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Carolina Discoveries

Portrait of Penny Gordon-Larsen

Welcome to Carolina Discoveries, a blog from 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.

Carolina’s Global Research Heelprint

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, July 11, 2024

Our researchers tackle critical challenges with global implications. They actively engage in research projects that lead to life-saving therapies, improve public health, address environmental challenges, and improve quality of life for people in N.C. and across the globe.

Addressing Infectious Diseases Around the World and at Home

Carolina is a global leader in infectious disease research that spans the basic, clinical, and population sciences. Our researchers have contributed to many of the discoveries that have transformed the prevention, management, and treatment of a variety of infectious diseases and a range of chronic diseases with infectious origins. Our collaborative campus catalyzes interdisciplinary partnerships across virology, epidemiology, pharmacology, and medicine in ways that lead to truly novel and path-breaking science that has transformed how the world mitigates infectious diseases.

The Gillings School of Global Public Health contributes significantly to Carolina’s global research heelprint, particularly within the epidemiology department, which is known for its sophisticated statistical methodological expertise. The school’s focus on international collaboration, student engagement, and projects in developing countries makes it a vital part of the University’s efforts to improve health outcomes worldwide. Gillings faculty partner with researchers and communities across 35 countries.

The UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases (IGHID) is a powerhouse for global health initiatives, with a robust research program contributing to over $75 million in research funding. Their work spans across four continents, including a constant presence in Africa for more than two decades. The institute partners with local universities and ministries of health in Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, and South Africa, and works in China, Vietnam, and Nicaragua.

Faculty at IGHID, many of whom hold joint appointments with Gillings, are some of the most internationally recognized infectious disease experts: from Mike Cohen who leads the global HIV Prevention Trials Network ,to Joe Eron who directs the Clinical Core for the UNC Center for AIDS Research, to Billy Fisher who has been on the frontlines of critical viral outbreaks across the globe, to Jeff Stringer who has transformed global women’s health.

And there are even more talented researchers working in this space, a few of whom are highlighted below:

  • Ross Boyce studies malaria and vector-borne diseases in East Africa, particularly in rural, under-served communities. His work includes employing geographic information system-powered mapping of malaria’s spatial epidemiology to pinpoint hotspots for targeted community interventions, potentially reducing local transmission.

    Locally, Boyce recently published a study that examined the rapid emergence of Lyme disease in N.C., between 2010 and 2020, helping health care workers provide faster treatment by identifying the spread. Partial funding for this impactful work was provided by a Creativity Hubs award Boyce received in 2020.

  • Matthew Painschab was just awarded an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award – an incredible accomplishment that very few scientists have received. Painschab’s work sits at the intersection of cancer and infectious disease, investigating diffuse large B-cell lymphoma in HIV-infected patients in Malawi.
  • Vivian Go has led UNC Project Vietnam for over 20 years, with three clinical research sites in Hanoi and satellite sites in nine other provinces, all aimed to improve the lives of populations vulnerable to HIV and its co-morbidities, including tuberculosis. She is a world-class leader in social and behavioral sciences, with a specialty in the integration of intervention research, implementation science, qualitative methods, and mixed methods.

An Impactful Partnership Below the Equator

This month, the Galapagos Science Center (GSC) will host visitors from around the world and community members from its island home of San Cristóbal during the sixth annual Galápagos Research and Conservation Symposium. At the consortium, Carolina researchers, along with many international peers and collaborators, will highlight the work they are doing to protect the archipelago and improve life for the citizens of the islands.

The GSC was founded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and partner institution the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Today, the center facilitates research on ecology, oceanography, and genetics, with findings applicable to similar island ecosystems globally. The research ranges from iguanas and hammerhead sharks to the evolution of plankton to community and human health.

One of the most impactful efforts is the Galapagos Barcode Project, which employs local citizens to catalog the genetic biodiversity of the Galápagos. This work provides marketable skills to local community members after pandemic-era tourism restrictions severely impacted their economy.

