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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.

Launching Carolinaʼs Strategic Research Roadmap

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 Lee: 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

Earlier:

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

By , February 8, 2024

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are bringing incredible opportunities to almost every aspect of life. Carolina is already doing outstanding work with this burgeoning technology, including our deep well of expertise within the Department of Computer Science and at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Along with the growth of the UNC School of Data Science and Society (SDSS), our expertise and capabilities continue to foster more collaboration than ever before. As AI begins to transform society, we are working to ensure Carolina researchers lead in the use of AI and digital technologies.

Indeed, we have a wealth of research on our campus that leverages AI – too much to fit into a single blog! Thus, I will focus on our work in the health and clinical domains where collaborations and technological prowess in AI combine with expertise in health to make significant advancements in health science research and applied clinical care.

With recent funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of Carolina researchers is working to expand prenatal care access in low-resource settings like Zambia and rural North Carolina through low-cost, AI-assisted ultrasound devices. Jeffery Stringer, professor and division director of global women’s health in the UNC School of Medicine (SOM), and his team have created an AI model that accurately estimates fetal age from scans taken by untrained users on simple devices. This research will be foundational for developing comprehensive AI tools that will improve access and pregnancy care worldwide.

W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Biostatistics at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Michael Kosorok works at the forefront of sophisticated methods in precision health and AI with applications designed to improve health care. His Precision Health and AI Research Lab develops new algorithms and statistical methodology for data-driven decision making and application across a wide variety of human health domains, assessing patient characteristics and treatment regimens rapidly. Kosorok has used his advanced precision health methods in collaboration with others across campus to address critical health issues like type I diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, and more.

K.H. Lee Distinguished Professor Alex Tropsha leads the Molecular Modeling Lab at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. His lab works at the intersection of pharmaceutical development and data science to accelerate the discovery of novel drugs. Leveraging the power of AI, the team tests solutions for therapeutics for illnesses like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and viral diseases. He and his team also collaborate with the chemistry and applied physical sciences departments to support AI-accelerated discovery of solar energy materials

UNC School of Nursing Associate Professor Jessica Zegre-Hemsey uses data science methods to improve diagnostic accuracy in emergency cardiac diagnoses. Her work has shown that AI can determine the likelihood of time-sensitive conditions like acute coronary syndrome, resulting in quicker response and care in life-threatening situations.

The Biomedical Image Analysis Group in the Department of Computer Science within the College of Arts and Sciences focuses on the design of computational algorithms to extract quantitative measures from biomedical data, creating easier to understand diagnostics. Led by Professor Marc Niethammer, the group focuses on methods for statistical shape analysis, image segmentation, deformable image registration, and machine learning. Niethammer also provides faculty support to Carolina’s AI Project which addresses the utilization of AI and augmented/virtual reality through a philosophic lens.

Led by Corbin Jones, professor of biology within the College and genetics in SOM, the Creativity Hubs funded AIxB team is combining an AI approach with biological sciences to examine how genetic information becomes transcribed and is regulated at a chemical level – cracking codes of how DNA controls gene expression and ultimately cell functions without changing DNA sequence. This research can interpret the complexity of genetic codes and offer insight into regulatory mechanisms that lead to health and disease. This work has potential to reduce experimental time and eventually inform therapies for treatable DNA-based diseases.

There is also much expertise in SOM’s computational medicine department. For example, Oliver Smithies Investigator and Chair of Genetics Fernando Pardo-Manuel de Villena, leverages these tools to explore genetic diversity across several models to answer fundamental questions about genomics, systems genetics, and evolution to understand critical biological processes to improve health.

Last year, SDSS gained its first cohort of faculty members. Many of these new faces have joint appointments in departments outside of the school. Associate Professor Hsun-Ta Hsu, who you will hear more about soon in this month’s issue of Endeavors, is jointly appointed in the School of Social Work and analyzes the implication of using AI to address societal health issues, like homelessness.

RENCI Director Ashok Krishnamurthy, along with Karamarie Fecho and Sarah Tyndell, organized the inaugural Clinical and Environmental Health Data Workshop last May, which covered issues related to clinical informatics, biomedical data ecosystems, and cyberinfrastructure. The conference addressed silos that prevent organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences from integrating data that is crucial to improving health outcomes. This integrated data empowers researchers and officials to pinpoint environmental inequalities, delve into social health drivers, and tailor interventions for specific communities. This research equips policymakers to target aid, optimize resources, and ensure fairness in health care access.

