Columbia River High School senior Rebecca Leong’s interests in cross-country running and public health have earned her top honors in a national competition and a $50,000 scholarship.
Leong, 18, was named one of two winners in the Young Epidemiology Scholars Competition for her research on the effects of footwear on running-related injuries. The competition calls on high school juniors and seniors to submit original research projects employing the methods epidemiologists use to improve public health.
Leong, who ran cross country for Columbia River, tested the claims that barefoot running is better for the body. She gathered a group of 45 runners in three different categories: barefoot runners, shoe-wearers and those who are transitioning from running in shoes to running barefoot.
She monitored their mileage, running surfaces and injuries for 12 weeks. Her data showed that people who run in shoes suffer fewer injuries than those in the other groups. The next fewest number of injuries was in the barefoot running group.
She was named one of 60 regional finalists — and the only one from Washington state — and went to Washington, D.C., on Friday to present her work. She was one of 12 national finalists to present again Sunday. That night, she was named one of two competition winners.
“I’m so excited,” Leong said Monday from Washington, D.C. “I didn’t expect it at all because there’s so many good projects.”
Michelle Lee of Wexford, Penn., was the other $50,000 scholarship winner. The remaining finalists received scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $35,000. The competition was created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the College Board.
“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 running,” competition judge Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu said in a news release. Moritsugu is the former acting U.S. Surgeon General.
Leong spent the rest of her weekend listening to some of the event’s guest speakers, who included accomplished public health officials from across the country. She also took some time to explore a few D.C. museums.
Leong said the whole experience has been inspiring and influential.
“It’s just been a really good weekend,” she said. “It’s a really good program.”
Leong leaves Washington, D.C., today and will head to Missouri to visit Washington University in St. Louis. The university is on Leong’s short list of college possibilities. She’s already visited Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Leong said she will likely study biology in college. She expects she’ll work in the medical field but hasn’t narrowed the scope any further.
“I’m still unsure, but I’m definitely considering public health a lot more now because being here at the YES Competition and seeing people in public health and what they’ve been doing. … It’s very interesting,” Leong said.