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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.

Persistence pays off, rejection paves the way to success

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.

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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


By Penny Gordon-Larsen, August 16, 2022

After we calculated sponsored research funding levels at the conclusion of the fiscal year last month, we reported a record-breaking $1.2 billion in annual new research awards. Each of those awards came to a single researcher or research team that worked to create a winning proposal.

In addition, each of those projects brings a full suite of research experiences for trainees, a training ground for the next generation of problem-solvers and world-changers. Graduate students make up the core of our research workforce, and undergraduates work alongside distinguished professors in the field and their labs, applying what they learn, making contacts, and becoming more attractive to employers.

Each project brings tremendous excitement to the research team that receives a notice of award. Nothing beats the very first award that a researcher receives to fund their work, and that excitement permeates throughout their career as their work continues to be supported. In honor of that cycle, I’d like to share some examples of the projects, and people, at each level from undergraduate to senior professor level who made advancements during our last fiscal year. They, and their peers, are what truly make ours a thriving research enterprise.

Carolina undergraduates are engaged in a wide variety of research on our campus. For example, Stephanie Caddell is a sophomore studying environmental science in the Department of Earth, Marine, and Environmental Science within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. She studies how to connect the needs of humans with the needs of the environment to protect the earth.

Graduate students across our campus engage in an amazing array of research that spans all departments and schools. Taylor Fitzgerald, a second-year communications graduate student and 2021 Pavel Molchanov Scholar, is interning with NC Collaboratory, helping to convey the impact that the institution has on the lives of North Carolinians through their efforts to fund research projects that directly benefit them.

Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity (CPPFD) Fellow Julian Rucker is interested in investigating the psychological factors shaping perceptions of, and motivations for, reducing racial inequality across several societal domains. His work also examines perceptions of racial progress in the U.S. The CPPFD is an important pipeline that enhances and expands the diversity of our faculty. Over the last five years, 19 of the program’s participants have been hired directly into the faculty at Carolina at the conclusion of their fellowships, and the program has successfully placed 100% of its fellows into tenure-track positions.

Epidemiology assistant professor Juan M. Hincapie-Castillo, who joined our faculty in 2021, is addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time: substance use disorders. He is working to achieve optimal pain management outcomes while appropriately preventing and treating substance use disorders. His interdisciplinary projects hope to generate evidence that promotes patient safety and advocates for best practices in policy evaluation and implementation. He was just selected as a 2022-23 Faculty Fellow for the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education in recognition for his outstanding research.

Archeology associate professor Jennifer Gates-Foster is working with a diverse coalition in the small western North Carolina town of Old Fort to develop an accessible trail network that uncovers the region’s history and spurs equitable economic growth. The project is supported by the Southern Futures initiative. The goal is to identify outdoor recreational assets that have the potential to ignite economic development while positioning the local community to take advantage of this growth. The collaborative wants to create a trail network that is inviting not only to outsiders, but to the town’s residents as well.

Even our most distinguished faculty members, like Jenny Ting, the William Kenan Distinguished Professor of Genetics and professor of microbiology and immunology, are no doubt thrilled at each single notice of award. Ting was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences for her career and accomplishments in research related to human innate immune responses, neuroinflammation, the microbiome, multiple sclerosis, cancer, biologic therapy, and infections. She is a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, director of the Center for Translational Immunology, and co-director of the Inflammatory Diseases Institute.

These are just singular examples of the research that happens on our campus at each level, from undergraduate to senior researcher, and they are just a few of the more than 5,000 projects that were sponsored during the last fiscal year. I am so proud of all our researchers, students, and research administrators for this past year’s accomplishments. I am so excited for each new notice of award that will come this year and with it the excitement of getting a new project off the ground no matter whether it’s the very first notice or one of many.

