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Zhang, Johnson, Beckman receive President’s Awards for Leadership

Covell Johnson, inspector for UT Police's Threat Management Team and Leslie Beckman, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, pose together at the 2023 STAR Awards banquet. (Photo by Jacob Power Photography)
Covell Johnson, inspector for UT Police's Threat Management Team and Leslie Beckman, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, pose together at the 2023 STAR Awards banquet. (Photo by Jacob Power Photography)

Each year, the President’s Awards for Leadership, inspired by the late Michael Jimenez, recognize exceptional leaders from across our campus in three categories: classified staff, management/administrative professional, and faculty.

The awards are presented annually at the STAR Awards luncheon.

The 2023 awardees include:

  • Jiajie Zhang, PhD, The Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence and dean of McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics
  • Covell Johnson, inspector with Administrative, Threat, and Criminal Investigations at UT Police at Houston
  • Leslie Beckman, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at UTHealth Houston

The President’s Awards for Leadership were established in 2006 in honor of the late Michael Jimenez, former vice president and chief human resources officer at UTHealth Houston, based on the qualities of leadership that he embodied: the consistent demonstration of leadership through service, compassion, and ethical standards.

Since its inception, 44 people have been honored with the distinction. Awardees are nominated by their peers, evaluated by a committee, and selected by Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, MD, president and Alkek-Williams Distinguished Chair.

President’s Award for Leadership: Outstanding Faculty

Jiajie Zhang, PhD
The Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence
McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston

Zhang joked that he was unable to attend a reception announcing the 2023 President’s Awards for Leadership recipients because he was out of the country setting up an outpost for the biomedical informatics school in Antarctica. That branch would be dependent on his new penguin friends learning artificial intelligence tricks, he said.

As a faculty member, Zhang’s research portfolio is both diverse and impactful — covering areas like biomedical informatics, cognitive science, human technology integration, decision-making, machine learning, and visualization. He is the first dean to be given the award for leadership in the faculty category.

During his tenure, the school has tripled its number of students and faculty appointments.

“Dr. Zhang has a clear picture of how informatics can change health care, and he shares that vision readily, attracting some of the brightest minds in this budding field to come to Houston to be a part of what he is building,” said Kevin Dillon, MBA, CPA, senior executive vice president and chief operating officer at UTHealth Houston.

“In fact, many of his nominators were lured here from other prestigious institutions because they could clearly see Dr. Zhang’s passion for the future of the informatics field and how their skills matched his vision. Clearly, he is a collaborator of the highest order.”

In recorded comments, Zhang said the award represented a collaborative achievement for the school.  

“As a young man who joined UTHealth Houston in 1998, I was provided an environment with abundant opportunities for personal and professional growth,” he said. “The UTHealth Houston community remains an enduring source of support and inspiration. I’m grateful, proud, and delighted, but humbled, by the many colleagues and circumstances that have contributed to my evolution as a leader and, more importantly, to the success of the school.”

President’s Award for Leadership: Outstanding Classified Staff

Covell Johnson
Inspector and Certified Fraud Examiner
Threat Management Team and Investigations
The University of Texas Police at Houston

Johnson leads UT Police’s Threat Management Team to protect students, faculty, and staff, and our university as a whole.

Johnson has been with UTHealth Houston for 20 years. He started as a patrol officer in 2003, and rose through the ranks due to his teamwork and work ethic. In 2022, he was named UT Police’s Inspector of the Year because of his dedication to his team and the community it serves, and his emphasis on training.

“According to his colleagues, Inspector Johnson is a shining example of how we should approach our daily lives both at work and at home,” Dillion said. “They describe him as someone who has a positive attitude, an encouraging approach, and a caring response. He is also energetic and enthusiastic about his work. As a leader, he creates room for open dialogue and idea sharing.”

Johnson congratulated others nominated for the award, and his colleagues.

“Looking at the room and the size and scope of talent we have at the university, this is a tremendous honor,” he said. “When you are acknowledged by your colleagues, it’s dear to your heart and good to know you are doing good work. I’ve chosen a career in public service because it has allowed me to touch so many lives. I want to thank those who nominated me and those who work with me.”

President’s Award for Leadership: Outstanding Management/Administrative Professional

Leslie Beckman
Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs
UTHealth Houston

“Leslie Beckman is a friend, advocate, and career counselor to the more than 250 postdocs training at UTHealth Houston at any given time — and she works tirelessly to promote their careers and welfare,” Dillon said. “Leslie came to the university nearly 20 years ago as a founding member of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. She was hired as the coordinator of Special Programs, but it is her leadership that has made the program truly special.”

Beckman created the Postdoctoral Certificate Training Program, a collaborative effort involving UTHealth Houston faculty from multiple departments within our schools and from other institutions within the Texas Medical Center. And she is at the epicenter, setting up the courses, establishing the teaching schedule, and encouraging participation with faculty and postdocs.

She also empowers postdocs to forge meaningful relationships with each other and employ leadership skills for personal success through the Postdoc Association.

Beckman said she was on the nominating and review committee for the President’s Awards for Leadership for several years. She said the experience opened her eyes to the talent and dedication of employees at the university, as well as the care colleagues have to lift each other up during the nomination process.

“I’m grateful to be a colleague to so many of you across the organization,” she said. “I love my job. I have a true passion for the plight of postdocs and their training. It’s a pleasure to work with them to make their careers as vibrant as possible. I could talk about my postdocs all day, but I will spare you all of that and just say ‘thank you.’”

Visit the 2023 STAR Awards Flickr album to view more images of the awardees receiving the President’s Awards for Leadership, and see the list of all employees celebrating milestones on the STAR Awards website

Faith Harper

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