The Graduate School's annual Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Awards recognize graduate students for contributions they are making to our state. These awards are possible thanks to the unwavering support of the Graduate Education Advancement Board (GEAB).

The longstanding GEAB Impact Award recognizes discoveries with a direct impact on our state in the present time. New for 2017, the Horizon Award recognizes discoveries with future potential to benefit North Carolina (and beyond).

Rachel Bleich

Exploring Bacteria's Defenses to Support Antibiotic Creation

Rachel Bleich, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Horizon Award

The rising incidence of antibiotic resistance has become one of the world's foremost health crises. North Carolina has seen a dramatic increase in hospitalizations due to one pathogenic microbe, Clostridium difficile—from 3,076 in 2000 to 10,271 in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Natural products, which have developed intricate mechanisms for survival, may provide an innovative avenue for antibiotic creation. Doctoral student Rachel Bleich focused on discovering and testing promising natural compounds.

Advances in genome sequencing have greatly increased knowledge about bacteria's untapped potential in fighting infection. Bleich and her research team scoured bacterial genomes to find genes for possible new antibiotics. She collaborated with a local biotech company and with the lab of UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor Elizabeth Shank, Ph.D. Through this collaboration, genes for thousands of previously undiscovered compounds were identified.

Bleich tested one class of natural product antibiotics, the thiopeptides, for its effect on biofilms. Bacteria form biofilms to ward off antibiotic attack; biofilm formation is associated with up to 80 percent of bacterial infections. The thiopeptides she tested caused a C. difficile model organism to produce biofilm faster, thus making it potentially less effective as an antibiotic—but disclosing an inherent activity of the thiopeptides. In the race to find new antibiotics, Bleich has collaborated effectively to identify compounds that merit investigation and test their biological activity at an early stage to determine long-term effectiveness.

"In every instance, when an experiment has been needed, she has found someone to teach her the technique and developed her skill to the point where she acquires fantastic data. She has no fear with respect to her scientific research," said adviser Albert Bowers, Ph.D.

Katy Brown

Testing for Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria in Environmental Waters

Katy Brown, Environmental Sciences and Engineering

Horizon Award

Antimicrobial resistance is increasing and threatens the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases worldwide. Antibiotics and antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) are released into the environment through the release of human, agricultural, medical and industrial waste. There are no globally coordinated efforts for the surveillance and response to ARB. In response, doctoral student Katy Brown, for her master's degree thesis, performed an evaluation of a prototype method proposed by the World Health Organization for a direct, one-step, culture-based detection of ARB in non-clinical, environmental hotspots.

Environmental samples were collected in Chapel Hill and included raw domestic and hospital sewage, treated sewage effluent, and surface water from a stream in which the sewage effluent is released. Brown collaborated with multiple organizations: UNC Hospitals, the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua-León's microbiology and medical sciences department.

The prototype testing method was also developed as a low-cost and accessible method available to researchers worldwide, particularly in low-income, low-capacity settings. Highly resistant bacteria were found in every sample taken during this study, with an estimated 44 percent of coliforms in hospital sewage and 12 percent of coliforms in raw sewage resistant to medically important type of antibiotics. Her findings merit evaluation across other geographic regions in the United States and abroad using parallel, matching methods to identify ARB threats and detect outbreaks. These methods have promise as a low-cost, portable monitoring system to support environmental surveillance.

"Katy has contributed new insights into the presence of highly antimicrobial resistant enteric bacteria in a representative urban community and the extent to which these bacteria enter the aquatic environment and potentially impact downstream uses of this water. Her evaluation methods are simple yet powerful enough to gain wide use both locally and globally," said adviser Mark Sobsey, Ph.D.

