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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
By Penny Gordon-Larsen, March 8, 2023
According to the World Health Organization, every country in the world is experiencing growth in both the size and the proportion of older adults in their population. By 2030, one in six people across the globe will be aged 60 years or over, and by 2050, the world’s population of adults over 60 will double.
In our own country, the aging of the Baby Boomer generation has been known for years as “the silver tsunami,” the accelerated rate at which adults are maturing past 65. Carolina researchers are addressing the many complexities arising from our aging population, from healthcare to labor dynamics to assisted living. Carolina researchers are making discoveries and building the evidence base to support healthy aging and improve quality of life across the life course.
Last month, the national Center for Excellence in Assisted Living (CEAL), which has focused on advancing the well-being of people who live and work in assisted living through research, practice, and policy for more than 20 years, was rehomed at Carolina under the new name CEAL@UNC.
The center will be based within the School of Social Work and supported by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research’s (OVCR) Sheps Center. CEAL@UNC will be led by Sheryl Zimmerman, who also serves as the co-director of the Sheps Center’s Program on Aging, Disability, and Long-Term Care. Research at the new center will ensure that aging adults have access to high-quality supportive care which will enable them to age with dignity and respect. The School of Social Work recently hosted a reception to celebrate the announcement of CEAL@UNC that drew people from across the university, the state, and the country and highlighted the significant impact of this exciting center for excellence.
Another OVCR center that has addressed the many facets of aging for decades is the Carolina Population Center, which hosts several population-based cohort studies that follow individuals across the lifecycle, including the Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey, the China Health and Nutrition Survey, and Add Health — the largest and most comprehensive longitudinal study of its kind in the nation. The study began with more than 20,000 adolescents surveyed in 1994-95. Since then, researchers have been collecting data about the participants’ lives through early adulthood and now into middle age.
Add Health is co-directed by Robert Hummer and Allison Aiello, and collaborators include sociologists, psychologists, epidemiologists, physicians, and methodologists from RTI International, the University of Vermont, and Exam One. Add Health researchers study cognitive, mental, and physical health of study participants with attention given to disparities in health outcomes across racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender groups. The current focus of the project’s research facilitates data collection surrounding rising health risks in middle age and beyond.
Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are the most common cause of death and disability in the state of North Carolina and across the United States. The spectrum of CVD is enormous, including more common afflictions such as hypertension and atherosclerosis (which can cause heart attacks and strokes), and some rare types that can severely affect otherwise healthy young individuals. The rate at which CVD affects aging adults is staggering, and genetic and environmental factors that contribute to heart disease are still being assessed.
To address those unknowns, the UNC McAllister Heart Institute has assembled many talented investigators who study various aspects of CVD. The institute fosters interaction and collaboration between basic scientists and practicing clinicians, resulting in innovative research projects that provide immediate benefits to patients and foundational discoveries to help even more patients in the future.
The Cardiovascular Epidemiology program at the Gillings School of Global Public Health is an international leader in studies of the underpinnings of the development of CVD, a major legacy of W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor and CVD researcher Gerardo Heiss, who recently passed away. Some of the program’s most significant datasets are hosted at the Collaborative Studies Coordinating Center, including the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study and the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos. These cohort studies, with long-term follow up, provide rich data to understand the diverse etiological factors that underpin healthy aging, ranging from molecular and genomic to social determinants of health to acculturation. The CVD epidemiology program also includes innovations like drone access to defibrillators.
Physician scientists in the School of Medicine are addressing basic causes of the spectrum of heart diseases, developing novel diagnostic technologies to prevent the worse from happening, working with colleagues in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy to develop new therapeutics that treat the entire range of diseases, and translating the best of this combined research to improve patient care.
Carolina researchers are leaders in the methods used to advance understanding of cognitive aging and neuroscience. The Human Neuroimaging Group in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Department is a notable example. Kelly Giovanello is using functional MRI (fMRI) to understand how cognitive and neural processes mediate memory and change with healthy aging and neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease.