Yet with all the promise of AI, there remain questions about its use (and potential misuse). It is critical that we use AI responsibly to assist discoveries and leverage it appropriately. Thankfully, Stan Ahalt, dean of SDSS, is leading the UNC Generative AI Committee and providing guidelines that help researchers navigate the challenges and opportunities of AI resources.

This blog only begins to scratch the surface. With literally dozens of experts in departments ranging from obstetrics to linguistics, the potential for AI to supercharge our research enterprise permeates throughout our campus. Even more opportunities are possible as we think about incorporating AI into research and education. I am excited for the collaborations and groundbreaking solutions that will yield as we consciously and efficiently integrate this tool into our efforts to improve lives and well-being.

Permalink: Leveraging AI to Power Health Sciences and Care at Carolina

By , January 11, 2024

Carolina is a research powerhouse. We make discoveries every day that transform and save lives. The University’s mission to educate comes alive through research experiences for our undergraduate students.

Undergraduate research experiences are a pivotal element of Carolina’s research mission and enterprise, affording our students valuable opportunities to address intricate questions and navigate unforeseen challenges. Students learn to analyze data, formulate solutions, and adapt to changing circumstances, honing valuable skills applicable to any future career. From writing research papers to presenting findings, students learn to communicate effectively in various formats and to diverse audiences. This enhances communication skills, crucial for success in all fields. Students also gain proficiency in specific software, data analysis tools, or laboratory techniques. These technical skills can significantly enhance their employability and open doors to specialized career paths.

As a parent of a college senior and a recent college graduate, I know how important participating in research has been for both of my children. Like many of our students, those opportunities (one focused in STEM and the other in humanities) have been among the highlights of their college careers and were certainly their most important academic experiences.

Engaging in research alongside the world’s top faculty researchers is an opportunity unlike any other — and on Carolina’s collaborative campus, these experiences are truly transforming students’ lives. With the IDEAs in Action general education curriculum, all undergraduate students are required to engage in research. This curriculum affords the opportunity to engage in hands-on, experiential learning and insight into the wonderful world of research through Research & Discovery courses. These courses are designed to bring our students into focused research alongside faculty for an immersive experience that allows students to produce original scholarship or creative work. In doing so students “reflect upon, deepen, and connect knowledge and capacities,” as described on the IDEAS in Action website.

In the academic year 2022-23, 6,890 students were enrolled in Research & Discovery courses for research credits — a 9.5% growth in those courses from Fall 2022 to Fall 2023. The Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) breaks down this impressive number as such:

  • Enrollment in faculty mentored independent research: 1,014
  • Enrollment in lab courses that met R&D requirements: 838
  • Enrollment in other lecture courses that had a significant research component/met R&D requirements: 4,341
  • Enrollment of Senior Honors Thesis courses: 697

In addition, OUR reports that 399 students (8.2% of graduates) engaged in research as part of their honor’s thesis. Since these numbers only represent coursework, students who conduct research for pay, work-study, or as volunteers are not captured. But we quantify and track students engaged in sponsored research projects (i.e., research funded by an external organization, such as federal, state, private organization, or entity) through research databases managed by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. According to our metrics, 754 students have been engaged in sponsored research over the last six months.

When faculty members are awarded competitive research grants from federal, private, or other sources, they bring funding to Carolina that provides data, support, and access that benefits our undergraduate students. Most importantly, engaging in hands-on research keeps students engaged and excited to explore, discover, and push boundaries. Student researchers are passionate about making advancements in their fields, and these experiential opportunities create highly trained professionals who give back to the state and beyond by making the world a better place.

Below are a few illustrative examples of the amazing work that our undergraduate students take part in with their faculty mentors:

Portrait of Sara Ahmed

“I enjoyed being able to work in different areas and to get a better understanding and appreciation of all the things that go into a big study like this.”