Permalink: Snapshots from another record-breaking year

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, July 8, 2022

Rector of USFQ Diego Quiroga, Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen, and NC State Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Jonathan Horowitz celebrate NC State joining the GSC Consortium. Photo by Karina Vivanco, GSC

Carolina’s global research footprint boasts a diverse, innovative, and transformative impact. Our faculty are making exciting discoveries and sharing expertise that transcends geographic boundaries. I had the great fortune to travel with a Carolina delegation to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) — and the broader Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Galapagos Islands Initiative — at the World Summit on Island Sustainability on San Cristóbal Island. Our delegation of scientists and campus leaders reveled in the rich evolutionary history of these islands made famous by Charles Darwin on the second voyage of the HMS Beagle in the early 1830s.

A blue-footed booby poses on a lava rock on San Cristóbal Island. Photo by Andy Russell, UNC Research

The 10-year UNC-USFQ partnership has yielded an extraordinary set of research projects that are producing tremendous results for the interdisciplinary science that is the hallmark of Galápagos research. None of which would be possible without our fantastic researchers, strong collaborations, and incredible ties to the local community and the Galápagos National Park. The strong sense of stewardship and responsibility evident at the GSC were every bit as impressive as the rigor and quality of the science conducted there.

Our delegation toured the 20,000-square-foot GSC facility, which houses four state-of-the-art laboratories, each with a dedicated research focus: terrestrial ecology, marine ecology and oceanography, data science and visualization, and microbiology.

We heard from Corbin Jones about the GSC biobank, which is preserving the genetic resources of existing biodiversity and from Jon Bruno about experimental marine biology research on algae. We visited a field site to see Gregory Lewbart, from North Carolina State University, conduct a health assessment on a green sea turtle that included collecting height, weight, blood measurements, and facial photographs that will be used for an artificial intelligence-based turtle facial identification project. Lewbart was able to process the turtle’s blood sample in the field (on the beach!) using an ingenious centrifuge adapted from a small fan.

We heard about exciting work led by Jill Stewart to trace antimicrobial resistance through different water sources, animals, and on to humans. And we learned about Gina Chowa’s work on intimate partner violence and her partnership with the community to build capacity for social work on the island. These are just a few examples of the diverse areas of science supported through the GSC.

Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen learns more about the GSC’s Biobank from Corbin Jones and Jill Stewart, one of many impressive research resources at the center. Photo by Andy Russell, UNC Research

There are other areas of impact, such as the many student and postdoctoral researchers working in the GCS laboratories, and the students participating in UNC Study Abroad who are engaged in wonderful global opportunities and experiences. The Barcode Galapagos project engages the local community in citizen science to barcode the biodiversity of the islands. The Gills Club is an outreach program to engage girls in science and conservation through laboratory and field-based activities. Another example is a massive COVID vaccination campaign that successfully vaccinated adults across the Galápagos Islands.

The GSC was co-founded by Steve Walsh, distinguished emeritus professor of geography, and Carlos Mena, a professor of geography at USFQ and an adjunct professor of geography here at Carolina, who have nurtured the center’s research enterprise over the past 10 years. The campus center, the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies, is under new leadership with co-directors Amanda Thompson and Diego Riveros-Iregui who bring expertise in human biology and hydrology, respectively. Amanda is investigating the social and biological pathways linking water and food insecurity to chronic diseases and mental health. Diego is working at the intersection of watershed hydrology, ecohydrology, critical zone science, and land-atmosphere interactions. Diego and Amanda will take the GSC to even greater heights.

Work in the Galápagos Islands is approached through a rich and varied interdisciplinary and integrative perspective aimed at identifying the proper balance between the natural environment and the people who live in and visit these special places. The problems the Galapagos Science Center seeks to solve are complex, and they cannot be solved by a single scientist working in a narrow field. They require scientists from different disciplines, working together in teams — to fuse studies of the environment with studies of human and animal populations, their health and well-being, and their direct and indirect consequences — so that we may understand island ecosystems and the threats to their sustainability.

There are broader global implications of the research, as the lessons learned in the Galápagos will contribute to research efforts that can be applied to other ecosystems facing environmental challenges, such as North Carolina’s barrier islands. It was a truly impressive visit and an incredible example of research for local and global impact — the Carolina way.

