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Carolina Discoveries

Portrait of Penny Gordon-Larsen

Welcome to Carolina Discoveries, a blog from Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen about current topics pertinent to the Carolina research community. Every month Dr. Gordon-Larsen will post a personal message that provides updates from the OVCR organization, insights from the greater UNC research enterprise, or recognition of those that help make us one of the top public research universities in the world.

STEM for the State

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, January 12, 2023

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.

Science

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.

Technology

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.

Engineering

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.

Math

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.

Permalink: STEM for the State

Earlier:

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, December 8, 2022

Happy HeelidaysAs we wrap up the semester and the calendar year, I am reflecting on the momentous accomplishments that our researchers and research administrators have made. There is so much to be proud of. In 2022, it was a great year to be a Tar Heel.

This year, we topped $1.2B in research awards, continuing our year-to-year growth in sponsored research activity and showing gains across most disciplines. Additionally, more than 30 researchers from Carolina made Clarivate’s Highly Cited Researchers list as trailblazers among their peers. Those recognized had papers that ranked in the top 1% of citations for field and publication year.

With support from the state legislature and the N.C. Collaboratory, the VISION study was launched this fall which will assess the effects of long COVID, as well as factors associated with reinfections. With 7,500 participants, this is the largest study of its kind in North Carolina. And this is in addition to the $65 million awarded to the Gillings School of Global Public Health by the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to establish an Antiviral Drug Discovery Center to develop oral antivirals that can combat pandemic-level viruses like COVID-19.

Just this past October, the Carolina Population Center opened a branch of the Triangle Federal Statistical Research Data Center (Triangle RDC) which is part of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) program. Under this program, researchers with approved proposals can perform statistical analysis on non-public microdata from the Census Bureau’s 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.

Earlier in the year, a $10 million gift from the Winston Family Foundation established the Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development, a research center that will create more tools for parents, caregivers, and teens to make better informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media.

Wei You, chair of the department of chemistry in UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, was awarded $7.5 million from the U.S. Department of Defense in the spring to develop organic semiconductors for the next generation of electronics. This work has the potential to improve the portability, energy efficiency, and durability of screens and information display devices used in the cockpit and the field.

Our faculty researchers also showed tremendous innovation in approaches that impact the health and well-being of North Carolinians all across the state. The Southern Futures initiative continued to reimagine the stories we tell about our region through the lens of art and healing. With funding from the NIH, Rachel Good in the School of Social Work is designing a culturally relevant digital technology resource to treat binge eating and obesity in Black women. The North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (NC AHEC) program also celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. NC AHEC’s mission is to provide educational activities and services in areas with less access to resources to recruit, train, and retain the workforce needed to create a healthy state.

Additionally, researchers in the School of Education and the College received $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to pioneer methods to help university students struggling in mathematics and science courses, a wonderful opportunity for our own students.

The Innovation District in downtown Chapel Hill gained momentum this spring when construction of the 20,000 square foot UNC-Chapel Hill Innovation Hub began. Once complete, the Hub will house Innovate Carolina and feature much needed co-working space for UNC life sciences startup ventures. This year, the Board of Trustees approved the Institute for Convergent Science as a campus-wide center, which is currently hard at work on several exciting projects, including PFAS-contamination mitigation and a gene therapy biomanufacturing foundry.

Within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, we made impressive headway on many of our internally led initiatives and partnerships. We hosted the largest University Research Week to date, welcomed North Carolina State into our International Galapagos Science Consortium, launched the Looking Forward Program with our partners at North Carolina A&T, and made steady progress on aligning clinical research resources across the university, UNC Health, and the School of Medicine with the UNC ONE Clinical Research Initiative. We also welcomed new leaders into our organization who will help us strengthen the research enterprise by making advancements in translational research, convergent science, clinical trials, compliance, and more.

I have captured only a few of the many accomplishments made across the research enterprise in 2022, and I am so eager and excited to see what 2023 will bring.

Permalink: 2022 Research in Review

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, November 9, 2022

Group photo of Penny Gordon-Larsen preparing to board the tour bus with colleagues.

I was extremely fortunate to have traveled with 35 faculty and colleagues on this yearʼs Tar Heel Bus Tour. The tour I participated in — the “west is best route” — took us on an incredible journey to see firsthand the impact that our university has across the state, and our connection to the people and communities we serve.

