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2022-2023 Creativity Hubs Finalists Selected

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) is pleased to announce eight finalists for this year’s Creativity Hubs seed funding competition. These interdisciplinary teams — representing the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, six professional schools, seven research centers or institutes, along with UNC Health, N.C. State University, and seven extramural collaborators — highlight the effectiveness of uniting problem-solvers to tackle big challenges. Four of the finalists focus on data science research, and if chosen as a winning project, will be co-sponsored by the School of Data Science and Society. Creativity Hub winning projects are expected to lead to sustainable, large-scale extramural funding and/or commercial opportunities.

The finalists and projects advancing to the next round of Creativity Hubs funding are:

Systems Science Hub: Youth Mental Health

Investigator Team: Samantha Schilling, School of Medicine, PI; Paul Lanier, School of Social Work, co-PI; Kirsten Hassmiller Lich, Michael Kosorok, and Mark Holmes, School of Public Health; Kori Flower, Stephanie Brennan, and Brianna Lombardi, School of Medicine

North Carolina has the highest prevalence of children living with an untreated mental health diagnosis. Leveraging existing data and deploying data science methods presents an underutilized opportunity for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of a highly stressed and fragmented mental health system. The Systems Science Hub will use methods that combine participatory methods and data science to build a complex simulation model of the youth mental health system, then apply machine learning methods to improve modeling efficiency and identify patterns from large administrative datasets. The project will provide a platform for data scientists to work directly with policymakers, public health leaders, clinical providers, community members, and experts across scientific disciplines to design systems that improve the mental health of children in the state.

Planning for The Carolina Center for Ultrasound Brain Imaging and Therapeutics (C-CUBIT)

Investigator Team: Paul Dayton, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, PI; Gianmarco Pinton, Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, co-PI; Vibhor Krishna, School of Medicine, co-PI; Oleg Favorov, Yueh Lee, Yasmeen Rauf, Ben Philpot, Weili Lin, Lisa Carey, School of Medicine; Shawn Hingtgen, School of Pharmacy; Andrea Walens, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center

Technologies are lacking to non‐destructively image the brain on a microscopic scale, assess its function in real time, and deliver effective therapeutics directly to brain pathologies. The C-CUBIT team brings together Carolina’s world‐class team of senior and junior physicians, scientists, and engineers to develop basic science tools for approaches to ultrasound‐mediated brain imaging and therapy. The team will also support new clinical pilot studies for ultrasound brain imaging and therapy and optimize the existing ultrasound treatments through two‐way translational research.

DIMENSION HUB: Data driven environmental design for healthier brains

Investigator Team: Eran Dayan, School of Medicine, PI; Nikhil Kaza and Shankar Bhamidi, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Andrea Bozoki, Yueh Lee, Martin Styner, and Michael Lewek, School of Medicine; Kelly Giovanello, Jessica Cohen, Yao Li, Soumyadip Sengupta, College of Arts and Sciences

As the workforce population ages, it becomes crucial to identify intrinsic and external factors that contribute to cognitive brain health and minimize the risk for developing age-associated cognitive decline. The DIMENSION HUB will study the link between urban environmental design and brain health at a macro and microscale by evaluating health, neuroimaging, and environmental data from the UK Biobank as well as data collected by the Duke/UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Analysis will utilize state-of- the-art techniques in multilayer network analysis, machine learning, and computer vision.

Behavioral Digital Twins: The Digital Transformation of the Human Phenome to Empower Simulation and Training

Investigator Team: Adam Kiefer, College of Arts and Sciences, PI; Rob Hubal, RENCI, co-PI; Gedas Bertasius, Lucia Binnotti, Wes Cole, Ryan MacPherson, College of Arts and Sciences; Alana Campbell and Christi Fennison, School of Medicine; Elizabeth Stone, School of Nursing

A digital twin (DT) is a digital copy or model of a physical entity, with both digital and physical entities interconnected via data and artificial intelligence (AI). For the first time, this team will expand the DT concept to human behavior. In this proposal, researchers will build a digital phenome (DP) and deploy it in AI-driven virtual humans embedded in augmented and virtual reality (A/VR) applications across several domains of human life. The foundation for this DT platform will be developed in an Amazon Web Services cloud environment, along with newly collected data combined with complementary algorithms and methods.