Julia Browne

Increasing Walking Among People with Schizophrenia

Julia Browne, Psychology

GEAB Impact Award

Statistics indicate that people with schizophrenia have a life expectancy up to 25 years shorter than people in the general population. This premature mortality often results from preventable causes, such as physical inactivity. Doctoral student Julia Browne conducted a study with the goal of creating a cost-effective and accessible exercise intervention for North Carolinians with schizophrenia. She first met with 14 individuals with schizophrenia and 12 treating clinicians to discuss barriers to exercise and best strategies for increasing exercise. Both groups identified walking as the most accessible and favorable form of exercise and noted the benefits of a group-based program. They also made recommendations to enhance motivation and compensate for barriers; recommendations included the use of pedometers and having a time for “after walk sharing.”

Browne and her research team then created Work Out by Walking (WOW), which featured walking groups, pedometer use, social interaction, goal-setting, daily contact with research staff, feedback on progress and financial incentives. The 10-week program was offered to 16 individuals with schizophrenia who were receiving treatment at a local community mental health center. Participants experienced notable improvement in their activity level, mental and physical health, quality of life and perceived social support.

Browne and her mentor David Penn, Ph.D., partnered with UNC-Chapel Hill exercise physiology expert Claudio Battaglini, Ph.D., and psychiatrist Fred Jarskog, M.D., to develop an enhanced version of WOW. The updated intervention was tested at the same clinic in fall 2016. Browne's continuing work provides a promising and innovative approach to exercise and may help North Carolinians with schizophrenia lead longer and more fulfilling lives.

"Julia is tackling a significant public health issue in our state: the premature death of individuals with schizophrenia. The beauty of her research is that it can be disseminated to mental health clinics statewide and does not require specialized clinician training or resources. The brightness of her academic career is matched by her passion for helping this clinical population," said adviser David Penn, Ph.D.

James Byrnes

Detecting, Disrupting Mechanisms Leading to Blood Clots

James Byrnes, Pathology

Horizon Award

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when clots form in the veins; the condition affects an estimated 28,000 North Carolina residents a year. In addition to severely reducing quality of life, these clots can travel to the lungs and cause a medical emergency known as pulmonary embolism. The laboratory team of professor Alisa Wolberg, Ph.D., discovered that a blood protein known as factor XIII makes clots larger (when it's active) or smaller (when it's inactive). Doctoral student James Byrnes contributed crucial information on the mechanisms behind this discovery.

Clots in the veins primarily contain red blood cells and fibrin. When clotting is triggered, fibrinogen molecules stick together to make fibrin, which is the scaffold of the clot. Factor XIII binds fibrinogen, and as the clot forms, factor XIII crosslinks fibrin to strengthen the clot. Previous studies within UNC-Chapel Hill's physics department implicated a specific fibrin region in promoting clot strength. In the context of these findings, Byrnes identified that factor XIII crosslinking in this same region makes the fibrin strong enough to trap red blood cells during clot formation, making the clot larger. He also created "mutant" fibrinogens that cannot be crosslinked or bind factor XIII, observing that these fibrinogens disrupted mechanisms crucial for clot strengthening and red blood cell trapping.

Byrnes' findings highlight two promising avenues for reducing thrombosis: inhibiting factor XIII and blocking factor XIII's binding to fibrinogen. His valuable new knowledge is aiding the development of novel drugs that prevent dangerous clots.

"His work has tremendous potential for understanding how factor XIII works in healthy individuals, and how it might be targeted to reduce dangerous blood clots in patients," said adviser Alisa Wolberg, Ph.D.

Mary Beth Fitts

Studying Pottery, Food Processing Habits to Uncover Catawba Nation History

Mary Beth Fitts, Anthropology

GEAB Impact Award

North Carolina is home to eight state-recognized American Indian tribes, according to the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs. Accounts of the strategies these tribes employed to maintain autonomy and protect their livelihoods are essential components of our state's history. Mary Beth Fitts, Ph.D., has produced new insights concerning the effects of colonial period stress and uncertainty on conditions of daily life in the Catawba Indian Nation.

