Carolina is a truly exceptional institution, and one of our more impressive attributes is how our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) research and projects touch lives across the state. We are breaking barriers and finding cures for diseases and ailments across many fields, with special interest in solving challenges unique to North Carolina.
At the UNC School of Medicine (SOM), investigators are hard at work addressing health-related issues stemming from vector-borne diseases (diseases spread by vectors, such as mosquitos or ticks). Ross Boyce focuses on the epidemiology of these infections and interventional studies that may lead to new methods of disease prevention and management in settings with limited resources. Boyce regularly collaborates with Scott Commins, an SOM expert on Alpha-Gal Syndrome, a tick-borne disease that triggers an allergy to red meat and other products of mammal origin. Both researchers are part of the recently-announced CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, which aims to accelerate public health research on many of these topics.
At the Gillings School of Global Public Health, researchers are working to identify potential health impacts of industrial hog farming within our state. A team led by Arbor Quist investigated, with results published last year in Science of The Total Environment, common gastrointestinal illness among people who live close to hog farming operations. The study team found that areas with high hog exposure were associated with an 11% increase in emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness. Yet cases of disease were 21% higher in rural areas, where residents rely heavily on well water. This work will inform efforts to increase quality of life of rural North Carolinians.
The Coronavirus Variant Sequencing (CORVASEQ) Surveillance Program, a N.C. Collaboratory project led by a team of UNC researchers and partners at UNC-Charlotte, Duke, Wake Forest, and East Carolina University, has sequenced more than 10,000 samples from COVID-19 positive patients across the state to track the spread and development of the virus. Information gained from the sequencing can be processed and shared with leaders and researchers across the state in real time, and by collaborating with multiple institutions, samples from all 100 counties in North Carolina get sequenced quickly, allowing researchers to track which segments of the population are most affected. This program was initiated with generous support appropriated by the N.C. General Assembly.
In the Department of Applied Physical Sciences (APS) in the College of Arts & Sciences, researchers are testing and launching innovative technologies that change lives. Recently, the Bia Lab created a pulse oximeter to mitigate the overestimation of blood oxygen levels in patients of color, a frequent problem with existing oximeters. The innovative design gives healthcare providers a more accurate way to diagnose and treat hypoxemia — low levels of oxygen in the blood — in patients by correcting for the presence of melanin in skin before estimating blood oxygen levels. APS is also home to the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory, which provides cutting-edge equipment for nanotechnology and microfabrication.
Dissecting the role that technologies play in how we receive and send political data, researchers from the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) investigate political processes, democracy and equality, mis- and dis-information, and how design and operation of communication technologies influence power dynamics and shape our society — critical work for this moment in time.
The First in Digital Studio at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation was launched last year to assist new startup teams seeking to build digital health ventures that are primed for venture capital investments. The studio, which aims to launch more than 10 digital health startups over the next three years, is focused on the rapidly growing digital health market and is an innovative approach for expanding the significant impact made by Carolina startups.
Carolina’s expertise in engineering is channeled towards solving grand challenges across many fields. Ongoing collaborative partnerships between the College and Gillings have developed new methods of extracting contamination from our water sources. Additionally, one of the N.C. Collaboratory’s larger research initiatives, made possible by the N.C. General Assembly, is the N.C. PFAS Testing Network, which has administrative oversight at Carolina and over 100 members comprised of principal investigators from Duke and five sister System schools. The network’s purpose is to bring researchers together to help gain a comprehensive understanding of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exposure across North Carolina.
The Joint Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department leverages Carolina’s deep strength in health sciences with North Carolina State University’s engineering expertise to develop eradication resources for many diseases and cancers. In fact, a center within the department was recently awarded $4.6M to improve technology and methods for integrating human-machine interactions into the daily lives of stroke survivors. The funding supports BME’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center’s development of wearable assistive devices that help users regain control of the movement of their limbs, making significant improvement in the lives of individuals with disabilities.
The Carolina Population Center recently opened a branch of the Triangle Federal Statistical Research Data Center, which is part of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) program. The Chapel Hill branch is the first to open within the UNC System and is one of 30 centers nationwide. Under this program, the Census Bureau allows researchers with approved proposals to perform statistical analysis on non-public microdata from their economic, health, and demographic censuses and surveys. These datasets are among the largest and most important sources of statistical information in the nation and many of them can only be accessed through a FSRDC. The RDC is freely available to all researchers and graduate students affiliated with a UNC System institution.
Providing support that will stretch across most disciplines, the newly launched School of Data Science and Society (SDSS) is making great strides in identifying programming, building staff, and establishing research priorities that will leverage Carolina’s existing strengths in health, natural, and social sciences, as well as humanities. In doing so, the school will equip its students, and the greater public, to use data in ways that are mindful, productive, and beneficial to society at large.
The new SDSS adds to existing campus strength in computer science, exemplified by a recent award received by the College’s Department of Computer Science to improve video representation learning and the School of Information and Library Sciences’ certificate in applied data science (CADS) which is designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the modern workforce.
There are also many new and exciting developments, which I will address in an upcoming blog post, from our colleagues in the humanities and arts. Our deep and broad bench in STEM fields creates discoveries and applications that improve the health and well-being of North Carolinians, providing critical tools and methods for solving Carolina’s biggest challenges while driving economic development. In addition, our STEM portfolio provides real-world research opportunities for students, which ultimately contributes to North Carolina’s burgeoning life sciences and information technology workforce needs.