The center recently received a $1.5 million award from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable to create the Kenan Galapagos Fellows Program, which will support three graduate students per year for three years and one post-doctoral fellow per year for two years, expanding opportunities for students to form the basis of their graduate and early research careers at this one-of-a-kind facility. The first graduate fellowships will begin in fall 2024. These fellowships will bring the dream of a lifetime to reality for these Carolina students, allowing them to walk in Darwin’s footsteps and to continue a legacy of transformative research in this amazing natural laboratory. There is so much to learn from work in the Galápagos that can be translated to other fragile ecosystems, like North Carolina’s own barrier islands.

Student Experiences and Scholarly Engagement

Global opportunities abound for our students. From Fall 2022 through Summer 2023, more than 2,700 students benefitted from a study abroad experience, more than any other year in Carolina history. UNC-Chapel Hill ranks 13th among all U.S. higher institutions for the number of students earning credit for study abroad. Our study abroad students benefit from Carolina’s impressive research networks and sites across the globe.

We also benefit from the diversity of thought and perspective of our international students and scholars who contribute to research efforts back here on campus. This exchange of knowledge and perspectives fosters innovative solutions with worldwide applicability. More than 2,500 international students from more than 100 countries enroll at Carolina each year.

Our Global Reach

There are far many more projects, countries, and investigators than could fit into this one piece. Carolina’s deep and broad bench of leading international research has transformed the prevention, management, and treatment of diseases and has impacted the lives and well-being of people across the globe. Our faculty members participate in joint research projects and exchange knowledge with partners worldwide to solve the most pressing issues of our time. And we promote the exchange of ideas and perspectives through opportunities for students and trainees, equipping global citizens to make bigger impacts.

Permalink: Carolina’s Global Research Heelprint

Earlier:

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, June 13, 2024

Summer brings sunshine, longer days, and for many investigators on campus a time for focused research. But summer also stresses some of our planet’s most vital resources – water, coastal ecosystems, plants, and animals. Carolina researchers are committed year-round to understanding these seasonal challenges and developing solutions for a more sustainable future.

Water Scarcity and Conservation

As many of you head for the water this summer, Carolina’s expertise in water research is on full display. The College of Arts and Sciences’ earth, marine, and environmental sciences (EMES) department and the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s environmental sciences & engineering department are hubs of innovation.

EMES researcher Tamlin Pavelsky is part of an international team mapping the amount of water on Earth. He serves as lead hydrologist on a cutting-edge NASA research mission that deployed a satellite last year to examine the world’s river flow, lake storage, and ocean circulation. This crucial data helps us understand water availability and predict potential hazards.

Geochemist Xiao-Ming Liu investigates how chemical weathering (rock decomposition) influences Earth’s evolution and future climate. Her lab studies the relationship between precipitation, water use, storage, and availability. This research helps us understand the impact of weather patterns on ecosystems and water resources.

W. R. Kenan Jr., Distinguished Professor Greg Characklis directs the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems which conducts research to identify solutions to environmental challenges. In recent work, he proposed an innovative solution for drought-stressed systems and infrastructure through cost-effective, informal water leases that provide cheap and fast alternative access by diverting water based on short-term supply and demand.

Researchers at the Gillings’ Water Institute tackle numerous water-related issues, including access to clean water, sanitation systems, and the impact of contaminants on human health. Affiliated faculty are delving deeper into many specific aspects. For instance, environmental engineer Michael Fisher explores sanitation processes and develops, evaluates, and applies technologies and methods for addressing under-recognized health concerns in water and sanitation, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Resilient Coastlines

The Carolina-led Coastal Resilience Center (CRC) is a national consortium and Department of Homeland Security center of excellence. This powerhouse of knowledge unites researchers from our institution, other universities, private companies, and government agencies.

The CRC develops tools and resources for emergency services to predict coastal flooding location and intensity. This allows for better evacuation planning, resource allocation, and damage assessment.

The center’s director, Rick Luettich, has been a professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences since 1987, where he has also served as director for the past 20 years. He is internationally recognized and celebrated for co-creating ADCIRC, a computer model that can predict storm surge and flooding during extreme weather events.