With the iconic Kicker Rock in the background, a sea lion poses on the shore of Cerro Brujo. Photo by Andy Russell, UNC Research
Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Penny Gordon-Larsen, documentarian and UNC alumnae Ashlan Cousteau, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and Interim GSC Co-Director Diego Riveros-Iregui board a ship to visit field sites on San Cristóbal Island. Photo by Johnny Andrews, UNC Communications
UNC doctoral student Katelyn Gould operates the CISME device at the bottom of Tijereta Cove. The device is used to track the metabolism of algae. Photo by John Bruno
Permalink: Global Collaboration and Community Partnerships Fuel 10 Years of Science in the Galápagos Islands

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, June 8, 2022

Carolina is famous for its low stone walls – our culture of collaboration – that leads to exceptional research and exciting discoveries. Our unique, collaborative campus, in combination with our breadth of science, allows translational thinking and approaches that ultimately yield innovations and action.

Recently, we celebrated a $65 million award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to create an Antiviral Drug Discovery (AViDD) Center led by Ralph Baric, professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, that will address emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential through innovative, multidisciplinary research.

AViDD Center scientists will work towards early identification of new viral targets and will collaborate with industry partners to speed up research and development of antiviral drugs. This project is the result of a remarkable collaboration that started with a conversation between three colleagues from three different departments: Ralph Baric from the Gillings School, along with Mark Heise, professor of genetics, and Nat Moorman, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, from the UNC School of Medicine – who happened to be chatting in the Burnett-Womack building on campus.

The group had been working together as part of a UNC Creativity Hub winning proposal, the ID3@UNC Hub (Infectious Disease Drug Discovery Program at UNC), focused on developing broad-spectrum antivirals for virus families including coronaviruses. The team’s cutting-edge proposal was awarded seed funding through the OVCR’s Creativity Hubs Program and the Eshelman Institute for Innovation in 2019 – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ID3@UNC Creativity Hub brought in Ken Pearce from the Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery and Tim Willson from the Structural Genomics Consortium.

When COVID-19 emerged, Heise, Baric and Moorman realized that there were no existing therapeutics to treat and prevent disease. They decided something had to be done to make sure we would be better prepared when the inevitable next pandemic arrives. Together they co-founded the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative (READDI), a non-profit public-private partnership whose mission is to develop broad spectrum antiviral drugs for pandemic virus families. John Bamforth, director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, joined the group as READDI’s executive director.

Since its inception, READDI has received ongoing support from the Eshelman Innovation Institute, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, and multiple UNC schools and departments. In May of 2020, READDI received support from the NC Collaboratory as part of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) appropriating $29 million for COVID-19 research projects. These funds were critical in catalyzing the project and propelling it to have enormous impact on the world’s efforts to combat SARS-CoV-2 by developing broadly acting, universal coronavirus antiviral drugs.

In early November 2021, the team drew on regional collaborations to expand even more to include Duke University, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and RTI International and successfully competed for $5 million in funding from RTI’s Forethought Research Collaboration Challenge. Their winning proposal tapped local partners to accelerate the production of new antiviral drugs, capitalizing on unique regional strengths and deep partnerships and collaborations.

On November 18, 2021, READDI was the recipient of $18 million in state appropriations for further expansion as a unique global public-private partnership, bringing together leaders from industry, government, philanthropic organizations, and academic research institutions to accelerate the development of new antiviral drugs.

Today, the team is poised to make significant advances in small molecule antivirals through their new AViDD Center, a federal grant that comes from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in 2021 and is administered through a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to support the creation of the nine AViDD Centers for “pathogens of pandemic concern.”

Carolina’s low stone walls allowed our researchers to cross-pollinate disciplines and approaches across departments, regional, and global institutions to address one of the greatest global challenges of our time. There are few such places in the world where scientists work side-by-side across the full spectrum of translational science: viral genetics, clinical and population studies, and drug development.

