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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.

Remembering a Transformational Scientist and Bright Star

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, September 14, 2023

By the time this blog is posted, it will have been just over two weeks since we tragically lost a bright star among our faculty. I am devastated and saddened by the loss of our valued colleague, a brilliant scientist who was leading novel research in nanoscience.

Zijie Yan applied innovative, applied approaches to solving critical problems in medicine by using nanobots to work within cell structures to deliver precise and targeted therapies without damaging biological systems or cells. These types of nanotherapies are desperately needed in cancer, neurological and other debilitating diseases. His science and his many contributions will make the world a better place.

Yan was an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Applied Physical Sciences (APS). He joined Carolina in 2019 and had recently been awarded tenure. He was making impressive contributions to his field, within the department, and towards the University’s growing portfolio of applied science research.

He was recently published for his development of holographic optical tweezers, a technology that enables precise control and manipulation of nanoparticles using shaped laser beams. The precision afforded by these lasers has immense potential for practical applications in biomedicine, offering a less damaging solution to conventional techniques that can damage cells. As is typical of colleagues in APS, Yan was a true trailblazer conducting transformational science with potential to save lives, preserve health, and improve well-being for people with serious diseases.

Yan was one of only 12 full or joint faculty members within APS. And while that may seem small, these faculty have the talent to make significant impacts on a variety of industries, including health care (like Yan), energy, and materials science. The primary focus of the researchers in APS is on application – in the juncture between engineering and science – to discover innovative solutions to real-world challenges. As such, APS is a highly collaborative group that works on a diverse portfolio of interdisciplinary research. Their faculty members collaborate with researchers from other departments and schools to transform discoveries into designs, innovations, and applications.

APS is part of Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering research portfolio and is key to our strategic prioritization of innovations and applications that help solve the world’s greatest challenges. The department is also an example of our collaborative culture and our ability to work across disciplines to advance practical solutions with cutting-edge science – combining the tools of engineering with knowledge and discoveries across a variety of disciplines. To illustrate the kind of research that APS leads, below are three examples of APS faculty working on critical issues in applied physical sciences.

Wubin Bai is partnering with clinical researchers to design and develop next-generation disruptive bioelectronic systems. These new systems can solve critical medicine issues, leveraging polymer chemistry to create resorbable materials for surgery and biochemical sensing and dosing for proactive monitoring and therapeutics. He has forged a collaboration with Carolina neuroscientists working to develop precision medicine solutions to neurological disorders, and with other experts to devise innovative solutions for cardiac tissue damage, metabolic challenges of diabetes, and supports for successful tissue transplantation.

Similarly, Ronit Freeman has forged collaborations with clinical researchers to bring her specialty in the design of molecules and structural materials to create next-generation sensors, nano robots, drug breakthroughs, and clinical tools. She is working with a colleague in pediatric pulmonology to bring her skills and tools to design peptides capable of reversing lung fibrosis. She is also collaborating with colleagues in mathematics and pharmacy to create a computational model of virus transport through mucus to create novel barriers for inhaled pathogens. Ronit is making substantial contributions in the synergies between synthetic and living systems to identify solutions to pressing challenges.

Another example is APS department chair, Theo Dingemans, an interdisciplinary polymer scientist who designs novel polymers for functional and structural applications. He is working with environmental scientists and computational modelers to develop an innovative and affordable membrane-based water purification technological tool to remove environmental chemicals from drinking water. Importantly, Dingemans merges a collaborative culture with a priority for application, leading the department to forge new collaborations across campus to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

I know from my interactions with my APS colleagues and friends that they are committed to maintaining their mission towards creating materials, methodologies, and solutions that will have worldwide impact for decades to come. And they have our full support to do just that. I know that they were all deeply affected by what transpired last month. My thoughts are with all Professor Yan’s family and with APS faculty, staff, students, and friends as they process and move forward.

While this tragedy has impacted us all, our individual experiences are varied and diverse, including potentially being affected by another incident involving a firearm on our campus this week. It is a time for us to show our community’s commitment to one another. Please continue to extend patience and kindness, and please remember to take care of yourselves. Should you need resources devoted to helping yourself and others through trauma, the University has curated a very helpful website with advice from our campus mental health experts.