Tanya Garcia in the Department of Biostatistics uses cutting-edge statistical methods to estimate the progression of neurodegenerative diseases in very large datasets with highly correlated data. There is innovative and translational research also occurring across campus in the Center for Aging and Health; the Thurston Arthritis Center; the Geriatric Oncology Program in the Lineberger Cancer Center; and particularly in the Vector Core and the light microscopy facility, which fosters novel approaches to understanding how cells communicate with each other, increasing our understanding of biological aging and potential biomarkers for early detection of aging-related diseases. There is also the work of Jason R. Franz in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering’s Applied Biomechanics Laboratory which focuses on the neuromuscular biomechanics of human movement and seeks to identify engineering solutions to help people avoid falls and age gracefully.
For years, Kenan-Flagler’ Business School’s Jim Johnson has been researching and publishing scholarly work addressing “disruptive demographics,” which are changes to the population makeup that will have ramifications across not only healthcare, but also business.
For companies, Johnson suggests that far more agility and flexibility in the workplace will be required to accommodate a considerable number of employees affected by the “silver tsunami” — including the Boomers themselves, who are more likely to continue working past 65, and the more than one million millennials who will have elder care obligations. Johnson works with leaders in many industries to help them understand and strategize how to embrace the changes and the opportunities that come with them.
One potential area of viable research translation will be technologies that afford individuals autonomy as the population continues to age. Led by Ron Alterovitz, the Computational Robotics Research Group investigates new robot designs to enable physicians to provide better medical care and to assist people in their homes.
Their research is examining new algorithms for minimally invasive medical devices such as steerable needles and tentacle-like robots that can provide physicians with access to targets that previously were unreachable without open surgery. The group is also applying those algorithms to personal robots that can assist people with a variety of daily routine tasks at home and in the workplace. Robots capable of learning and performing assistive tasks have the potential to help people who are elderly or disabled to live independently with a higher quality of life.
Similarly, John Batsis in the Division of Geriatric Medicine is using novel technologies, telemedicine, and remote monitoring to reduce transportation and geographic barriers to accessing health care services for older adults, particularly in rural parts of the country.
Carolina’s collaborative research brings significant strengths to contribute to a broad spectrum of aging research: ranging from cellular senescence to epigenetic changes to neurocognitive disorders to disability to physical and social environments. Carolina researchers are making major inroads to ensuring the health and well-being of all adults as they age and ensuring healthy aging for all.
Permalink: Expertise for an Aging World
By Penny Gordon-Larsen, February 14, 2023
Last Friday, February 10th, I had the honor of participating in a campus visit by Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center (LCCC) drew the attention of the White House through its outstanding translational research and the breakthroughs that Lineberger is famous for. Dr. Prabhakar specifically came to Carolina on Friday to meet with scientists, researchers, and others on the frontlines in the fight against cancer, and to discuss how the Biden-Harris Administration’s Cancer Moonshot is progressing to end cancer as we know it.
Many universities are making progress in cancer research, but why is Carolina different? Our culture of collaboration is what sets us apart. Dr. Prabhakar heard from researchers from the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and LCCC who work alongside one another every day to find the best possible solutions. And as importantly, she heard from our community partners, leaders from state agencies like the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), and from patients themselves who are the best testimony to our lifesaving, far-reaching work.
During President Biden’s recent State of the Union Address, he referenced the moonshot and called for the reauthorization of the National Cancer Act, proposing efforts to provide patients with greater access to cancer treatments as well as strategies to step up anti-smoking programs. These initiatives pair nicely with the innovative research taking place on our campus, and Dr. Prabhakar’s visit provided the opportunity to highlight the progress we are making every day to improve cancer outcomes.
I was delighted by the agenda, which showcased Carolina’s unique brand of collaboration that allows fundamental science researchers working on drug development to truly integrate with clinicians, population scientists, and community stakeholders to ensure that findings make their way from the lab to clinics and communities. The teams that presented were comprised of faculty from different departments, schools, and disciplines alongside community members and patients who are working together to make discoveries that save lives. The visit focused on four topics: “Moonshot-Initiated Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Programs,” “Moonshot-Initiated Cancer Screening Efforts,” “Cancer and Nutrition,” and “Obesity and Endometrial Cancer.”
