PHHP students honored during 2021 International Education Week

Erta Cenko and Thomas Pearson
Erta Cenko and mentor Dr. Thomas Pearson at the International Student awards ceremony.

The University of Florida International Center has recognized College of Public Health and Health Professions and College of Medicine student Erta Cenko with the 2021 Alec Courtelis Award for Outstanding Ph.D. Students. Cenko is one of only three students to receive this year’s award, which comes with a $2,000 prize.

A doctoral candidate in epidemiology and a native of Albania, Cenko’s research interests are focused on the epidemiology of aging and cognitive decline. She is conducting research at the Institute on Aging to examine the impact of physical activity, social activity and the gene ApoE4 in the cognition of older adults. Not only has Cenko contributed to analyses resulting in peer-reviewed publications, she has also been on the front lines of data collection. Her mentors Thomas A. Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., a professor of epidemiology and medicine, and Todd Manini, Ph.D., a professor of aging and geriatric research, noted in their nomination that Cenko exceeds good clinical practices by anticipating issues, troubleshooting technical problems, maintaining regulatory compliances and developing positive relationships with patients and research participants.

In addition, Cenko has proven to be a talented educator at the graduate level, Pearson and Manini said. As course coordinator for Pearson’s class on epidemiology and prevention of chronic disease, Cenko’s skills really blossomed when the course shifted to an online format during the pandemic. She developed innovative approaches to chat rooms, discussion boards and team presentations.

“We are fully confident that Erta has a bright future as a research epidemiologist, educator, and public health activist, impacting her field in many ways,” Pearson and Manini wrote.

Cenko also responded to the pandemic by being one of the first epidemiology students to volunteer for UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect program. She was part of a group that developed the case investigation and tracing systems as well as policies and protocols for controlling COVID-19 transmission. She was soon offered a paid position and worked with the team for more than a year as a disease investigator.

“Being a disease investigator is a very challenging position, especially as the emotions of cases and contacts can run high and they are sometimes not very kind to the person trying to interview them,” said nominator Cindy Prins, Ph.D., PHHP’s assistant dean for educational affairs, epidemiology Ph.D. program director and campus infection preventionist. “Erta always approached this work with patience and the most positive attitude. She was valued at Screen, Test & Protect not only for her dedication, maturity, and reliability, but also for her amazing foreign language skills and wonderful sense of humor.”

Cenko has served the department as a Ph.D. student representative, helping to support fellow students through organizing meetings and events and acting as a liaison with department administration to address student concerns. She is also a member of the college’s Wellness Committee and Wellness Task Force.

“Research is exciting to me, but I also want to give back to the wonderful UF community, and to do something fulfilling with the knowledge I am building up through research,” Cenko said.


In addition to Cenko’s award, several College of Public Health and Health Professions international graduate students were honored with Certificates of Outstanding Achievement. They include:

Kanika Bansal, rehabilitation science Ph.D. program

Isabelle Coppa Wandenkolk, rehabilitation science Ph.D. program

Fiorella Guerrero Calle, rehabilitation science Ph.D. program

Wanru Guo, biostatistics master’s program

Xinyi Jiang, health administration master’s program

Meilin Jiang, biostatistics Ph.D. program

Ruba Sajdeya, epidemiology Ph.D. program

Olga Munoz Pogoreltseva, One Health Ph.D. program

Sandhya Yadav, health services research Ph.D. program

Gelan Ying, clinical psychology Ph.D. program