Permalink: Remembering a Transformational Scientist and Bright Star


By Penny Gordon-Larsen, August 10, 2023

It is an honor to serve as UNC-Chapel Hill’s new vice chancellor for research, and I look forward to what this next chapter will bring for research at Carolina. Together, I know we will sustain and grow our research trajectory and take our research enterprise to the next level.

I began my career at Carolina as a postdoctoral fellow in 1998 with expectations of engaging in rigorous research. Once here, I immediately experienced a level of collaboration that far surpassed anything I could have imagined. My work was infused and enriched by a diverse set of disciplines, methods, and approaches. These exciting synergies, along with the ingenuity made possible through collaborations with cross-campus partners, made Carolina a place I did not want to leave. I was able to conduct research here that was truly impactful — which I very much attribute to Carolina’s values of collaboration and innovation.

Now as vice chancellor for research, I want to make sure that we sustain and deepen our culture of collaboration. I also want to ensure that every researcher has a clear path to take their work beyond the University, to make tangible impacts on communities, the state, the nation, and the world. As researchers at a leading global public research university, it is our responsibility to ensure that our work has public benefit. Together, we can harness the full power of our innovative spirit to advance discovery, creativity, knowledge, and products for the public good.

Research is key to solving the world’s greatest challenges. To this end, it is important to leverage talent across Carolina to generate truly transformative science that can solve the pressing problems of today and tomorrow. Our efforts will focus on three key principles: innovate, transform, and renew. We will drive and accelerate our efforts to innovate in lockstep with research to expand our portfolio of pro-innovation research; transform our research ecosystem to be nimbler, with greater strategic alignment across campus; and to renew our key strategic partnerships in the state and beyond to fulfill the mission of the University with tangible return on investments.

While serving as interim vice chancellor for research, I led a strategic research roadmap process designed to create a new path forward for Carolina’s research enterprise. As part of the plan, we surveyed campus stakeholders to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to our research enterprise. We also queried campus on key state and global challenges that Carolina is well-positioned to solve, as well as the top priorities that we should focus on in the next three years to enhance our position as a leading research institution.

From that process, we identified five key areas: (1) building and improving state-of-the-art research assets to enable success; (2) supporting and growing a talented workforce; (3) fostering an environment that facilitates efficient research processes; (4) growing our research by identifying and investing in strategic opportunities, leveraging existing research strengths, and fostering collaboration to discover new knowledge and address strategic challenges; and (5) increasing the impact of Carolina’s research and communicating its value to strategic audiences.

We are now working to incorporate fundamental competencies and strategic research areas necessary to take our research enterprise to the next level. We will be working with key campus stakeholders and partners on an implementation plan and look forward to sharing the full results of our efforts with the research community in the coming months.

As we surveyed campus, it was clear that our community views its collaborative research environment as one of Carolina’s strongest assets. We are truly unique in the depth of our cross-campus collaborations and in the novel research, scholarly, and creative work born from those collaborations. I am eager to leverage these strengths and bring them to even greater heights by supporting more team science that works across the full translational spectrum — from discovery at the bench or in the field, to models, to clinics, to communities, and across populations — to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

There are additional opportunities to be empowered by forging new collaborations. We have an existing competitive advantage in life sciences and in behavioral and social sciences, and we have growing potential in other areas like applied sciences and engineering, data science, and humanities and the arts. New collaborations that bring our campus engineering and applied sciences talents to other research disciplines and domains have the potential to bring significant gains.

Furthermore, opportunities for growth abound in our backyard. We are at an unprecedented moment in time when technological and scientific advances create new areas of scientific inquiry while major expansion of regional industries directly draws on our research strengths, talents, and workforce. We will continue fostering partnerships across institutions, industries, and communities. We will work with state legislators to attract new industries to North Carolina and to close the innovation gap between research and its products. Carolina has much more to contribute to ensure our leadership in the next phase of our state’s economic growth.

I am eager to work collaboratively with Carolina leaders to create an integrated approach to research and innovation on our campus. I look forward to working with newly appointed Vice Chancellor for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Dedric Carter and Vice Chancellor for Development Michael Andreasen on ways that we can collaborate on research development to propel Carolina’s future.

Research truly touches all corners of our campus, and I look forward to continuing to work together to shape Carolina’s research future.

Permalink: Expanding Our Research Enterprise

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, June 8, 2023

Major new initiatives like the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) energy initiative and the NSF Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) seek to advance emerging energy technologies. Carolina investigators are poised and ready to compete for funding opportunities in clean energy technology and related areas.