My experience affirmed for me that Carolinaʼs research and creative activities are truly making a difference in the lives of people throughout North Carolina, bringing to life our mission as a university of the people, for the people. Iʼd like to share highlights from a few of the stops on our tour:

On our first day, we stopped on the campus of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University…

Group photo of Penny Gordon-Larsen, Eric Muth, and Tonjia May in business attire in front of a marble tile background.

… where we met with colleagues from the Colleges of Engineering, Health & Human Sciences, Science & Technology, Education, and Agriculture, as well as some of our closest research collaborators like Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Eric Muth and Director of Pre-Award Services Tonjia May. We celebrated our history of collaboration and our formal joint-research initiatives like the Looking Forward Pilot Awards Program and other efforts with NC TraCS and the UNC Coastal Resilience Center. We learned about some exciting collaborative research projects happening between our institutions and about the impressive work of Aggies in many areas critical to our state, from big data, clean energy, virtual reality, mental health, adult learning, and health disparities.

In Kannapolis…

… we saw the enormous impact that the SUN Project, led by Carolina faculty in the School of Government, including Mark Botts and Teshanee Williams, is having in Cabarrus County. With the help of Dr. Russell Suda, pregnant moms with substance use disorder can receive mental health and medication-assisted treatment and be supported through pregnancy, enabling them to deliver healthy infants. Those patients also receive coordinated care for themselves and their families. We heard inspiring stories from two former patients, Brooke and Jennifer, who both now work at the clinic helping pregnant moms struggling with substance use disorder. The SUN Project is an especially poignant example of the translation of science into practice and the impact that our research has on communities.

At Grandfather Mountain…

The tour bus photographed on a sunny day, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.
Tar Heel Bus Tour 2022 participants visited Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C. October 20, 2022. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

… we were treated to amazing Blue Ridge views and learned about the biological diversity unique to this particular mountain. Grandfather Mountain is a habitat for 16 distinct ecological communities and hosts over 70 unique species, including synchronous fireflies, making it a distinctive location for potential research. We were treated to a viewing of incredible photography by Hugh Morton, founder of Grandfather Mountain Park, and heard about the Hugh Morton Collection from Bob Anthony, retired curator of the North Carolina Collection in the Wilson Library.

In Pittsboro…

… we had an opportunity to visit the Tiny Homes Village at the Farm at Penny Lane and learn from Founder and Director Thava Mahadeva and Co-Director Amy Blank Wilson. The village is a demonstration project aimed at developing new affordable housing options for people with mental illness and other health conditions living on a fixed income. It is led by local nonprofit Cross Disability Services, Inc., (XDS, Inc.) and the UNC School of Social Work. The site includes a working farm, healthy food initiatives, access to emotional support animals through UNC PAWS, and a myriad of integrative care options.

Photo of Jeff Warren and Penny Gordon-Larsen.

In Asheboro…

… we learned about lithium and geology in Cleveland and Gaston counties and VentureAsheboro, which has facilitated development of small businesses in the area. We also heard from Executive Director of NCGrowth/SmartUp Mark Little and Executive Director of the NC Collaboratory Jeff Warren on significant economic development opportunities in the area, including the attraction of major corporations like Toyota, VinFast, and Wolfspeed. The ever-impressive work that is made possible by the NC Collaboratory and the NC General Assembly is supporting critical research with true and tangible impacts on the state and its citizens.

A mid-century diner counter with alternating pink and baby-blue stools. Several stacks of white dishes are visible. A row of placards above the counter advertise items such as “Cherry Pie, 15 cents” and “Roast Turkey Dinner, 65 cents.”
Tar Heel Bus Tour 2022 participants visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C. October 19, 2022. The building formerly housed the Woolworth’s store that was the site of a non-violent protest in the civil rights movement.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In Winston-Salem…

… we heard about Building Integrated Communities, a statewide program led by the Institute for the Study of the Americas, and we were fortunate to meet Mayor Allen Joines to learn about impactful government partnerships that reach citizens in his city and across the state.

We also had a powerful visit with Franklin McCain Jr., whose father, Franklin McCain, was a civil rights activist and member of the Greensboro Four. McCain Jr. talked about his family in the aftermath of the Woolworthʼs lunch counter sit-in, the lasting impact of his fatherʼs actions, and the power of sharing his story.