Today, ADCIRC is used by a wide range of organizations:

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for coastal infrastructure design like New Orleans’ levee system
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for water-level forecasts
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency for flood hazard levels
  • Climate scientists for predicting future flood risks
  • The N.C. Department of Transportation for a flood-warning system for roads and bridges

Also at IMS, quantitative ecologist Janet Nye studies how the warming Atlantic Ocean affects fish and fisheries. She uses mathematical and statistical methods to study fish populations and coastal ecosystems. Her research focuses on how environmental variability and human-caused climate change influence ocean acidification, fish populations, and marine ecosystems.

In the city and regional planning department, Miyuki Hino studies climate hazards by conducting cutting-edge research that identifies innovative solutions to environmental stressors, like sea level rise, flood risks, and other climate challenges. She examines how urban development can retain water leading to flooding in areas that have never experienced it before. She also studies the effects of flood risk on property markets and whether governmental buy-out of homes to limit future flood damage is effective.

Higher Temperatures and Human Health

A recent study by Gillings environmental engineering researcher Noah Kittner and PhD student Ying Yu explored the link between outdoor temperature and vulnerability to energy poverty. They found that extremely low-income groups are disproportionately affected by both hot and cold temperatures, facing a greater burden of energy costs.

W. R. Kenan Jr., Distinguished Professor Hans Paerl investigates the connections between climate change, harmful algal blooms, and human health. He and collaborators at the University of Michigan recently received a $6.5 million NSF-NIH co-funded grant to establish a center studying these connections.

The center will conduct field experiments and laboratory analyses to determine which nutrients entering Lake Erie are responsible for toxic algal blooms and determine watershed input reductions needed to mitigate the blooms. This information is critical for determining water quality and for the environmental health managers tasked with ensuring safe, drinkable, and fishable waters. Additional projects will assess human health risks from algal blooms under current and future climate scenarios.

Environments beyond our own

The reach of our researchers is beginning to extend past the fragile systems of our own home planet. Earlier this week, Nature published the Space Omics and Medical Atlas, the largest and most significant collection of data on aerospace medicine and space biology. The atlas examines the molecular, cellular, and physiological impacts of the space environment on humans.

Astronauts from NASA, JAXA, and private space missions donated their own biomedical samples to generate the omics for the report. The atlas project is a collaboration of 100 institutions from more than 25 countries, and Carolina’s Jonathan Schisler of the pharmacology department and the McAllister Heart Center was one of the lead investigators. His project examines the metabolic changes that occur during spaceflight and exposure to moon dust and whether mitochondrial stress can be mitigated through miRNA-based countermeasures.

Commitment to a resilient future

Carolina’ focus on building resilience is not limited to research. The University’s Chief Sustainability Officer and UNC Institute for the Environment Director Mike Piehler leads campus sustainability efforts, including Sustainable Carolina’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. The Institute for the Environment also hosts the annual Clean Tech Summit. In March, the summit brought together over 1,000 industry leaders, government officials, and students from across the state and country to generate new clean technology ideas for a resilient and energy-efficient world.

From assessing the impacts of environments in space to mapping water resources across the globe to developing life-saving coastal protection tools, Carolina’s researchers are providing crucial insights for a more sustainable future. They’re not just studying the problems; they’re developing solutions. This work goes beyond summer – it’s about building resilience for generations to come.

Permalink: Building Resilience for Our Planet and Beyond

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, May 9, 2024

The end of an academic year brings inherent reflection and celebration, and this year’s achievements of our faculty and students are truly impressive feats that warrant recognition.

While graduation season is mostly about our students, I want to mention the incredible achievement of two Carolina faculty members who were recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, bringing our total number of inductees to 19. Congratulations to Distinguished Professor of Sociology Arne Kalleberg and Dr. Stanley Lemon, a medical professor in infectious diseases and microbiology and immunology in the UNC School of Medicine, on this impressive honor and distinguishment. Election is a testament to their distinguished achievements and their high regard within their respective fields.