Located south of present-day Charlotte, the mid-18th-century Catawba Nation included the adjoining Catawba villages of Nassaw and Weyapee, and the refugee community of Charraw Town. Historic documents provide limited information on the daily lives of colonial-era American Indians, so Fitts examined pottery, carbonized plant materials and animal bone from Nassaw, Weyapee and Charraw Town to gain insights into day-to-day life. Undergraduate students with UNC-Chapel Hill's Research Laboratories of Archaeology assisted in excavating and processing artifacts from these sites.

Many of the items, such as pottery and the remains of food processing activities, were created by women. Her findings suggest that Catawba women, including Charraw refugees, were forming vessels with knowledge gained from potters in neighboring villages. Data also suggest that Nassaw women intensified agricultural production of maize to mitigate food insecurity, while Charraw refugees supplemented staple foods by gathering more fruit. Her discoveries suggest that there was cooperation among Catawba towns, especially in food production. Fitts' work, to be published by the University Press of Florida in 2017, highlights a somewhat hidden aspect of Native community history and the strong contributions that women made to Catawba sovereignty.

"Mary Beth's work adds new perspectives to our understanding of American Indian history. It also has a direct impact on the members of the Catawba Nation's ability to maintain their heritage and to tell the narrative of their contribution to our state and nation," said adviser Margaret Scarry, Ph.D.

Diane Francis

The Role of Messaging in Reducing STI Transmission

Diane Francis, Media and Journalism

GEAB Impact Award

Women account for almost 25 percent of new HIV infections in North Carolina, with African-American women representing 71 percent of those diagnoses, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Condoms can prevent transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Yet young women, in particular, may experience embarrassment when accessing condoms. To improve condom access for young African-American women, Diane Francis, Ph.D., evaluated an innovative condom distribution and health communication initiative. Due to the focus on young African-American women, the study took place at an all-women's historically black college/university (HBCU) in the state.

Dispensers featuring targeted safer sex messages were installed in dormitory bathrooms across the HBCU campus. The UNC-Chapel Hill Center for AIDS Research funded the initiative; project members were co-principal investigators Francis and Seth Noar, Ph.D., of UNC-Chapel Hill and co-investigator Deborah Fortune, Ph.D., of North Carolina Central University. Prior to launching the initiative, the team conducted extensive research to develop the messages that were placed on the dispensers.

Surveys were collected immediately before and three months after the dispensers were installed. Follow-up interviews also explored how students felt about the dispensers and messages. The initiative was found to improve perceptions of condom access and to support safer sex behaviors. The college plans to continue the campus program, even though the study has ended. Francis' research demonstrates the effectiveness of initiatives combining health communication and condom distribution toward the goal of reducing HIV/STI transmission in North Carolina.

"Diane's deep commitment to this project made it so successful. I am proud that her study not only contributed to the science in this area, but also changed the safer sex climate on a college campus in ways that will prevent AIDS and other STDs," said adviser Seth Noar, Ph.D.

Kirstin Frescoln

Examining Charlotte Housing Authority's Work Requirement

Kirstin Frescoln, City and Regional Planning

GEAB Impact Award

The Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA) is one of eight public housing authorities nationwide that enforces a work requirement for work-able residents. The CHA contracted with UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Urban and Regional Studies to conduct a 10-year evaluation of a series of reforms including the work requirement. Doctoral student Kirstin Frescoln directed research, as a part of the study, to inform policymakers on why and how the work requirements have been implemented, and the policy's effect on family well-being. Her work and that of the center is believed to be the only empirical evaluation of public housing work requirements.

Frescoln's findings indicate that Charlotte's public housing work policy, which is implemented with case management and employment supports, largely fulfills the CHA's goal of enhancing family economic mobility. A majority of residents she interviewed said they support the work requirement. Wage employment was found to increase while eviction rates did not, and family well-being was not found to decrease as a result of the policy. Frescoln interviewed housing authority staff from the eight U.S. housing authorities with work requirements, and CHA leadership, managers, front-line staff and residents subject to the work requirement. She interviewed residents subject to the Charlotte policy three times and shared her reports with interviewees to ensure accuracy and gain their perspective on additional questions she should ask.

