At Carolina, we embrace research for the public good and we strive to ensure that our discoveries make tangible impact on citizens of our state and the world. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering research portfolio. This research aims to create practical applications and innovations that help solve the world’s greatest challenges.
Whether it is through materials to create renewable energy, generating complex sensors for autonomous vehicles, or solutions to protect vulnerable populations from toxic exposures, applied sciences and engineering transform discoveries into designs, innovations, and applications. Carolina is the ideal place for applied sciences and engineering because of our collaborative culture, team-based science, and entrepreneurial mindset. There are 167 (and counting) faculty at Carolina who either have engineering degrees or are currently working in an engineering field.
We have formal engineering degrees conferred through the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE), Joint Biomedical Engineering (BME), and Applied Physical Sciences (APS). In addition to the engineers working in and training students in those departments, others reside in the Departments of Computer Science; Earth, Marine, and Environmental Sciences (EMES); Chemistry; and Mathematics, particularly in applied and computational research. We also have environmental engineers in ESE; chemical engineers in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy (ESOP); electrical and computer engineers in RENCI, the School of Information and Library Science (SILS), and the School of Data Science and Society; and more engineering expertise in City and Regional Planning, biology and more.
In fact, you would find these same types of researchers in any major school of engineering across the country. The federal and non-federal research landscape has shifted towards a range of exciting opportunities that aim to nurture applied research and innovation. For example, the White House Office of Science and Technology, the NSF directorate on Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, ARPA-H, and even non-federal initiatives, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are focusing on applied solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
Closer to home, NC Innovation, a public-private partnership, is working to accelerate commercialized innovation in North Carolina. At UNC-Chapel Hill, we are working with representatives from each of these organizations to most effectively position the University for the coming calls for proposals and initiatives. We are also formulating teams and strategies to respond to these exciting opportunities, many of which relate to Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering footprint:
Materials science and engineering
In APS, an engineering mindset is employed in an interdisciplinary environment to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. Biomaterial engineer Wubin Bai designs bio-integrated technology with capabilities for improving health and increasing our understanding of living systems — including implantable devices that can sense physiological quantities to deliver drugs or direct tissue growth and disappear when no longer needed. The tissue systems advanced by his system engineering approach include cardiac tissue repair and regeneration, an artificial pancreas, neural prosthesis for the brain, and skin-resident sensors for oxygen sensing during tissue transplantation.
Daphne Klotsa uses computational tools to research active matter, from self-propelled nanoparticles to cars in traffic, to understand how we can bridge the gap between emergent phenomena, smart materials, and robot swarming.
Theo Dingemans, chair of APS, and his team engineer new classes of high-performance polymers to create lightweight composite materials that are strong enough to handle aerospace and other demanding structural and high temperature applications. His start-up, Blue Sky Polymers LLC, is introducing a polymer platform into the marketplace that allows users to 3D print true engineered polymer parts that can be used in harsh high temperature environments.
Jinsong Huang uses his background in solid-state physics to engineer a peculiar type of material, known as perovskites, together with ingenious device design to enable record-high efficiency solar cells and portable X-ray scanners that can be used by doctors.
Chemist Ronit Freeman recently received the prestigious 2023 Cottrell Scholar Award for teaching convergence to increase innovation in science.Professor Emeritus Edward Simulski, whose expertise is in polymer physical chemistry, played an important role in building the polymer program in chemistry and initiated a major shift to applied sciences. He is also CEO and co-founder at BlueSky Polymers along with Dingemans.
Applied and computational mathematics
Greg Forest, Rich Superfine, Michael Rubinstein, Richard Boucher, and Sam Lai are among a group of researchers making major breakthroughs in potentially fatal lung-related issues through their global Virtual Lung Project. The project brings together researchers in applied mathematics, chemistry, physics, medicine, pharmacy biochemistry, and biophysics to engineer lung health using innovations like simulated environments that replicate lung function and mucus movement, a model that replicates interaction between cilia and mucus, and computational models for therapeutic strategies. Their work has numerous applications including commercialization outputs and therapeutic advances that save lives.
Richard Mclaughlin and Roberto Camassa, of the mathematics department, run the Joint Fluids Lab, the largest laboratory at Carolina. It is a full-scale engineering facility hosting a 120-foot modular wave tank, tilting wind tunnel, and a massive array of state-of-the-art instrumentation for measuring fluid phenomena. Work at the lab has been featured in Science and other top journals.
Prototyping and deploying solutions that mitigate societal issues has long been an interest and calling of our researchers. EMES professor Rick Luettich, a civil engineer by training, has been pioneering storm surge modeling solutions for coastal communities vulnerable to tropical storms for decades.
ESE professor Orlando Coronell studies membrane-based processes for water purification and energy production and storage, including processes for removing contaminants from water, such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This work is leading to the development of technologies that could help ensure safer drinking water across municipalities, industries, and households.
Jason West uses models of atmospheric chemistry and transport to examine the effects of changes in emissions on ozone and particulate matter. He recently led the first study to use global atmospheric models and future scenarios to assess the benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation for air quality and human health.
The inventions and research of Michael Ramsey, faculty member in chemistry, APS, and BME, has led to the development of devices with applications for drug discovery, health care, environmental monitoring, and basic research, and to the generation of companies like 908 Devices. One of the company’s recent inventions allows pharmaceutical manufacturers to identify important biochemical reactor components in about five minutes from a location adjacent to the bioreactor it monitors, slicing the time for traditional analysis to negligible lengths.
