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Carolina Discoveries

Portrait of Penny Gordon-Larsen

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

Wheels on the Ground

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, November 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kannapolis…

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

At Grandfather Mountain…

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

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

In Pittsboro…

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

Photo of Jeff Warren and Penny Gordon-Larsen.

In Asheboro…

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

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

In Winston-Salem…

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

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

In North Wilkesboro…

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

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

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

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

A photo of Lake Tahoma surrounded by woods and homes.

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

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

Permalink: Wheels on the Ground


By Penny Gordon-Larsen, October 11, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permalink: Celebrating University Research Week

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, September 7, 2022

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

Larger Graphic | Text Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, August 16, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permalink: Snapshots from another record-breaking year

By Penny Gordon-Larsen, July 8, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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