Q&A with 2018 SPHIS Alumna of the Year, Dr. Avonne Connor

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. Avonne Connor when she visited Louisville for UofL’s Homecoming Week and to be honored as the 2018 SPHIS Alumna of the Year. While here, she presented during the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health’s “Epi Hour” about breast cancer disparities. Afterwards, she attended the Alumni Awards Dinner and on Saturday, Oct. 27, was recognized on the field during the Homecoming football game.


How did you feel when you found out you had been selected as the 2018 SPHIS Alumna of the Year?


My first reaction to receiving this news was “This is an incredible honor”. Then, I did what I usually do after receiving awesome news, I immediately called my parents to let them know about my selection as the SPHIS Alumna of the Year so that they could share the joy and excitement with me.

How does it feel to be back in Louisville and a part of the UofL Homecoming celebrations?

When I first moved to Baltimore, I would travel back home to Louisville at least 5 times per year (not including holidays). I missed my family and friends very much. For the past few years, my trips back home have decreased in number, but my family and friends visit Baltimore quite often. I have been thrilled about being able to come back to Louisville for this momentous occasion. Being able to celebrate with my family and friends and the SPHIS faculty and staff is very important to me, because without them, I would not be who I am today.

What would you say to get a student interested in the field of public health?

I would tell a prospective student what a staff member once told me at SPHIS when I came to visit the school as a senior in undergrad… "The field of public health is very similar to medicine. However, instead of treating individual patients, you will be working to improve the health of populations of people."

How did you become interested in the field of public health?

I first became interested in the field of public health during an undergraduate Biology course taught by Dr. Paul Ewald, entitled the Evolution of Disease. I became interested in the study of epidemiology during this course.

Explain your experience at SPHIS and how it has aided you in your career.

After earning my Biology degree from UofL, I continued at the SPHIS to complete a Master’s in Public Health (MPH), with a focus in Epidemiology. At the completion of my MPH, my faculty advisor, Dr. Kathy Baumgartner, received NIH funding for an R01 to conduct the Long-term Quality of Life Follow-up Study of the New Mexico Women’s Health Study (NMWHS). This statewide, population-based study consisting of breast cancer (BC) cases and controls was designed to examine differences between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white (NHW) women for BC survival, recurrence, and quality of life. From this grant, I was awarded a graduate research assistantship to pursue my doctorate in Epidemiology. This research opportunity in minority health was the foundation of my future research initiatives in cancer health disparities.

During my research assistantship, I conducted primary data collection by performing subject recruitment and interviews with Hispanic and NHW BC survivors and women without BC who participated in the NMWHS. Through these interactions, I learned more about BC survivorship, and how women from different ethnic backgrounds viewed their experiences with cancer treatment and care, family and social issues, and their personal life experiences after BC. I also developed study materials and conducted my own analyses examining ethnic differences for the associations between obesity, BC survival, and quality of life issues; these analyses resulted in first author publications.

In 2009, I became the first University of Louisville recipient of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Disparities Epidemiology Research Training Program Award. My faculty advisors selected me as the first recipient of this award based on my scholastic achievements and my strong interest in developing a research career in BC disparities.

During this training, I became particularly interested in researching the roles and ethnic-interactions of body size and type 2-diabetes with BC. I also examined associations with specific insulin/inflammation-related genetic variants and BC risk. My findings from my dissertation suggested that ethnicity modifies the association between a specific haplotype of the ADRB2 gene, a suspected-type 2 diabetes gene, and BC risk; and being overweight enhanced the divergence of BC risk between Hispanic and NHW women from our study.

I continued at the University of Louisville as a Postdoctoral Fellow and became involved in the Breast Cancer Health Disparities Study (BCHDS), which includes three population-based BC studies of Hispanic and NHW women. The majority of the BCHDS papers I have author/co-authored have focused on the relationships between ethnicity, genetics, diabetes, inflammation, and BC risk and mortality.

As a junior faculty member at Hopkins, I have also provided primary mentorship for graduate students utilizing BCHDS data for thesis projects. I also continue to work with my mentors from UofL on research projects and papers in breast cancer research.

Do you have a mentor? If so, please explain their role in your education and career path.

I have become a strong believer in the benefits of academic mentoring. I have mentors from every stage of my academic career and currently as a junior faculty member. During my MPH and PhD programs, Dr. Kathy Baumgartner at SPHIS was my mentor. During my postdoctoral fellowship, she became my co-mentor with Dr. Richard Baumgartner, my department chair. I gained invaluable learning experiences and a wealth of knowledge in the area of breast cancer disparities from Drs. Kathy and Richard Baumgartner. Not only was I able to serve as the primary author on various manuscripts, I was also able to take part in working group meetings where we would discuss new analytical strategies and future grant proposals.

Working with my mentors and other colleagues outside of UofL through my research network has enhanced my analytical knowledge in epidemiological research, and has taught me the value of collegial support and the importance of working with a multidisciplinary team in conducting research.

What is your ideal job? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

My ideal job is to become a tenured professor in Epidemiology and Oncology. I believe I am currently on track to reach my career goals. 

In 10 years, I hope to be in an administrative role in a school of public health still working with graduate students in public health, teaching, and conducting research to address cancer.

In closing, what advice would you give to current public health students, especially those at SPHIS?


Mentoring is one of the best opportunities afforded to students and junior scientists in academic settings. If you have not identified a mentor already, it is never too late to take advantage of this opportunity that can benefit you for years to come.

Stay connected Youtube