In North Wilkesboro…

… we visited Call Family Distillers to learn about the history of moonshine runners, fast cars, and whiskey. We also heard from journalist Jeremy Markovich who has documented the critical role the North Wilkesboro Speedway has played in culture and livelihood of the town and its surrounding counties. The reopening of the racetrack for the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race will have significant impact on tourism in the region.

We also heard about labor market shortages from Fairystone Fabrics, a leading textile manufacturer for over 50 years, who is partnering with the Carolina Across 100 initiative on pathways to living wage employment for young people.

Representatives from UNC World View and Elkin City Schools shared updates on their amazing global education initiative, and we heard from the Greensboro Health Disparities Collaborative, a community-academic medical center partnership. These impressive examples showcase Carolina-led efforts that are impacting children and young adults across the state.

On our last evening of the tour, we celebrated at Lake Tahoma…

A photo of Lake Tahoma surrounded by woods and homes.

… with a fabulous evening of fellowship and square dancing hosted by UNC Board of Trustee Member Ralph W. Meekins Sr., who generously provided an amazing dinner and opportunity to meet some impressive local alumni and students.

The tour created a world of possibilities, new collaborative ties, and deep sense of purpose and commitment to Carolina, to the state, and to all North Carolinians.

Permalink: Wheels on the Ground

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, October 11, 2022

When this blog post goes live, we will be in the midst of University Research Week (URW) — the annual celebration of Carolina’s research excellence, our deep collaborative ties across campus, and our spirit of creativity and innovation.

URW is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Undergraduate Research Office, where URW originated in 2017 to encourage and inspire undergraduate students to engage in research activity. It evolved into a pan-campus celebration in 2019 when the OVCR’s Office of Research Communications began co-chairing its planning and execution to include highlighting research achievements at every career stage – and across most disciplines – while remaining true to the event’s original mission of engaging students.

Every year, URW grows in the number of events that are held and in participation of schools and units that host unique events. This year, 66 events are planned over the course of the week, making this year’s celebration the largest yet.

As the featured event of URW this year, we are thrilled for the opportunity to partner with the Chancellor’s office to commemorate University Day. The ceremony will include traditional remarks by campus and UNC System Office leaders; awards for notable alumni, faculty, and staff; and, in recognition of the event’s partnership with URW, presentations by two faculty members who will discuss their research impact on the state of North Carolina.

I am particularly excited that both faculty members will co-present with undergraduate students who have worked alongside them on their projects. Orlando Coronell, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Christian Chung, a biology and public policy major in the College, will share their N.C. Collaboratory-funded work on a novel clean water technology for effective removal of toxic per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This work has resulted in enormous impact on our state, and we are so grateful to the North Carolina General Assembly for the funding that made it possible.

We will also hear from Caela O’Connell, assistant professor in the College’s Department of Anthropology, along with Margot Midkiff, a health policy and management major in Gillings, who will share their observations on human and environmental relationships and how they can change in relation to hurricanes, flooding, pollution, and other factors. Caelaʼs work has spanned many communities across our state, including Ocracoke, Chapel Hill/Orange County, and has included special projects for North Carolina farmers.

In addition to highlighting research at Carolina, University Day will also serve as the official kick-off for this year’s Tar Heel Bus Tour, which I will be participating in. I look forward to sharing my bus tour experiences with you next month.

Throughout the rest of the week, there are events tailored to researchers at every level of scientific exploration and scholarly pursuit, as well as topics that will be of interest to the entire campus community:

Additionally, there will be events that span the whole week, including displays of the winning entries from this year’s School of Medicine’s Art in Science Competition, the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases Fest, North Carolina Latin American Film Festival, and the Psychology & Neuroscience Research Fest.

These are but a few of the many events that are planned throughout the week. I invite you to peruse the comprehensive list on the event website. While this is the largest URW we’ve hosted, it can’t begin to scratch the surface of sharing all the incredible accomplishments of our researchers and students. To hear more of their amazing stories, you can visit our communications page or view the digital copy of this year’s Endeavors research magazine.

Permalink: Celebrating University Research Week

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, September 7, 2022

Our record-breaking $1.2 billion in new research awards this past fiscal year was a wonderful accomplishment and justifiably newsworthy. But have you ever considered the enormous amount of grant applications that need to be submitted to reach that total? Submitting a grant application in no way guarantees an award, and the probability of not being funded is always high.