Our researchers are addressing sustainable and renewable energy applications as they seek to better address our world’s energy needs through disciplines in basic science and applied engineering. They are working to develop innovative technologies to harness renewable energy sources and improve energy efficiency, all the while supporting our state’s economic development and providing hands-on opportunities for students.

In this month’s blog, I am sharing just a few examples of our recent advancements in those areas:

Breakthroughs in New Energy Sources

Carolina is helping to develop revolutionary technologies that will fundamentally change the way we produce and use energy. Our researchers are developing new ways to convert sunlight into electricity and heat and improving the efficiency of solar cells to make them more affordable.

One of Carolina’s most highly cited researchers, Applied Physical Sciences distinguished professor Jinsong Huang, is creating advancements in a promising avenue for the future of solar energy — as demonstrated in a recent paper published in Science. His team has demonstrated improved performance of solar cells while effectively converting sunlight into usable electricity. The team works with molecules that are also used for medication to treat blood toxicity, demonstrating broad benefit across scientific disciplines.

UNC’s Center for Hybrid Approaches in Solar Energy (CHASE) is on a mission to develop molecule/material hybrid photoelectrodes for cooperative sunlight-driven generation of liquid fuels from carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water. The center is a collaboration among Carolina, Yale University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, North Carolina State University, and Emory University that advances liquid solar fuels generation.

Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor Jillian Dempsey is one of the principal investigators of CHASE. Her work focuses on efficient solar energy conversion processes by working across molecular and materials chemistry. Her applied research seeks to overcome barriers in generating liquid solar fuels. She is also leveraging novel technologies to identify next-generation catalysts for artificial photosynthesis to generate molecular fuels.

Hyde Family Foundation Professor Jim Cahoon and postdoctoral researcher Taylor Teitsworth have engineered silicon nanowires that can convert sunlight into electricity by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen gas, providing a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. The Cahoon Group has been working on the chemical synthesis of semiconductor nanomaterials with unique physical properties that can enable a range of technologies. Their breakthrough may represent a new pathway toward efficient and potentially economical production of hydrogen fuel from sunlight.

Chemistry Department Chair Wei You’s research has led to the creation of new materials for organic solar cells, transistors, and light-emitting diodes. He has also developed new methods for the synthesis and characterization of 2D materials.

Noah Kittner, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering and the Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program, investigates a range of topics related to energy systems engineering, including electricity generation using solar, wind, hydropower, and energy storage technologies. He aims to improve health equity in the transition to green energy.

Innovating Economic Growth

The Institute for the Environment hosted the UNC CleanTech Summit this past March. Summit participants explored environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient technology and learned about North Carolina’s role in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Leaders in business, energy, finance, and government shared their respective expertise. Robert Blue, chair, president, and chief executive officer of Dominion Energy gave the opening keynote address.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that three known deposits in North Carolina contain enough lithium to supply batteries for over 50 million electric vehicles. Consequently, there is a significant opportunity to support this blossoming industry which could result in new jobs and assist in increased adoption of electric vehicles.

The NC Collaboratory is supporting initial research that will help guide private companies and policymakers in exploring the full potential of this market. Their work includes a geological study across central Carolinas to begin the process for identifying key mineral deposits, funding work to further technology that will extract lithium in an energy-efficient and cost-effective manner, and researching potential mineral mining areas and the economic impact of that mining.

The University is well positioned to integrate the results of those efforts to further our expertise in autonomous vehicle (AV) research — the next wave of transportation innovation. Researchers in computer science, such as Parasara Sridhar Duggirala, are focused on developing algorithms for autonomous driving, including sensor fusion, path planning, and motion control. The Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety works on various projects related to AVs, including developing algorithms for detecting and avoiding pedestrians and cyclists. Led by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, the NC Transportation Center of Excellence in Advanced Technology Safety and Policy is a three-year research program focused on building knowledge on the role of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) and improving existing infrastructure to advance road safety, mobility, and accessibility.

Beyond the Bench

The UNC Kenan-Flagler Energy Center promotes sound public policy through balanced programming, research, and career placement across the energy value chain. The center strives to advance conscientious and innovative leadership in the energy space through comprehensive programming for UNC Kenan-Flagler students.