The magic of having this type of crosstalk is rare. As you can see from READDI, itʼs also incredibly productive and impactful, allowing necessary progress from preclinical, basic science to clinical trials, and even further to develop therapies at an accelerated pace. There are infinite possibilities that can grow from chance conversations on our collaborative campus.

We are so incredibly grateful for generous contributions from the NCGA, the fast-paced work of the NC Collaboratory, and the innovative support provided by RTI, which fostered multiple discoveries that formed the foundation of READDI. This critical initial funding was instrumental in securing the new multimillion-dollar grant from NIAID which will empower READDI to reduce gaps in the availability of antiviral drugs and speed the delivery of lifesaving tools when needed most. The READDI public-private partnership is a perfect example of how our state and our region have been able to succeed in collaboration to have true and deep impact on the world.

Permalink: A Triumph of Many

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, May 5, 2022

As I enter my third month of serving as interim vice chancellor for research, I am increasingly aware of important topics that I know would be beneficial to share with the wider research community at Carolina. My intention for this monthly blog will be to share that information with you.

One of the best parts of this role is getting to work alongside people who not only do incredible things, but also support others in their pursuit of new discoveries and knowledge. One such person is Kelly Dockham, who oversees federal relations for the university. As many of you may already know, in March President Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 (“Omnibus Bill”) into law, which will fund federal agencies and programs through September 30. Kelly and her team quickly pulled together a list of the exciting opportunities for the university included in the plan, and I’d like to share some of those with you. You can find a more comprehensive list in the Office of Federal Affairs’ March DC Download newsletter.

Some elements of the bill that particularly relate to our research strengths include:

  • $8.84 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), a 4% increase over FY21. This is the largest increase to NSF in 12 years, including a new directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships focused on key areas, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and climate science.
  • $599.48 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a 5.1% increase over FY21.
  • $24 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an increase of $770 million over FY21.
  • $49 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including $45.129 billion for NIH’s base funding, an increase of $275 million above FY22 level, with an increase in no less than 3.4% for each institute and center to support a wide range of biomedical and behavioral research.
  • $1 billion to establish ARPA-H within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Secretary to accelerate the pace of scientific breakthroughs for diseases such as ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer; this still requires congressional authorization.
  • $8.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an increase of $582 million over FY21.
  • $8.9 billion for the Health Resources and Services Administration, an increase of $1.4 billion over FY21.
  • $350 million for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, an increase of $12 million over FY21.
  • $7.457 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, a 6% increase over FY21.
  • $450 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, a 5% increase over FY21.
  • $180 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a 7.5% increase over FY21.
  • $180 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, a 7.5% increase over FY21.
  • And finally, $4 million for expanding research out of UNC’s Matthew Gfeller Center to assess brain health among military service members, which our own Office of Federal Affairs helped successfully advocate for.

In a separate action, on March 28, President Biden put forward his FY23 budget request to Congress that highlights his administration’s top policy and funding priorities for each federal agency. Time will tell as to the outcome of the Presidential Budget Request as Congress will ultimately decide the funding levels for the year. For additional details regarding Biden’s FY23 request, you can review the Office of Federal Affairs April 1 DC Download newsletter.

I am grateful for the increased financial backing provided by Congress in the recently passed omnibus legislation. This bipartisan funding bill provides significant investment in research that touches all parts of our campus. These federal investments in scientific research will provide us significant opportunities to capitalize on our strengths and bolster the strategic research priorities within Carolina Next’s Discover initiative. It will be wonderful to build upon our collaborative research environment and identify new partnerships as we respond to these new research opportunities. And, as always, it will be exciting to see what our researchers compete, and receive awards, for in response. Even more exciting will be watching these opportunities be conveyed into experiences for our students, continued support for all research on campus, and direct impact for our state and global “heel”print!

For more information on federal funding opportunities, please visit UNC Research’s funding resources page. You can also visit our website for internal funding opportunities and even more resources for researchers.

Permalink: Federal Funding Opportunities Look Promising