The last of these projects was presented by UNC Lineberger Endometrial Cancer Center of Excellence Director Victoria Bae-Jump, and Health Behavior Assistant Professor Marissa Hall. Joining them for an engaging discussion on cancer disparities was Gillings Interim Associate Dean for Research Andrew Olshan, UNC Nutrition Research Institute Director Stephen Hursting, Health Behavior and Nutrition Professor Deborah Tate, and OBGYN Professor and LCCC’s Associate Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Wendy Brewster.
During that presentation and discussion, we learned that Black women in North Carolina die from endometrial cancer at twice the rate compared to white women – and the causes are complex, including differences in social determinants of health, access to care, prevalence of cancer subtypes with worse outcomes, along with biologic factors, like the microbiome and epigenome. The team’s translational approach is novel and impactful. Obesity is an important risk factor that is driving an increase in endometrial cancer. The team is combining a population-based endometrial cancer study looking at the role of biologic and health services that may underlie cancer disparities with a behavioral study examining the role of weight gain prevention. This approach is making inroads towards addressing the root causes of endometrial cancer.
Dr. Parabhaker also heard from Dr. Betsey Tilson, NC DHHS health director and the chief medical officer, who attested to our deep partnership with the state. Carolina researchers are working in every N.C. county, in rural communities, and through partnerships with key stakeholders, including Fort Bragg, to reach underserved populations. We are focusing on prevention; encouraging people to quit smoking and seek early screening. Through studies that show the causes of cancer, we are working with people most at-risk for developing cancer to prevent the worst from happening.
Research that engages community and patient stakeholders allows us to make critical impacts and, importantly, address the issues most important to people living with and surviving cancer. The attention to expansion of medical care into rural communities, the focus on persistent poverty populations, and community outreach for study enrollment means that we will have a better chance to successfully address the significant cancer inequities in our communities. What we learn here in North Carolina can have big impacts for the country, given the size, geography, and diversity of our state – we are truly a model for America.
The overarching goal of the Cancer Moonshot is to cut the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years and to improve the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer. The collaborative, translational, and innovative approach to cancer science, care, treatment, and prevention on our campus is inspiring and impressive. I am confident that Carolina can be a place that will make the moonshot a reality.
Permalink: A Launch Pad for the Moonshot
By Penny Gordon-Larsen, January 12, 2023
Carolina is a truly exceptional institution, and one of our more impressive attributes is how our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) research and projects touch lives across the state. We are breaking barriers and finding cures for diseases and ailments across many fields, with special interest in solving challenges unique to North Carolina.
At the UNC School of Medicine (SOM), investigators are hard at work addressing health-related issues stemming from vector-borne diseases (diseases spread by vectors, such as mosquitos or ticks). Ross Boyce focuses on the epidemiology of these infections and interventional studies that may lead to new methods of disease prevention and management in settings with limited resources. Boyce regularly collaborates with Scott Commins, an SOM expert on Alpha-Gal Syndrome, a tick-borne disease that triggers an allergy to red meat and other products of mammal origin. Both researchers are part of the recently-announced CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, which aims to accelerate public health research on many of these topics.
At the Gillings School of Global Public Health, researchers are working to identify potential health impacts of industrial hog farming within our state. A team led by Arbor Quist investigated, with results published last year in Science of The Total Environment, common gastrointestinal illness among people who live close to hog farming operations. The study team found that areas with high hog exposure were associated with an 11% increase in emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness. Yet cases of disease were 21% higher in rural areas, where residents rely heavily on well water. This work will inform efforts to increase quality of life of rural North Carolinians.
