs. Awards made possible by the endowment were presented for the first time to two exceptional graduating students at the May 2012 EPH Convocation ceremony.
Magda Schaler-Haynes, daughter of Dr. Royak-Schaler, said of the award, “My mother was fully engaged in her work at the time of her death, and she had many more accomplishments on the horizon. Mentoring was one of her great passions-- she considered bringing along the next generation to be both a responsibility and a reward of a productive career.”
As an associate professor in EPH at University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Royak-Schaler spearheaded the formation of and directed the department’s MPH and dual degree programs, also teaching students in the MPH, MS and PhD Programs. She was a behavioral scientist whose multi-disciplinary program of research focused on disparities across the continuum of cancer care, including the psychosocial and behavioral factors associated with the early detection, prevention, and survivorship care practices of minority populations. This included investigating the relationships between communication in the healthcare setting and patient decisions to carry out recommended screening, treatment plans and preventive health practices.
Diane Marie St. George, PhD, assistant professor and director of the MPH Program, recalled, “We had a very strong pool of candidates for this award, and the award committee had a difficult job selecting only two award recipients.” One of them was Lisa Klingenmaier, awarded for her dedication and exceptional work in addressing health disparities among Baltimore’s homeless and incarcerated populations. Klingenmaier was enrolled as a dual degree student in the MPH and MSW programs at the University of Maryland. For years, she worked to reduce health disparities through advocacy for increased access to quality health care and housing for Baltimore’s 30,000 homeless people. Inspired by her classes and conversations with Dr. Royak-Schaler, Klingenmaier’s capstone project last summer with B-more Housing for All and Health Care for the Homeless resulted in a research study and report titled, Still Serving Time: Struggling with Incarceration and Reentry in Maryland. Circulated nationally and utilized repeatedly during the 2012 Maryland General Assembly, the study demonstrated that access to comprehensive health care was a critical need for individuals reentering from incarceration, and that inadequate access to these services has a devastating economic impact on the State of Maryland. “Individuals who experience homelessness have higher prevalence rates of communicable and chronic disease,” says Klingenmaier, “[and an] average life expectancy of [only] 47 years.”
Klingenmaier well remembers Dr. Royak-Schaler’s passion and how it came alive for her research. It was a drive that shaped her students’ understanding of the importance of community-based research:
“Dr. Royak-Schaler inspired me to pursue community-based research,” says Klingenmaier, “ and I hope to use the award to further my career goals to address homelessness as a public health problem.”
“One of the most outstanding trainees we have ever had in our program.” This is how Dr. Sania Amr, Director of the EPH Preventive Medicine Residency Program describes Royak-Schaler Award recipient Dr. Maya Das. Awarded for her exceptional work in cancer prevention, Dr. Das has dedicated her time and energy to public health and prevention strategies and applying them in different settings. Since starting her preventive medicine residency training, Dr. Das excelled in her coursework while conducting multiple projects and studies related to cancer epidemiology, including a risk assessment and prevention strategies of breast cancer in Anne Arundel County; determining cancer risk in patients with myotonic dystrophy; and investigating the associations between asthma and cancer.
Based on her analysis of breast cancer incidence and mortality in Anne Arundel County, she developed educational materials for health care providers and patients to help interpret breast cancer statistics and to encourage appropriate prevention strategies. Her study of tumors in myotonic dystrophy patients suggests a role for cancer/tumor screening and surveillance for patients with this disorder. She presented the results of this study last November at the International Myotonic Dystrophia Consortium, and submitted a manuscript of the study that has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Neurology. Her current study intends to determine the risk of developing cancer in asthma patients over a 30-year period as compared to the general population. Dr. Das’ educational background includes a BS in Biochemistry, a MD, and a JD in Law and Health, and now, a MS in Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine.
“Dr. Royak-Schaler’s commitment to teaching and research, especially as it related to cancer care in minority populations, was clearly evident,” says Das. In receiving this award, I hope to emulate the passion that Dr. Royak-Schaler had for her work.” Das plans to use the funds to purchase review materials for the preventive medicine board certification exam—the next step in her career development in public health. Her long-term interests lie in being able to use population-level data to better characterize the natural history of disease, especially chronic diseases, and to further understand why certain therapies or interventions work better in some population sub-groups, but not others.
"These first Renée Royak-Schaler Memorial Endowment awards…will remain a lasting tribute to Renee,” reflected Jeffrey Schaler, husband of Dr. Royak-Schaler. “To recognize the outstanding scholarship of graduate students in public health…brings our family and friends great joy and meaning. This is also what brought Renée great joy and happiness, and transcends her untimely and tragic death.” He said of the recipients, “Lisa and Maya's accomplishments are the products of hard work, effort, discipline, courage, and the steadfast determination that Renée so genuinely envisioned, valued, and ultimately achieved."