For the more than 6,000 graduating students, including 4,265 undergraduates, 1,530 master’s candidates, and 884 doctoral candidates, this is a momentous occasion. It is a culmination of years of dedication and perseverance.

For the vast majority, research played a critical role in their educational experiences both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. Of those students, 446 wrote honors theses, 407 submitted dissertations (302 in May and 105 in December), and 127 submitted master’s theses (92 in May and 35 in December). I look forward to seeing what these students accomplish in the years to come.

At this year’s graduation ceremony, we will honor our commencement speaker Zena Cardman, an outstanding example of a Carolina graduate. Zena is a double Tar Heel alum with a bachelor’s in biology and master’s in marine sciences. While at Carolina, she conducted research as part of her studies, which took her to the Antarctic and Arctic to study microbial systems in subsurface environments, like caves and deep-sea sediments.

Now, as a NASA astronaut, she is scheduled to serve as commander of NASA’s Crew-9 Mission later this year. During the mission, she will lead a four-person crew to the International Space Station where they will conduct research for months aboard the orbiting laboratory.

So many of our students show this type of transformative potential. I am inspired by the unwavering commitment to research and academic pursuits I see in them daily. The knowledge they’ve acquired and the research contributions they’ve made through countless hours spent in labs, libraries, and classrooms will undoubtedly propel their own success and yield benefits to the citizens of our state and beyond.

I’d like to particularly recognize just a few of our undergraduate students who recently received prestigious and nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships:

  • Senior Lizabeth Bamgboye and alumna Maria Silva were awarded the Schwarzman Scholarship, which provides a fully funded master’s program in global affairs at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
  • Rising senior Nicholas Boyer was selected to receive a 2024 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, to pursue his research career. The scholarship is awarded annually to only 450 students.
  • Courtney Halverson ’21 has been selected as a 2024 fellow for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship Program. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the Rangel Fellowship identifies and develops outstanding young professionals to enhance the excellence and diversity of the U.S. Foreign Service.
  • Sophomores Clara DiVincenzo, Lucy Henthorn, and Isabel Leonard were recently awarded the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship, a highly competitive scholarship that provides an academic stipend and a paid summer internship at a NOAA facility.

This academic year, 12 graduate students won Impact Awards honoring their contributions to improving the future for the people of North Carolina. That is in addition to the 279 graduate students, representing 42 academic programs, who received prestigious external fellowships.

More than 300 graduate students received external funding awards to fuel their research and creative scholarship. Of those awards, 81 students received National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships, 59 received National Institutes of Health (NIH) F30 or F31 grants, and 2 received NIH supplements. These students will make incredible contributions and impacts as they complete their degrees at Carolina.

These significant accomplishments of our students speak to the quality of our research enterprise and our academic programs. The federal funding they’ve attracted provides critical support for their training and increases their competitive advantage when they compete for jobs after graduation.

And the breadth of student research at Carolina continues to grow. I am thrilled that the Office of Undergraduate Research will be supporting a record-breaking 85 students with Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships this summer, and they will welcome their first cohort of Amgen Scholars, providing even more hands-on research opportunities enabling us to continue training and launching critical thinkers and world-changers.

We also recently announced a $1.5 million gift to the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies from the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust to create the Kenan Galapagos Fellows Program, which will support three graduate students per year and one post-doctoral fellow per year as they conduct science in the Galápagos Islands. The work that they do will further our understanding of this fragile ecosystem in ways that will translate back to North Carolina and our own coastal barrier islands.

Now is a time to celebrate the hard work, innovation, and unwavering pursuit of discovery and knowledge that defines our research community. By the start of the next academic year, work will be well under way towards achieving the goals we set forth in our new Strategic Research Roadmap. This work will transform the support, infrastructure, and impact of the research enterprise, and I will be thrilled to share our progress with you in the fall.