The Coronavirus Variant Sequencing (CORVASEQ) Surveillance Program, a N.C. Collaboratory project led by a team of UNC researchers and partners at UNC-Charlotte, Duke, Wake Forest, and East Carolina University, has sequenced more than 10,000 samples from COVID-19 positive patients across the state to track the spread and development of the virus. Information gained from the sequencing can be processed and shared with leaders and researchers across the state in real time, and by collaborating with multiple institutions, samples from all 100 counties in North Carolina get sequenced quickly, allowing researchers to track which segments of the population are most affected. This program was initiated with generous support appropriated by the N.C. General Assembly.
In the Department of Applied Physical Sciences (APS) in the College of Arts & Sciences, researchers are testing and launching innovative technologies that change lives. Recently, the Bia Lab created a pulse oximeter to mitigate the overestimation of blood oxygen levels in patients of color, a frequent problem with existing oximeters. The innovative design gives healthcare providers a more accurate way to diagnose and treat hypoxemia — low levels of oxygen in the blood — in patients by correcting for the presence of melanin in skin before estimating blood oxygen levels. APS is also home to the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory, which provides cutting-edge equipment for nanotechnology and microfabrication.
Dissecting the role that technologies play in how we receive and send political data, researchers from the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) investigate political processes, democracy and equality, mis- and dis-information, and how design and operation of communication technologies influence power dynamics and shape our society — critical work for this moment in time.
The First in Digital Studio at the Eshelman Institute for Innovation was launched last year to assist new startup teams seeking to build digital health ventures that are primed for venture capital investments. The studio, which aims to launch more than 10 digital health startups over the next three years, is focused on the rapidly growing digital health market and is an innovative approach for expanding the significant impact made by Carolina startups.
Carolina’s expertise in engineering is channeled towards solving grand challenges across many fields. Ongoing collaborative partnerships between the College and Gillings have developed new methods of extracting contamination from our water sources. Additionally, one of the N.C. Collaboratory’s larger research initiatives, made possible by the N.C. General Assembly, is the N.C. PFAS Testing Network, which has administrative oversight at Carolina and over 100 members comprised of principal investigators from Duke and five sister System schools. The network’s purpose is to bring researchers together to help gain a comprehensive understanding of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) exposure across North Carolina.
The Joint Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department leverages Carolina’s deep strength in health sciences with North Carolina State University’s engineering expertise to develop eradication resources for many diseases and cancers. In fact, a center within the department was recently awarded $4.6M to improve technology and methods for integrating human-machine interactions into the daily lives of stroke survivors. The funding supports BME’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center’s development of wearable assistive devices that help users regain control of the movement of their limbs, making significant improvement in the lives of individuals with disabilities.
The Carolina Population Center recently opened a branch of the Triangle Federal Statistical Research Data Center, which is part of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC) program. The Chapel Hill branch is the first to open within the UNC System and is one of 30 centers nationwide. Under this program, the Census Bureau allows researchers with approved proposals to perform statistical analysis on non-public microdata from their economic, health, and demographic censuses and surveys. These datasets are among the largest and most important sources of statistical information in the nation and many of them can only be accessed through a FSRDC. The RDC is freely available to all researchers and graduate students affiliated with a UNC System institution.
Providing support that will stretch across most disciplines, the newly launched School of Data Science and Society (SDSS) is making great strides in identifying programming, building staff, and establishing research priorities that will leverage Carolina’s existing strengths in health, natural, and social sciences, as well as humanities. In doing so, the school will equip its students, and the greater public, to use data in ways that are mindful, productive, and beneficial to society at large.
The new SDSS adds to existing campus strength in computer science, exemplified by a recent award received by the College’s Department of Computer Science to improve video representation learning and the School of Information and Library Sciences’ certificate in applied data science (CADS) which is designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the modern workforce.
There are also many new and exciting developments, which I will address in an upcoming blog post, from our colleagues in the humanities and arts. Our deep and broad bench in STEM fields creates discoveries and applications that improve the health and well-being of North Carolinians, providing critical tools and methods for solving Carolina’s biggest challenges while driving economic development. In addition, our STEM portfolio provides real-world research opportunities for students, which ultimately contributes to North Carolina’s burgeoning life sciences and information technology workforce needs.