Skip to main content

Joe Tucker has been contributing to research at Carolina for 23 years.

 Joe Tucker standing in a white coat with a stethoscope draped around his neck width=
Photo by Megan Mendenhall


Joe Tucker has worked for UNC-Chapel Hill in a variety of roles, most recently as professor of medicine within the UNC School of Medicine and director of UNC Project-China. He is also on the leadership team of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.

What brought you to Carolina?

I was totally fascinated with infectious diseases in China as a college student. I studied Mandarin Chinese and visited the country as part of a public health project, which was very eye-opening. While developing a thesis on hepatitis A control, I learned that there were (and still are) few American physicians focused on infectious diseases research there. Then I found UNC-Chapel Hill professors Mike Cohen and Gail Henderson — an infectious disease physician and a social scientist with deep research interests and long-standing collaborative partnerships in China.

I reached out to them when I was a senior in college, and Mike told me that I had no medical training, no public health training, and my Mandarin was poor. He was correct on all three fronts. But his brutal honesty and commitment to getting things done in China served as the basis for my formal training in medicine, public health, and Mandarin over the years. I attended the UNC School of Medicine and knew I would return to Carolina because Mike and Gail are truly amazing researchers and mentors. I started as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine in 2012, and to this day, they continue to help me chart an unusual career trajectory.

How has your role here changed over the years?

My core interests and passions have been quite consistent across the last two decades, focusing on infectious diseases, China, and social medicine — the interface between social and medical sciences that informs how behavioral and social factors can make us healthy or sick. My career has come full circle in a way. I remember subscribing to the Journal of Infectious Diseases as an undergraduate student, and our team just submitted a research manuscript there last month.

My work in China led me to study syphilis, a common sexually transmitted infection. Syphilis has not received the financing, research, and programs that it deserves. China provides unique opportunities for medical and public health research collaboration. While there is an ebb and a flow to U.S.-China relations, I am a perpetual optimist and feel strongly that collaborative research is mutually beneficial and essential.

I’ve also stayed interested in the moral arc of medicine. How can our patients be the voices for change in our hospitals and health systems more broadly? How can physicians be involved in social change to improve health and well-being? I’m still thinking about these kinds of questions today.

Over the last five years, my role has shifted to building up the next generation of researchers focused on infectious diseases and social medicine. I’ve been fortunate to have time to do this as part of an NIH mid-career mentoring project, alongside support from exceptional Carolina mentors. The trainees that I have the privilege to work with remind me that the future is bright.

What’s kept you at Carolina?

UNC-Chapel Hill’s enduring commitment to public service is inspiring and continues to keep me an enthusiastic Tar Heel. In the medical realm, this commitment is shown through the charity that supports essential infectious diseases care that patients would otherwise not be able to afford. Hospitals are increasingly big businesses, and it’s important to me that the hospital has a strong public mission to serve not only North Carolina residents, but anyone who walks through the door.

In public health, Carolina is focused on thinking about underserved populations who are often at the margins. How can we create health systems that better serve sexual minorities, youth, and others who are often neglected? In education, we can mentor trainees who are not only amazing junior scholars, but change-makers and leaders. One undergraduate and one medical student on our team have received Rhodes Scholarships to study at Oxford.

Also, I live in London and have been here throughout my career at Carolina. My wife is British Chinese, which is what drew me to England in the first place. Then I obtained my PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and continue to collaborate with researchers there. Because of UNC-Chapel Hill’s focus on research, I’ve had a uniquely flexible position. I travel to China about three times a year to work with a team there. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be part of Carolina, yet rooted outside of Chapel Hill.

What contribution are you most proud of?

Our team’s syphilis research helped to advocate for and inform the development of China’s control and prevention program. The country had one of the highest rates of congenital syphilis in the world and pregnant women were not routinely screened, leading to neonatal death, stillbirth, and preterm labor.

After our team published a perspective piece in The New England Journal of Medicine, China rapidly launched a nationwide testing, treatment, and prevention program. This made routine testing the default for pregnant women, decreasing the burden of congenital syphilis. While there is still much unfinished work in this field, we played an important role in proving the need for a national syphilis testing program.

What is a uniquely Carolina experience you’ve had?

Our work on the pay-it-forward approach to infectious disease testing is a wonderful example of the benefits of mentorship and training. Pay-it-forward works like this: a man who attends a clinic in China receives a handwritten note from another local man that urges them to get chlamydia and gonorrhea testing. The costs have been supported by the community, and the man doesn’t have to pay a cent. He decides whether to get tested and is then asked to write a note or donate money to spur others to get tested.

The concept was created by a UNC Robertson Scholar, Henry Feng, during a summer project. Then UNC Doris Duke Scholar Katherine Li led a quasi-experimental study whose findings were confirmed in a randomized controlled trial co-led by trainees Fan Yang and Philip Zhang.

To our delight and surprise, kindness is contagious. In our initial study, over 90% of men donated money to support STD testing, and this approach increased testing rates compared to established methods of care. We’ve also shown that the same basic concept could be used to increase hepatitis testing, influenza vaccination, and HPV vaccination.

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.

Comments are closed.