Junior Sara Ahmed worked with the Carolina Population Center’s Dynamics of Extreme Events, People, and Places (DEEPP) project during her summer internship in 2023. With a major in biostatistics, she helped the DEEPP team assess the short- and long-term impacts of storms in North Carolina by improving the study’s youth questionnaire, writing new questions that were more relevant for teenage study participants.

“The way I was able to volunteer at events and network with those already in the field helped me realize that this is where I’m meant to be.”

Senior Alex Acosta is an environmental health sciences major and a student ambassador for the Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BSPH) program at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. In the summer of 2022, he received funding through the Carolina Covenant Career Accelerator Program to investigate ways to improve psychiatric patient transport and EMS responses to pediatric calls. He now feels called to work in the medical field, applying his training in public health to improve the lives of underserved North Carolinians.

“From my research, I have developed passions for understanding microplastics exposures and overall maternal and child health. These research experiences also helped me apply my interests in several classes and find amazing internships!

Senior Sarah Kirsh is majoring in environmental health sciences and biology. Her research focuses on the potential harm that microplastics in the environment may have on pregnant women and their babies in North Carolina. Working with Department Chair Rebecca Fry, she is also performing basic science research to understand the potential toxic impacts of microplastics on moms and babies and will publish this work to increase scientific knowledge on the topic. She hopes to pursue a PhD in environmental sciences.

Portrait of Lilly Papell

“I can’t count the number of times I’ve been overwhelmed by the flood of advice and proposed future experiments that were given purely out of the love for science.”

Senior Lilly Papell is a senior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and creative writing within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. She studies how genome organization within microscopic animals called tardigrades plays a role in how they survive DNA-damaging environments that would kill most lifeforms. She conducts research with the Goldstein Lab and recently began a research forensic science internship at RTI International.

“This project gave me the courage I needed to realize that research is exactly where my heart lies, and gave me the confidence to know that I could do it.”

The Department of Applied Physical Sciences within the College offers a minor that trains students to utilize an engineering mindset to address societal problems. In one of Professor Ronit Freeman’s classes, students form convergent teams representing different majors and work together to advance a new technology to a proof-of-concept phase, including pitching it “Shark Tank”-style. In the Freeman Lab, first-year student Emma Hansen created a functional, pollution-free light bulb using luciferase, the bioluminescent enzyme that allows fireflies to glow.

“In the future, I aim to focus my efforts at the intersection of the laboratory and the clinic to further understand and better treat the devastating conditions I see in patients.”

Junior Abby Lehr is an undergraduate researcher in the Weeks and Laederach labs, studying the underlying biochemistry and molecular biology of human diseases. She is majoring in chemistry and biology within the College and was the Institute for Convergent Science’s (ICS) inaugural AGIEL (Advance Great Inventions or Leave Early) Summer Undergraduate Student in 2023. During her summer research with ICS, she worked on exploring small molecule binding and functioning, with the greater goal of creating new and improved therapeutics.

Portrait of Aditya Shetye

“I have enjoyed the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration with a variety of researchers in fields ranging from nutrition to bioinformatics to epidemiology.”

One of my own undergraduate students, Aditya Shetye, received his BSPH in nutrition in May 2023. He stayed at Carolina for the Department of Nutrition’s dual degree program and will receive his Master of Science degree in May of 2024. Aditya leveraged his undergraduate research into a formal master’s thesis and will publish his results in a peer reviewed journal. This has been a wonderful and efficient opportunity for Aditya to further his career. Aditya’s research applies precision nutrition techniques to uncover associations between diet and cardiometabolic disease. Along the way, he has developed highly marketable, high-level technical skills in statistical programming and analysis.

The substantial investment in undergraduate education, our students, and the lasting impact they’ll have on Carolina’s legacy comes from research funding procured by our distinguished faculty. This funding includes contributions from federal, private, and various other sources. Research experience provides undergraduate students with invaluable skills, hands-on training, and a competitive edge for their academic and future professional pursuits. There is no better preparation for the post-grad years and entry into the workforce than working hands-on with a team to achieve a significant goal. That these teams are led by world experts in cancer, infectious disease, engineering, humanities, and more offers an experience that is uniquely Carolina.

