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Penny Gordon-Larsen has been contributing to research at Carolina for 25 years.

 Penny Gordon Larsen posing for a photo outside on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus
Photo by Megan Mendenhall


Penny Gordon-Larsen is the vice chancellor for research and the Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also a Carolina Population Center Fellow.

What brought you to Carolina?

After I completed my doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, I received the Dannon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Nutrition Science and chose to come to UNC-Chapel Hill to work at the Carolina Population Center with Barry Popkin as a postdoctoral trainee. The postdoc fellowship period was one of the most enriching experiences of my career. I fell in love with Carolina’s collaborative culture and jumped at the chance to stay here as a faculty member.

How has your role here changed over the years?

In 2000, I was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, which is jointly housed in the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the School of Medicine. As a human biologist, my research focuses on how biology, behavior, and environment relate to obesity. Over time, I incorporated new methods, like geographic information systems and molecular approaches, and expanded my research portfolio to include the microbiome, metabolome, and transcriptomics. I am fascinated by the complexity of obesity and its multifactorial pathways and linkages to disease.

Carolina’s low stone walls have enabled me to forge new research collaborations across a diverse range of departments, from genetics to endocrinology to epidemiology to sociology to city and regional planning, and many more. These partnerships have enriched my science and created friendships that extend past publications and grants.

I was asked to chair the Department of Nutrition’s B.S. in Public Health degree program in 2004, which I did for six years. Then, I was asked to chair the doctoral committee in 2012. I learned a lot about leadership from those roles and was grateful to my department chair, Steve Zeisel, for mentoring me as a leader. In 2016, I became nutrition’s inaugural associate chair for research. In that role, I learned that I could make a significant impact beyond my own research program, by advancing strategic research initiatives at a departmental or larger level. I applied for the associate dean for research position for Gillings in 2018, which opened the door to even greater impacts — particularly during the pandemic, when the school and the University made major contributions to the state, the nation, and the world. I served in that role until 2022, when I was honored to be asked to serve as UNC-Chapel Hill’s interim vice chancellor for research (VCR).

In 2023, I became permanent VCR. Serving in this position has been one of the great privileges of my career. In this role, I develop, set strategic direction, and provide support for our $1.36 billion research enterprise. The position is also responsible for overseeing research infrastructure, operations, and regulatory compliance, along with development, translation, communications, and strategic partnerships. I also oversee 13 pan-campus, interdisciplinary research centers and institutes. I am grateful to work with a wonderful team in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and to have the opportunity to work with amazing institutional leaders from across campus to strategically advance Carolina’s research enterprise.

What’s kept you at Carolina?

The people and the collaborative culture. My science has been greatly enriched by my collaborative ties with colleagues from across campus. I also believe strongly in the University’s mission as a public institution to serve and improve society and to identify solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

What contribution are you most proud of?

I am passionate about identifying solutions to prevent, manage, and treat obesity and its cardiometabolic consequences. While my work has led to policies, evidence, and practices that have changed people’s lives, I am most proud of the students, trainees, staff, and faculty who I have mentored throughout my career and who have gone on to make incredible impacts of their own.

What is a uniquely Carolina experience you’ve had?

Experiencing the generosity of faculty across campus. Even though it happens over and over again, I think it’s very Carolina. I have been so humbled by the many ways colleagues have been generous with their time, whether it’s to explain complex science, solve methodological problems, help a student, review proposals, or just to show up for each other. It is truly special.

Also, running into Roy Williams on Franklin Street is always uniquely Carolina!

Rooted recognizes long-standing members of the UNC-Chapel Hill community who have aided in the advancement of research by staying at Carolina. They are crucial to the UNC Research enterprise, experts in their fields, and loyal Tar Heels. Know someone we should feature? Nominate a researcher.

Read more Rooted stories here.

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