UNC School of Law’s Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics (CE3) creates opportunities for law students to develop a deep understanding of environmental, energy, and climate law beyond the classroom, offering students opportunities to assist with research and coauthor publications. The center also works to inform public policy and private sector decision-making at the state and federal levels though nonpartisan, objective analysis.

Carolina is leading the way in research, technology development, student opportunities, and policy creation as our society shifts the ways we produce and use energy. We anticipate new and exciting opportunities ahead with new federal and non-federal initiatives. Carolina’s applied research in the energy area, in North Carolina and beyond, will be competitive for these new funding streams. Our leading researchers will no doubt make major contributions to the development of clean energy.

Permalink: Powering the Future

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, May 10, 2023

At Carolina, we embrace research for the public good and we strive to ensure that our discoveries make tangible impact on citizens of our state and the world. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering research portfolio. This research aims to create practical applications and innovations that help solve the world’s greatest challenges.

Whether it is through materials to create renewable energy, generating complex sensors for autonomous vehicles, or solutions to protect vulnerable populations from toxic exposures, applied sciences and engineering transform discoveries into designs, innovations, and applications. Carolina is the ideal place for applied sciences and engineering because of our collaborative culture, team-based science, and entrepreneurial mindset. There are 167 (and counting) faculty at Carolina who either have engineering degrees or are currently working in an engineering field.

We have formal engineering degrees conferred through the Departments of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE), Joint Biomedical Engineering (BME), and Applied Physical Sciences (APS). In addition to the engineers working in and training students in those departments, others reside in the Departments of Computer Science; Earth, Marine, and Environmental Sciences (EMES); Chemistry; and Mathematics, particularly in applied and computational research. We also have environmental engineers in ESE; chemical engineers in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy (ESOP); electrical and computer engineers in RENCI, the School of Information and Library Science (SILS), and the School of Data Science and Society; and more engineering expertise in City and Regional Planning, biology and more.

In fact, you would find these same types of researchers in any major school of engineering across the country. The federal and non-federal research landscape has shifted towards a range of exciting opportunities that aim to nurture applied research and innovation. For example, the White House Office of Science and Technology, the NSF directorate on Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships, ARPA-H, and even non-federal initiatives, like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are focusing on applied solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

Closer to home, NC Innovation, a public-private partnership, is working to accelerate commercialized innovation in North Carolina. At UNC-Chapel Hill, we are working with representatives from each of these organizations to most effectively position the University for the coming calls for proposals and initiatives. We are also formulating teams and strategies to respond to these exciting opportunities, many of which relate to Carolina’s applied sciences and engineering footprint:

Materials science and engineering

In APS, an engineering mindset is employed in an interdisciplinary environment to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. Biomaterial engineer Wubin Bai designs bio-integrated technology with capabilities for improving health and increasing our understanding of living systems — including implantable devices that can sense physiological quantities to deliver drugs or direct tissue growth and disappear when no longer needed. The tissue systems advanced by his system engineering approach include cardiac tissue repair and regeneration, an artificial pancreas, neural prosthesis for the brain, and skin-resident sensors for oxygen sensing during tissue transplantation.

Daphne Klotsa uses computational tools to research active matter, from self-propelled nanoparticles to cars in traffic, to understand how we can bridge the gap between emergent phenomena, smart materials, and robot swarming.

Theo Dingemans, chair of APS, and his team engineer new classes of high-performance polymers to create lightweight composite materials that are strong enough to handle aerospace and other demanding structural and high temperature applications. His start-up, Blue Sky Polymers LLC, is introducing a polymer platform into the marketplace that allows users to 3D print true engineered polymer parts that can be used in harsh high temperature environments.

Jinsong Huang uses his background in solid-state physics to engineer a peculiar type of material, known as perovskites, together with ingenious device design to enable record-high efficiency solar cells and portable X-ray scanners that can be used by doctors.

Chemist Ronit Freeman recently received the prestigious 2023 Cottrell Scholar Award for teaching convergence to increase innovation in science.Professor Emeritus Edward Simulski, whose expertise is in polymer physical chemistry, played an important role in building the polymer program in chemistry and initiated a major shift to applied sciences. He is also CEO and co-founder at BlueSky Polymers along with Dingemans.