Chemist Frank Leibfarth tests molecules that turn plastic waste into useful materials, diversifying options for recycling and creating solutions for the overwhelming amount of plastics in our environment. Leibfarth has found a reagent that can chemically alter the polymers of a milk jug to become plastic more like Surlyn, the clear, pliable plastic found in heat-sealed packages, high-end yoga mats and inside of golf balls. By weight, this product is much more valuable.
Addressing energy issues has long been a strength at Carolina. Chemist Jerry Meyer, together with Jillian Dempsey, Jim Cahoon, Alex Miller, and many others across campus and at partner institutions, is directing CHASE to identify innovative ways to achieve sunlight-driven generation of liquid fuels from carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water.
Paul Watkins, from ESOP, works in clinical pharmacology and specializes in small molecule safety in relation to drug-induced liver injury. He directs the Watkins Lab for Drug Safety Sciences which serves as an accelerator to meet regulatory science demands.
Within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s ESE department there exists a trove of talented researchers working towards solutions for a healthier person and planet. With a background in chemical engineering, WIlliam Vizuete uses high-performance computers and 3D simulations to model the atmosphere to provide insights into which chemical processes produce air pollution. He often provides his technical expertise to state and federal policymakers who are developing pollution reduction strategies.
Noah Kittner investigates a range of topics related to energy systems engineering, including electricity generation using solar, wind, hydropower, and energy storage technologies, among others. He aims to improve health equity in the transition to green energy.
Jason West uses global models to identify climate change solutions with co-benefits for air quality and health; he has been working on the National Climate Assessment.
Greg Charaklis works in water resources engineering and economics within ESE and as director of the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems. He develops integrated models of natural, engineered, economic and financial systems that enable the design of tools that reduce the severity of environmentally related financial risks.
Julia Rager uses her background in engineering and toxicology to build computational toxicology models and predict risk from complex environmental mixtures like wildfire smoke and PFAS in consumer products.
The BME department, an inter-institutional collaboration with N.C. State University, leverages engineering and medicine expertise across both intuitions to improve human health and quality of life. As the department’s motto states, the institutions work “better together,” to train students for competitive engineering positions in the health care, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries.
There is extensive research in BME in the field of regenerative medicine. Many faculty members are investigating cutting-edge approaches to replace, engineer, or regenerate tissues and organs. Department researchers are also working in rehabilitation engineering and are committed to improving the lives of individuals with disabilities by developing innovative and effective rehabilitation and assistive technologies.
In addition, Paul Dayton works in ultrasound imaging and leverages his skill as an innovator to develop new technologies and approaches for ultrasound imaging, ultrasound mediated targeted therapies, and industrial ultrasound applications.
Koji Sode develops biosensors for health applications, like diabetes, and he holds several international patents for biosensing technologies.
Computer engineering and data science
Academic computing programs at the intersection of science and engineering can be found across Carolina. Computer scientists Henry Fuchs — whose work in computer graphics and virtual and augmented reality spans decades — and his team have been developing an augmented-reality training tool for laparoscopic procedures, with the hopes of one day lowering the risk of these surgeries.
Ron Alterovitz designs robots to work in various environments: in homes to assist the elderly, in laboratories to conduct chemistry experiments, and in surgical theaters to precisely remove tumors where such accuracy would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
Similarly, Daniel Szafir develops technologies to enable humans and robots to collaborate and work together better in a safe manner, be it on a factory floor or at home.
Jim Anderson and Samarjit Chakraborty work with autonomous vehicles, where their goal is to achieve “safe autonomy” to certify that cars, drones, or robots can work correctly in all possible scenarios, including those they have not encountered before. Chakraborty additionally works on novel battery technologies that would not only enable cost-effectiveness for stationary electrical energy storage systems and electric vehicles but could also help recycle and reuse old batteries after they have been retired.
Nirjon Shahriar develops new sensor technologies for various applications ranging from sound pollution monitoring to HVAC acoustic fingerprinting that detects deterioration to pedestrian safety.
Data science touches every part of society, and Carolina researchers work in all fields that help society thrive. Researchers at RENCI provide solutions in software engineering, advanced networking, data management, high-performance computing and information visualization that help researchers conduct more productive work, powering our research enterprise to serve North Carolina and beyond. Researchers at SILS advance science and discovery at the intersection of humanity and technology as well as discovery and innovation. And as our School of Data Science and Society takes flight, research areas will be formed to leverage and grow the links between our existing interdisciplinary expertise across fields, powered by our data science resources.
Engineering the future
As we move increasingly towards resourcing and supporting teams of convergent scientists, we will rely on our current engineering strengths to stay competitive with other institutions that have schools of engineering. Funding for research at Carolina is currently heavily concentrated in the health sciences, with the National Institutes of Health accounting for 75% of all our federal awards. Many of these awards incorporate applied sciences and engineering expertise to our competitive advantage. And opportunities abound to grow awards from other federal sources like NSF, Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, and ARPA-H when we maximize our entire portfolio of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expertise.
Because of the hands-on, entrepreneurial, real-world problem-solving nature of applied sciences and engineering, Carolina’s classrooms are not the only places where student learning and instruction happen. Beginning with this current academic year, all undergraduate students are required to participate in some form of research activity, providing them with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to learn by doing. We consistently hear from students that they gain tremendously from research experience with faculty mentors and instructors. The best learning extends beyond a classroom.
In providing experiences in engineering fields of study, we cultivate creative problem-solvers who enter the STEM workforce in greater numbers. According to the NSF, among STEM careers, engineers earn the highest average salaries. Propagating the state’s workforce with well-trained, high-earning employees enhances North Carolina’s attractiveness to lucrative tech companies, increasing revenues. And the advancements made by these students and researchers provide a better quality of life for all.