Larger Graphic | Text Version

In reviewing data for FY21, Carolina researchers submitted close to 1,300 new and competitive renewals for federal grants (FY22 and FY23 still have many ‘pending’ proposals since they were so recently submitted). Federal grants offer a better picture of the process because non-federal grant applications are often solicited by a funder and/or invite applications that have a much higher chance at being awarded. In FY21, just over 28% of UNC’s new and competitive renewal applications for federal grants received a Notice of Award, meaning the vast majority were not funded. Those of us who were not funded in FY21 were in good company — yes, including me, and I’m working with collaborators on a new submission as you read this!

Even our most seasoned investigators and senior faculty get applications turned away. In recognition of the 72% of submissions that did not receive awards, I wanted to share reflections from some of our most well-known investigators.

Provost Chris Clemens shared some words from his own experience with me:

“When I came here, I was hired to build a facility instrument for the SOAR telescope. We had raised about half of the necessary funds from a private source. But we needed an NSF grant to complete it and to build credibility within the community. My first submission went down in flames, with some very harsh words from one reviewer. In response, we added capacity to the team, visited other successful teams to solicit advice, and revised the grant substantially. The next round was a year later, and we were successfully funded. Even now, with much more experience, I can still get frustrated that it takes three cycles to get our work funded. Competition is fierce, but persistence always pays off.”

The School of Medicine’s Vice Dean for Research Blossom Damania also shared these sentiments:

“As a junior investigator, my batting average for grant awards was one out of nine, i.e., only one out of every nine grants I submitted got funded. And I submitted a lot of them! Now as a senior investigator, my average is slightly better — one out of four. As a senior researcher, I understand that grant rejections are par for the course. Persistence really does pay off. You will eventually get that grant if you keep trying.”

I asked Professor of Epidemiology and grant writer extraordinaire Kari North what words of wisdom she’d impart to junior faculty facing rejection and she said:

“Each rejection teaches me to be creative and think of new ways to get my work funded. If you have a good idea and it fills a major research gap, keep re-crafting your proposal and try again.”

William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor, and world renown coronavirus expert, Ralph Baric added:

“I personally have had dozens of unscored NIH grants during my career and have been ridiculed by reviewers more than once as being an ignorant half-wit, but this has been layered across a backdrop of success. Don’t be hesitant to take some chances (leaps of faith/belief) during your career, as it’s not only about writing successful grant applications, but also, and sometimes more importantly, about building collaborations and interactions, exploring new spaces, and thinking completely out of the box about new research possibilities that might become lucrative in the future.”

I can also share a bit from my own experience. I am no stranger to the dreaded “not discussed” grant. Over time, I have learned not to take rejections to heart. I also seek to understand what exactly the reviewers didn’t like and learn how to resolve those issues. Damania also noted, as a reviewer, “it is important to remember to keep in mind that there is a person on the other end reading my comments and that they are human, so I need to be rigorous and fair, but also kind and reasonable in my critiques.”

I find that talking through reviews with my collaborators can make a world of difference and — in most cases — the revised grant application is vastly improved after we make necessary adjustments. Plus, it’s always nice to commiserate (and sometimes share a salty word or two about the reviews) with collaborators. The most exciting part of the process is when a reviewer comment leads you to an opportunity to engage a new collaborator from a different discipline which then invigorates the research. This can open new avenues and new projects.

After dedicating hours and hours to crafting your grant, it is hard not to take reviewers’ critiques personally. I find it easiest to put the summary statement aside for a few days before coming back to reading it carefully. It is important to remember that review panels are comprised of experts from a variety of disciplines and perspectives who offer feedback that may be unexpected.

Rather than dismissing that feedback, try to take time to understand what exactly the reviewer is suggesting and why. I often find that sharing the reviewers’ comments with my peers or senior colleagues can help sort through the types of responses that are needed – and help identify any blind spots.

If stories such as these have inspired or encouraged you, I invite you to follow our Research UNCovered series. In these bi-weekly profiles, Carolina researchers share firsthand accounts of encountering and overcoming setbacks in their careers, and personal stories of how they ultimately overcame those challenges.

Permalink: Persistence pays off, rejection paves the way to success