As we look ahead, I am filled with immense excitement about the groundbreaking discoveries yet to come. Together, through our collective passion and intellectual curiosity, we will continue to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

Once again, congratulations to all our wonderful graduates, students, and faculty! Wishing you a restful and rejuvenating break.

Permalink: A Celebration of Graduates, Students, and Faculty

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, April 11, 2024

Today, I am thrilled to announce the official launch of Carolina’s Strategic Research Roadmap — a bold, actionable plan to solidify Carolina’s position as a global research leader and drive even greater impact and achievement. Developed over a year-long collaborative effort with key stakeholders from across campus, Carolina’s Strategic Research Roadmap serves as a blueprint to propel our research enterprise to even greater heights.

Why a Roadmap?

Our research enterprise has expanded tremendously over the last few decades, and we have had a steady rate of growth in awards. Yet there is more we can do to fully leverage our incredible potential for achievements and impacts. Since its inception, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) has been without a strategic plan to guide Carolina’s research enterprise. As a result, we have often operated opportunistically, which can have its benefits. Yet at the same time, without a campus-level strategy, we run the risk of not fully leveraging our incredible research potential and leaving opportunities on the table.

Strategic plans bring focus to complex organizations by setting clear goals and objectives. By creating alignment across departments and teams, we will capitalize upon shared goals and vision, allowing mutually-agreed-upon strategic priorities to take shape. The Strategic Research Roadmap we have developed is responsive to gaps and opportunities identified by key stakeholders. Together, we will work to ensure Carolina’s continued research leadership and impact.

UNC Research

Strategic Research Roadmap:

The WHO (OVCR) and HOW of Implementation

Mission:

To cultivate the optimal research ecosystem that fuels breakthroughs in the expansion of human knowledge and discovery and improves the health and well-being of people, communities, and environments in North Carolina, the nation, and the world.

Vision:

The state, the country, and the world will turn to Carolina to solve the most critical challenges of today and tomorrow.​​

Impact:

We harness the true power of the University to deliver results that transform the state, the nation, and the world.

Excellence:

As a top public global research university, we pursue the highest standards of excellence and rigor in our research and scholarship.

Collaboration:

We bring researchers and partners together for true synergies that expand the boundaries of science and impact.

Innovation:

We stimulate discovery and foster opportunities so they can be translated to products and outputs for the public good.

Integrity:

We ensure that Carolina’s research and researchers operate at the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior.

Respect:

Our strength lies with our people and our research participants. We value and treat each other with dignity, honesty, and transparency.

Responsibility:

With great accountability, we honor our commitments and the trust placed in us by our stakeholders, partners, and research participants.

How We Got Here

The OVCR engaged a diverse group of stakeholders across campus in a comprehensive process to develop this roadmap. During Phase 1, we gathered insights from key stakeholders including University leaders, deans of schools and research units, directors of pan-campus centers and institutes, and faculty members deeply involved in research activities. We conducted a campus-wide survey and held many stakeholder group discussions to determine how to move forward. Within the OVCR, we analyzed data from the survey and stakeholder meetings to draft the Strategic Research Roadmap, which we then vetted with our key stakeholders and University leadership to finalize.

Together, we worked to identify areas of strength, opportunities for improvement, and strategies to amplify Carolina’s research impact. In addition, we ensured that the roadmap is synergistic with current strategic efforts being led by the Chancellor, the Provost, and other vice chancellors. For example, our priorities will intersect with the four areas of focus put forward by Interim Chancellor Roberts: Enrollment, Master Plan, Applied Science, and Generative AI.

The resulting product is responsive to those needs and aspirations for Carolinaʼs research future that our stakeholders identified during the planning phase. Our thorough process has led to a strong and well-conceived plan that will benefit campus and allow us to do more impactful work that changes and saves lives in North Carolina and beyond.