Applied and computational mathematics

Greg Forest, Rich Superfine, Michael Rubinstein, Richard Boucher, and Sam Lai are among a group of researchers making major breakthroughs in potentially fatal lung-related issues through their global Virtual Lung Project. The project brings together researchers in applied mathematics, chemistry, physics, medicine, pharmacy biochemistry, and biophysics to engineer lung health using innovations like simulated environments that replicate lung function and mucus movement, a model that replicates interaction between cilia and mucus, and computational models for therapeutic strategies. Their work has numerous applications including commercialization outputs and therapeutic advances that save lives. 

Richard Mclaughlin and Roberto Camassa, of the mathematics department, run the Joint Fluids Lab, the largest laboratory at Carolina. It is a full-scale engineering facility hosting a 120-foot modular wave tank, tilting wind tunnel, and a massive array of state-of-the-art instrumentation for measuring fluid phenomena. Work at the lab has been featured in Science and other top journals.  

Camassa and Pedro Saenz, also of mathematics, both hold PhDs in engineering. And the department’s Boyce Griffith does computations and experiments related to the heart and heart valve design.   

Civil engineering

Prototyping and deploying solutions that mitigate societal issues has long been an interest and calling of our researchers. EMES professor Rick Luettich, a civil engineer by training, has been pioneering storm surge modeling solutions for coastal communities vulnerable to tropical storms for decades.

ESE professor Orlando Coronell studies membrane-based processes for water purification and energy production and storage, including processes for removing contaminants from water, such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This work is leading to the development of technologies that could help ensure safer drinking water across municipalities, industries, and households.

Jason West uses models of atmospheric chemistry and transport to examine the effects of changes in emissions on ozone and particulate matter. He recently led the first study to use global atmospheric models and future scenarios to assess the benefits of greenhouse gas mitigation for air quality and human health.

Chemical engineering

The inventions and research of Michael Ramsey, faculty member in chemistry, APS, and BME, has led to the development of devices with applications for drug discovery, health care, environmental monitoring, and basic research, and to the generation of companies like 908 Devices. One of the company’s recent inventions allows pharmaceutical manufacturers to identify important biochemical reactor components in about five minutes from a location adjacent to the bioreactor it monitors, slicing the time for traditional analysis to negligible lengths.

Chemist Frank Leibfarth tests molecules that turn plastic waste into useful materials, diversifying options for recycling and creating solutions for the overwhelming amount of plastics in our environment. Leibfarth has found a reagent that can chemically alter the polymers of a milk jug to become plastic more like Surlyn, the clear, pliable plastic found in heat-sealed packages, high-end yoga mats and inside of golf balls. By weight, this product is much more valuable.

Addressing energy issues has long been a strength at Carolina. Chemist Jerry Meyer, together with Jillian Dempsey, Jim Cahoon, Alex Miller, and many others across campus and at partner institutions, is directing CHASE to identify innovative ways to achieve sunlight-driven generation of liquid fuels from carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water.

Wei You, chair of chemistry, focuses on engineering molecular structure of polymers for efficient and stable polymer solar cells and exploring novel organic electronic devices.

Paul Watkins, from ESOP, works in clinical pharmacology and specializes in small molecule safety in relation to drug-induced liver injury. He directs the Watkins Lab for Drug Safety Sciences which serves as an accelerator to meet regulatory science demands.

Environmental engineering

Within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s ESE department there exists a trove of talented researchers working towards solutions for a healthier person and planet. With a background in chemical engineering, WIlliam Vizuete uses high-performance computers and 3D simulations to model the atmosphere to provide insights into which chemical processes produce air pollution. He often provides his technical expertise to state and federal policymakers who are developing pollution reduction strategies.

Noah Kittner investigates a range of topics related to energy systems engineering, including electricity generation using solar, wind, hydropower, and energy storage technologies, among others. He aims to improve health equity in the transition to green energy.

Jason West uses global models to identify climate change solutions with co-benefits for air quality and health; he has been working on the National Climate Assessment.

Greg Charaklis works in water resources engineering and economics within ESE and as director of the Center on Financial Risk in Environmental Systems. He develops integrated models of natural, engineered, economic and financial systems that enable the design of tools that reduce the severity of environmentally related financial risks.

Jill Stewart is co-PI of an National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Research Center called PreMiEr, which aims to develop tools to foster and support healthy indoor microbiomes.