Development of a novel platform approach to expand the degradable proteome

Investigator Team: Lindsey James, School of Pharmacy, PI; Michael Emanuele and Nicholas Brown, School of Medicine; Jon Collins, OVCR

Small molecule induced protein degradation is an emerging pharmacologic approach revolutionizing drug discovery with its potential to target a broader range of proteins than traditional small molecules; however, novel E3 ligands that can promote protein degradation are needed to expand the degradable proteome. The James lab recently identified a novel E3 ligase recruitment strategy. The multidisciplinary team will build upon this discovery and employ a platform approach to demonstrate that it has broad utility and can be applied to target a range of proteins, specifically those with known cancer relevance.

Data Science Informing the Heat-Energy-Health Equity Nexus

Investigator Team: Noah Kittner, Gillings School of Global Public Health, PI; Richard Smith, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Angel Hsu, and Cassandra Davis, College of Arts and Sciences; Jason West, Gillings School of Global Public Health; Iheoma Iruka, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute; Ashok Krishnamurthy, RENCI

There are major data gaps in our understanding of how heat, energy burdens, and justice are distributed across communities, and which populations are the most vulnerable with a rapidly changing climate. This project integrates cutting-edge data science methods, climate science, energy systems, and public health equity to address the heat-related impacts of climate change on marginalized communities, while also considering citizen voices through focus groups, surveys, and community engagement. The proposed team plans to develop fine-resolution temperature, climate, and air pollution models at an intra-urban scale to understand how heat is distributed and who is most affected.

Program on Antimicrobial Resistance at UNC to promote Scientific Excellence (PAUSE)

Investigator Team: David van Duin, School of Medicine, PI; Sid Thakur, N.C. State, co-PI; Gauri Rao, School of Pharmacy, co-PI; Brian Conlon, School of Medicine, co-PI; Kathryn Salisbury, Jonathan Juliano, Kevin Alby, and Adam Rosenthal, School of Medicine; Joe Brown and Jill Stewart, Gillings School of Global Public Health; Joshua Pierce, N.C. State

Bacterial antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global leading cause of morbidity and mortality. The origins of multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria that cause AMR infections in patients all over North Carolina are diverse and complex to untangle. PAUSE will use a “One Health” approach to address AMR and bring together research strengths present at various schools and departments at UNC-Chapel Hill in basic science, pharmacology, epidemiology, clinical research, and environmental studies. Through this, PAUSE hopes to determine the clinical impact and sources of clinically relevant AMR bacteria and optimize diagnosis and treatment approaches to AMR infections.

Investigating the forces shaping genetic variation across time, space, and species in Aedes

Investigator Team: Daniel Matute, College of Arts and Sciences, PI; Daniel Schrider, Ross Boyce, and Nathaniel Moorman, School of Medicine, co-PI; Sophie McCoy, Diego Riveros-Iregui, and Allen Hurlbert, College of Arts and Sciences, co-PI; Francesca Tripodi, School of Information and Library Sciences, co-PI

The effects of climate change will manifest as novel environmental pressures for many species, and it is therefore expected to alter patterns of genetic variation within and between species. Mosquitoes of the genus Aedes are especially relevant because their range is expected to expand with climate change, and because they can transmit several impactful diseases. Understanding the dynamics of how vectors adapt to new environments when they spread to a new area is a key question that remains largely unexplored and can contribute to the understanding of disease risk. The team will leverage the power of citizen science and sampling the community of disease vectors in the next decade. This will result in a collection scheme that is unprecedented for any organism. This sampling will reveal the temporal abundances of Aedes in North Carolina, but also will show the speed and direction of range expansion of different species of Aedes. The proposal aims to detect genes affected by natural selection by examining population genomic time-series data collected from multiple locations. This level of detail provides a novel opportunity to understand how vector species expand across time and range.

To date, the Creativity Hubs program has yielded meaningful scientific progress, and contributed to extramural funding support to UNC-Chapel Hill exceeding $204 million and counting. The finalists for this round will prepare full proposals and present their project ideas in the spring semester. The winning team(s) will then be eligible for up to $500,000 in continued funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research to execute their proposals over the next two years.

Creativity Hubs awardees receive proposal development assistance from the Office of Research Development to pursue large-scale, follow-on awards that build from the program’s funding.