UNC Research

Strategic Research Roadmap:

Strategic Goals

Enhance
Research Assets

🔍 Fundraising for state-of-the-art research facilities, equipment, data & technology
⚙️ Sustainable funding models for technology & equipment
🔬 Re-imagine research cores

Promote
growth & opportunity

⚠️ Campus Alignment & Prioritization (supporting Chancellor priorities)
💲 Support for major funding opportunities
💡 Mechanisms to drive Collaborative/Convergent Science

Maximize
Value & Impact

🤝 Stakeholder engagement & stewardship (ROI/value)
👪 Enhance community-engaged & applied research
🎯 Discovery/Translation ecosystem

Key Operational Imperatives

Support & Grow Talented Research Workforce

• Recruitment/Retention
• Agile Research H.R. Process
• Research Career Development

Facilitate Efficient Research Support & Compliance

• Administrative Structures
• Compliance/Data Assets
• Research Navigators

Our Strategic Goals

The roadmap focuses on three strategic goals necessary to sustain and propel our growth:

  1. Enhance Research Assets: Build, improve, and maintain state-of-the-art research facilities, equipment, data, and technology to enable success.
  2. Promote Growth & Opportunity: Grow Carolina’s research by identifying and investing in strategic opportunities, leveraging existing research strengths, and fostering collaboration that leads to discovery and addresses challenges.
  3. Maximize Value and Impact: Increase the impact of Carolina research and communicate its value.

Operational Imperatives

To support these goals, the roadmap also identifies two key operational imperatives, necessary to support the three strategic goals:

  • Research Workforce: Support and grow a talented research workforce to ensure Carolina’s continued excellence in research to serve N.C. and the world.
  • Research Support and Compliance: Foster an environment that facilitates efficient research processes, promotes integrity, objectivity, and quality of research outputs.

Implementation

Research touches almost all aspects of the University. Any given research project relies on partnership with many operational units across campus. For this reason, we approach implementation in a systems framework that engages key partners in research, notably, Vice Chancellors who are responsible for Finance & Operations, Innovation, and Development, as well as leaders from Carolina’s schools and colleges. Our collaborative engagement with key campus stakeholders throughout the Roadmap’s development means that we have willing campus partners who are invested in its success and who see benefits of campus alignment around strategic research goals.

As we enter Phase 2 – the implementation phase — we will begin to invite campus stakeholders to join implementation workgroups. Three implementation teams will focus on each of the three strategic goals and will include key partners from across campus, fostering a collaborative approach to ensure success. Two additional implementation teams will focus on the two operational imperatives.

UNC Research

Strategic Research Roadmap:

Structure

  • Chancellor
    Provost

    • Steering
      Committee

      • Advisory
        Committee
      • Operational
        Implementation Teams

        • Support & Grow
          Talented Research
          Workforce
        • Facilitate Efficient
          Research Support &
          Compliance
      • Strategy Implementation
        Teams

        • Enhance Research
          Assets
        • Support Growth
          & Opportunity
        • Maximize Value
          & Impact
  •  
     
     
     

Who We Are & How We Will Move Forward

As part of the process, we have updated our mission, vision, and values which are essential to guide our Strategic Research Roadmap. Guided by our values, we will be purposeful and strategic in how we engage our research community as we implement the roadmap.

At the same time, we will continue our broader goal to serve the entire Carolina community. Importantly, the OVCR manages all aspects of the University’s research activity including advocating for and promoting research across all fields of study and research areas. Any improvements we create and implement will be broadly beneficial to campus.

From our comprehensive stakeholder engagement in the strategic planning, it became clear that three guiding principles are essential in how we move forward:

  • Innovate: We will accelerate our efforts to innovate and expand our portfolio of pro-innovation research.
  • Transform: We will create a more agile research ecosystem, fostering greater collaboration and strategic alignment across campus.
  • Renew: We will revitalize key strategic partnerships, both within and beyond North Carolina, to maximize the impact of our research and fulfill the mission of the University.

The Future is Bright

The Strategic Research Roadmap is designed to ensure that Carolina’s research will continue to make a significant impact across our state and the world.

Permalink: Launching Carolinaʼs Strategic Research Roadmap

By , March 14, 2024

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.

Cancer

  • 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.

Permalink: UNC Research Celebrates Women’s History Month