Julia Rager uses her background in engineering and toxicology to build computational toxicology models and predict risk from complex environmental mixtures like wildfire smoke and PFAS in consumer products.

Biomedical engineering

The BME department, an inter-institutional collaboration with N.C. State University, leverages engineering and medicine expertise across both intuitions to improve human health and quality of life. As the department’s motto states, the institutions work “better together,” to train students for competitive engineering positions in the health care, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries.  

There is extensive research in BME in the field of regenerative medicine. Many faculty members are investigating cutting-edge approaches to replace, engineer, or regenerate tissues and organs. Department researchers are also working in rehabilitation engineering and are committed to improving the lives of individuals with disabilities by developing innovative and effective rehabilitation and assistive technologies. 

In addition, Paul Dayton works in ultrasound imaging and leverages his skill as an innovator to develop new technologies and approaches for ultrasound imaging, ultrasound mediated targeted therapies, and industrial ultrasound applications.

Koji Sode develops biosensors for health applications, like diabetes, and he holds several international patents for biosensing technologies.

Computer engineering and data science

Academic computing programs at the intersection of science and engineering can be found across Carolina. Computer scientists Henry Fuchs — whose work in computer graphics and virtual and augmented reality spans decades — and his team have been developing an augmented-reality training tool for laparoscopic procedures, with the hopes of one day lowering the risk of these surgeries.

Ron Alterovitz designs robots to work in various environments: in homes to assist the elderly, in laboratories to conduct chemistry experiments, and in surgical theaters to precisely remove tumors where such accuracy would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

Similarly, Daniel Szafir develops technologies to enable humans and robots to collaborate and work together better in a safe manner, be it on a factory floor or at home.

Jim Anderson and Samarjit Chakraborty work with autonomous vehicles, where their goal is to achieve “safe autonomy” to certify that cars, drones, or robots can work correctly in all possible scenarios, including those they have not encountered before. Chakraborty additionally works on novel battery technologies that would not only enable cost-effectiveness for stationary electrical energy storage systems and electric vehicles but could also help recycle and reuse old batteries after they have been retired.

Nirjon Shahriar develops new sensor technologies for various applications ranging from sound pollution monitoring to HVAC acoustic fingerprinting that detects deterioration to pedestrian safety.

Data science touches every part of society, and Carolina researchers work in all fields that help society thrive. Researchers at RENCI provide solutions in software engineering, advanced networking, data management, high-performance computing and information visualization that help researchers conduct more productive work, powering our research enterprise to serve North Carolina and beyond. Researchers at SILS advance science and discovery at the intersection of humanity and technology as well as discovery and innovation. And as our School of Data Science and Society takes flight, research areas will be formed to leverage and grow the links between our existing interdisciplinary expertise across fields, powered by our data science resources.

Engineering the future

As we move increasingly towards resourcing and supporting teams of convergent scientists, we will rely on our current engineering strengths to stay competitive with other institutions that have schools of engineering. Funding for research at Carolina is currently heavily concentrated in the health sciences, with the National Institutes of Health accounting for 75% of all our federal awards. Many of these awards incorporate applied sciences and engineering expertise to our competitive advantage. And opportunities abound to grow awards from other federal sources like NSF, Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, and ARPA-H when we maximize our entire portfolio of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expertise.

Because of the hands-on, entrepreneurial, real-world problem-solving nature of applied sciences and engineering, Carolina’s classrooms are not the only places where student learning and instruction happen. Beginning with this current academic year, all undergraduate students are required to participate in some form of research activity, providing them with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to learn by doing. We consistently hear from students that they gain tremendously from research experience with faculty mentors and instructors. The best learning extends beyond a classroom.

In providing experiences in engineering fields of study, we cultivate creative problem-solvers who enter the STEM workforce in greater numbers. According to the NSF, among STEM careers, engineers earn the highest average salaries. Propagating the state’s workforce with well-trained, high-earning employees enhances North Carolina’s attractiveness to lucrative tech companies, increasing revenues. And the advancements made by these students and researchers provide a better quality of life for all.

Permalink: Engineering Discoveries & Applied Sciences

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, April 13, 2023

At Carolina, we discover and translate our science and creative endeavors to make tangible impacts for the public good. Creative endeavors on our campus transcend barriers and include discoveries that inform understanding of a wide range of mechanisms, but they also inform our understanding of humanity, and they advance intellectual and artistic exchange.

