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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a hub of groundbreaking research, and this Women’s History Month, we celebrate the exceptional Carolina women leading the charge. From principal investigators to early-career faculty, our women researchers are making significant contributions to scientific progress across a diverse set of disciplines. Their discoveries are not only impactful, but they also inspire future generations and propel Carolina’s research to even greater heights.

Leading the Way

It is a thrilling time to see so many women leading organizations in general. Here at Carolina, that progress is evident within our schools, where women now hold eight of 15 dean positions: Janet Guthmiller, Adams School of Dentistry; Nancy Messonnier, Gillings School of Global Public Health; Amy Wall, School of Government; Beth Mayer-Davis, The Graduate School; Mary Margaret Frank, Kenan-Flagler Business School; Valerie Howard, School of Nursing; Angela Kashuba, Eshelman School of Pharmacy; and Ramona Denby-Brinson, School of Social Work.

At the school-level, our research deans are extraordinary, and I am grateful to be able to collaborate with inspiring leaders like Blossom Damania, the vice dean of research for the School of Medicine, and Kari North, the recently appointed associate dean for research at Gillings. I have worked closely with both outstanding researchers over many years and am grateful for their leadership, collaboration, and scientific impacts. Blossom and Kari, like all our research deans, are dedicated to setting strategic direction and providing the research leadership needed to ensure our continued success.

Powerhouse PIs

Some of the top-funded principal investigators at Carolina are women and many lead large, collaborative projects that drive Carolina’s research strengths. These researchers have secured millions in extramural funding, fueling their ground-breaking work, supporting undergraduate research, employing graduate students and technicians, fostering collaboration across departments, and providing depth to our research strengths. Below I mention a selection of these powerful women, though there are far too many to include in a single blog:

Health Sciences

  • UNC Nursing Associate Dean Cheryl Giscombe focuses on understanding and reducing stress-related health disparities among African Americans. Last year, she was elected to her second national academy, this time the National Academy of Medicine in recognition of her accomplishments as a leading scholar in mental health, resilience, and clinician wellness whose work has influenced national guidelines.
  • In the Gillings biostatistics department, Anastasia Ivanova is the principal investigator of the Data, Modeling, and Coordinating Center for Precision Interventions for Severe and/or Exacerbation-Prone Asthma (PrecISE) Network. The project was awarded by NHLBI to conduct an adaptive precision medicine trial to identify novel treatments for severe asthma.
  • Dorothy Cilenti is a leader in maternal and child health with a distinguished career in public health service and research. She directs the National Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Workforce Development Center and serves as a principal investigator for the Maternal Health Learning and Innovation Center where she works to improve health care systems for vulnerable women and children.


  • Jen Jen Yeh is the vice chair of research in the surgery division of oncology at the School of Medicine. Her research interests focus on pancreatic and colorectal cancer, with a goal of identifying novel therapeutic targets. She leads a NIH-funded team that is studying new therapies for pancreatic cancer and developing new drug combinations and improving treatment selection
  • Stephanie Wheeler is a health services researcher interested in how people access quality cancer treatment, with a focus on medically underserved groups. In 2019, she was appointed associate director of community outreach and engagement for the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, highlighting her commitment to bridging the gap between research and the community.

Infectious Diseases

  • Vivian Go is the associate director of the Center for AIDS Research Social and Behavioral Science Core and a member of the Institute for Global and Infectious Diseases (IGHID). Her research focuses on the intersection between HIV and co-morbidities including mental health and opioid use disorders, stigma and discrimination among key populations.
  • Adaora Adimora, who recently passed away, was a distinguished professor of medicine and a member of the National Academy of Medicine, was a global leader in research on AIDS and HIV. She received the Thomas Jefferson Award to honor her contributions and her impact on medicine and on the wellbeing of citizens of North Carolina and the world.

Energy and Environment

  • As the deputy director for the Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy to Liquid Fuels (CHASE), Jillian Dempsey uses electrochemistry and spectroscopy to understand electron transfer in solar energy conversion. She is a prominent inorganic chemist whose research focuses on electron transfer reactions in renewable energy technologies.
  • Jill Stewart is a distinguished professor in the Gillings Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering who has conducted research projects that involve establishing baseline water quality measurements and implementing monitoring programs to track improvements over time. She also serves as deputy director of the NSF-funded Precision Microbiome Engineering Research Center (or PreMiEr) which seeks to enable the development of high impact microbiome technologies that provide innovative solutions to key societal challenges at the interface of human health and the built environment.

Humanities & Social Science

  • Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts & Humanities Elizabeth Engelhardt is a distinguished professor of American studies. Her work has made a significant impact in understanding Southern food and culture. Her newest book, “Boardinghouse Women: How Southern Keepers, Cooks, Nurses, Widows, and Runaways Shaped Modern America,” draws on her deep expertise on the American South.
  • Barbara Entwisle, distinguished professor of sociology, led the Carolina Population Center, one of the top population centers in the country, for close to a decade. She was also a former UNC Vice Chancellor for Research, the first woman to serve in that role. Her research focuses on the intersection between populations and environments, which she has continuously approached using innovations in methods to overcome barriers in the field.
  • Sian Curtis, statistical demographer, and professor of maternal and child health, has led the MEASURE Evaluation Program, funded by very large grants from USAID, for over two decades. The program includes cutting-edge research to support county-level efforts to respond to tuberculosis, malaria, and other critical health issues across the globe. Many of these efforts build local capacity to effectively counter these, and other, life-threatening diseases.

The Next Generation

Carolina has trained a cadre of amazing women who have gone on to leadership roles that have amplified Carolina’s impacts. For example, W. Kimryn Rathmell, who started her career as assistant professor of medicine and genetics at Carolina now serves as the NIH National Cancer Institute Director. Zena Cardman, who received two Carolina degrees, will serve as commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-9 mission to the International Space Station later this year. She will also deliver the 2024 keynote address at the university’s spring commencement. Both women have impacted the careers of countless other women with their inspiration and their inspirational pathways to success.

While I have had incredible mentors myself, I am so grateful for my peer mentors and collaborators who impress me daily and who I can count on for a good laugh and a healthy dose of support. I am also grateful for the opportunity to mentor and train the next generation through my work with students and trainees. For example, my very first doctoral student, Melissa Laska, now a distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota, is a leader in the field and has grown our understanding of pediatric obesity and avenues for prevention. My current student, Autumn Hullings, is in the final stages of completing her dissertation investigating the molecular linkages between diet and cardiometabolic health. I am sure Autumn too will go on to do big things.

These are just a few of the many extraordinary women researchers who have been or are being launched here at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are shaping the future of science through their dedication, innovation, and commitment to impactful research. Happy Women’s History Month to all our amazing researchers, our enterprising students, and our staff members who support their endeavors.

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