Permalink: Carolina: Empowering Undergraduates Through Research

By , December 13, 2023

2023 was a banner year for research at Carolina and for the administrative offices within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) that support it. I am proud of the ways we worked together to improve and enhance the quality and efficiency of our research enterprise in support of outstanding talent across our campus. The results of those efforts have shown tangible impact for the University, our state, and beyond. None of these impacts would be possible without the support of staff across our research administrative offices and our talented workforce.

This year our offices supported research, critical equipment and infrastructure, drug discoveries for translational research with life-saving potential, and new, large awards. A few examples of those new awards include up to $50 million in FDA funding to establish the Research Triangle Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation (or Triangle CERSI), $21 million in funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to make pregnancy and birth safer for North Carolinians, and continued funding for the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute. We also revitalized the Creativity Hubs program to intentionally cultivate a culture that spurs innovation with a call for impact-oriented science.

The first phase of planning for our Strategic Research Roadmap, with cross-campus engagement and investment, was completed this year. We will begin implementing the results of our efforts in the new year which will help us grow our research enterprise and its supporting infrastructure, solidify and grow strategic research partnerships, and improve research administrative support.

The development of the new Translational Research Building also moved towards realization with designer approval. Once open, it will house the technology and translational programming needed to increase Carolina’s discovery and translational science market share and compete with top biomedical and research institutions across the country.

And we just surpassed $1.36B in research expenditures, ranking us the 12th largest research university in the nation.

This growth requires significant effort from the OVCR administration offices. Their contributions are essential to our continued success as a research enterprise. Although not an exhaustive list, the examples below capture a snapshot of the amazing work our OVCR offices conducted this year. Thank you to all those who supported these accomplishments and more.

Research Development in 2023 supported 5 ARPA-H Applications that feature high-risk technology proposals at the leading edge of innovation, assisted more faculty in pursuing federal and state contract opportunities than ever before, and received $190 million in extramural funding including large awards from the FDA and PCORI.
Research Translation in 2023 secured funding from NC Collaboratory to advance a leukemia relapse prevention cancer vaccine, funded a Creativity Hub proposal to study small molecules that break down proteins to create new cancer treatments, and completed therapeutic project assessments for 50+ research and innovation teams across campus.
Research Partnerships in 2023 solidified a talent pipeline for Durham Tech students to work as interns in Carolina clinical research labs under a new Memorandum of Understanding and supported Institute for Convergence Science’s NC VVIRAL gene therapy manufacturing team in securing a $500,000 award from TUCASI.
Clinical Research in 2023 launched the Research Navigation Hub to support research administration and partnered with UNC Health to support design and implementation of the ONE UNC Clinical Research Initiative to transform clinical research administrative processes.
Research Communications in 2023 created new interactive state map to demonstrate the impact of Carolina research across North Carolina, had the largest University Research Week to date with 67 events and more than 1,000 participants, and grew to over 14,000 social media followers.
Sponsored Programs in 2023 launched SPARC, an automated system that streamlines the subaward execution process, enhanced administrative tools to create nimbler contract execution, submitted 5243 proposals, issued 6262 awards, including non-competes, negotiated 5397 contracts, reviewed 25,655 IRB submissions.
Research Service Center in 2023 supported launch of the Research Date Management Core, supported 8 UNC Research centers and institutes, and helped the NC Collaboratory manage $50 million of ARPA funding.
Human Resources in 2023 successfully hired 322 new employees including staff, students, and postdocs, submitted over 10,000 personnel actions, and created 464 new positions of all employee types.
Postdoctoral Affairs in 2023 celebrated National Postdoc Appreciation Week, which included the largest gathering of postdocs in North Carolina and sponsored more than 70 professional development programs and events.
Human Research Ethics in 2023 received full AAHRPP reaccreditation and with Research Information System, they enhanced efficiency of the IRB approval application process (IRBIS).
Animal Care and Use in 2023 coordinated and led the AAALAC International Accreditation site visit with promising initial results and streamlines efficiency of ACAP and other animal care systems.
Export and Research Compliance in 2023 expanded training and support for telework, travel, and shipping processes and developed and implemented new policy/standards on Managing Clinical Research Administrative Data.
Science and Security in 2023 launched Dimensions, allowing for better reviews and an extra layer of protection for faculty and employees, streamlined the visa review process, and incorporated reviews of International IRB protocols.

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