Each April our campus comes alive with a celebration of the arts, which will be particularly exemplified with Arts Everywhere Day on April 14. This year’s celebration, themed “You are an Artist,” will feature performances, installations, and creative activities across campus, including an all-day art fair in the Gift Plaza at the Frank Porter Graham Student Union.

But celebrating art on campus and beyond is not limited to one day, or month, and certainly not to one discipline. Discovery at its heart is creative. Art shapes how we create and think. Humanistic research captures and changes lives and brings people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives together. And Carolina scientists draw on the expertise of their colleagues in the fine arts and humanities to infuse creativity, and a human touch, into their innovations in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, imaging, novel therapies, and more.

Bridging data and computer science with the arts, the AI Project hopes to advance research and collaboration on the philosophical foundations and significance of artificial intelligence and virtual worlds. The project is housed in the philosophy department and conducted in collaboration with computer science, linguistics, and the Parr Center for Ethics, and hopes to support researchers across campus so that they use the right ethical approaches in their research and share their findings and developments accurately.

Recently, an impressive 66×40 foot mural was painted on the exterior of the UNC Institue for Marine Sciences (IMS) in Morehead City. The three-story captivating display depicts the institute’s world-class research on storm surge, local species of fish that researchers are helping to protect, and people who live and work in the area that depend on the state’s coastal resources. The design process brought the greater community together to contribute to the mural and preserve the beauty of Carteret County.

Community engagement is a vital component of impactful scholarship. Recently, a faculty member and graduate student from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health were awarded the Engaged Scholarship Prize from North Carolina Campus Engagement, a collaborative network of 38 colleges and universities committed to educating students for civic and social responsibility, partnering with communities for positive change, and strengthening democracy. Dane Emmerling, a health behavior assistant professor, was recognized for his work in using community-based partnerships to build trust, increase transparency, share decision-making, and improve the quality of data and research products. Graduate student Elana Jaffe was awarded the prize for pursuing engaged scholarship that centers women’s experiences of menopause and access to resources for menopause management in carceral settings.

In the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, we go further than recognizing artistic endeavors. Each year our office partners with the UNC Institute for Arts and Humanities to provide Arts and Humanities Research Grants. The program offers up to $7,500 in funding for scholarly, creative, and artistic pursuits, led by either individual faculty or teams. The FY23-24 Art and Humanities Research Grants request for applications is now live, and this year’s deadline is May 19.

Last year, we awarded eight grants for creative scholarship that culminated in books, albums, and events, including funding English Professor Florence Dore’s traveling humanities program. Dore teaches courses at Carolina in songwriting, contemporary fiction, and the American novel; published a book and released an album last year; and is currently (with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Grant) touring the country performing shows that blend music and classroom-like discussions on democracy and civic belonging.

Belonging was one of many emotional themes represented in “Omar,” an opera from MacArthur Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens, which was performed in Memorial Hall this past February. The opera drew inspiration from the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, the only known complete autobiography written by an enslaved person in Arabic. Additional resources, including texts found in Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Library, provided historical context for the work.

Giddens is the current Southern Future’s artist-in-residency, a role she began in 2022 that will last for three years. During that time, she will focus on discovering and sharing cultural artifacts and local histories on topics central to Southern Futures. Through her research and conversations, Giddens will contribute to a better and more truthful understanding of what life was like in and around North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century.

Being involved in the research enterprise at Carolina means having the opportunity to witness first-hand the ways in which art influences science and science influences art. Other examples include David Gotz’s data visualization work, applying advanced imaging technologies and techniques to improve our understanding of cellular processes, the use of music therapy to help young patients cope with prolonged hospitalization, reports and graphs produced by Carolina Demography representing North Carolina’s economic and population growth, and so many more. The art of data visualization and imaging are critical elements of discovery and the application and dissemination of our research. These are just a few examples of the incredible creativity that shapes the questions we ask in our labs, with our data, and with people and communities.

The event coordinators of Arts Everywhere have developed a calendar of opportunities for celebrating the arts beyond the 14th, and I would encourage you to view it and attend any events you can. Art is everywhere; across our campus, and our state, and it provides critical inspiration and contribution to the work of our researchers. Creativity truly powers discovery.

Permalink: Creativity Powers Discovery