Frescoln's findings are critical to state and national policymakers who are considering the potential effectiveness of public housing work requirements and the needs of people living within these communities.

"There is very little research on the effects of work requirements on public housing residents who would lose their housing assistance if they do not work. Kirstin's dissertation research has the potential to have wide-ranging implications for housing policy and practice in Charlotte and throughout the United States," said adviser Mai Nguyen, Ph.D.

Elijah Gaddis

Digitally Interpreting North Carolina's Past

Elijah Gaddis, American Studies

GEAB Impact Award

Digital tools and shared memories can combine to make history accessible in far-reaching ways. Doctoral student Elijah Gaddis has managed digital projects that are allowing North Carolinians to learn and contribute to community history. In the “Digital Loray” project, professor Robert Allen, Ph.D., Gaddis and a team of UNC-Chapel Hill students, faculty and staff told the history of Gastonia's Loray Mill, which was in operation from 1901 through 1993. Gaddis spent more than three years on the project, partnering with cultural heritage and community organizations and several individuals—amassing a digital collection of 2,000 items. Through a crowdsourcing tool, Gastonia residents and other visitors to the site can share their own memories.

In the “Locating Lynching” project, assistant professor Seth Kotch, Ph.D., Gaddis and about 75 undergraduates have documented the victims of lynching in North Carolina from 1865 to 1941. The undergraduates researched information on the victims' jobs, family members and communities, and Gaddis created a map showing the location of each lynching. “This project tells the story of 147 people,” Gaddis says. “That means there are thousands of descendants and relatives who can better understand their own histories and 60 North Carolina counties whose residents are better able to account for the history of the place they live, work and raise families in.”

Gaddis, Allen and Seth Kotch, Ph.D., co-founded the Community Histories Workshop, whose members are focused on new digital projects that help Carolinians understand, and contribute their own memories to, community history.

"He acts on the principle that history is something that serves people, bringing communities together around public memory and building better, richly informed futures," said adviser Bernard Herman, Ph.D.

Adam Gold

Stormwater Ponds and Their Connections to Coastal Water Quality

Adam Gold, Environment and Ecology

GEAB Impact Award

Nitrogen is of great concern to coastal North Carolina: Excess amounts of this nutrient, a byproduct of development, can cause harmful algal blooms and a decrease in water quality. State guidelines and current scientific literature suggest that stormwater ponds permanently remove nitrogen from the environment. Most research guiding stormwater management has taken place in areas other than the coast; guidelines are applied to the coast despite important distinctions in soils and terrain.

Master's degree student Adam Gold sought to fill a gap in what is known of stormwater ponds by analyzing pond nitrogen removal in coastal North Carolina. Gold's research took place on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, as a component of a Defense Coastal/Estuarine Research Program project. He collected sediment cores and water samples from five stormwater ponds encompassing a range of ages. At the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, his team conducted tests to determine the flux of gases from the sediment surface to assess stormwater pond nitrogen dynamics.

Gold's study showed that stormwater ponds become less effective at permanently removing nitrogen over time and can become continuous sources of nitrogen during the summer as the ponds age. Results from his research indicate that stormwater ponds can add nitrogen during the summer through sediment nitrogen fixation. Additionally, Gold found that the landscape-wide implementation of stormwater ponds in a coastal residential neighborhood was unable to mitigate the negative effects of development on stream water quality, particularly elevated nitrogen concentrations. His results will inform stormwater management in coastal North Carolina.

"Adam's project provides actionable information for coastal water quality managers and improves our understanding of the role of stormwater control measures in coastal nutrient cycling," said adviser Michael Piehler, Ph.D.

Yuhang Jiang

Preventing Brain Injury to Stroke Patients

Yuhang Jiang, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Horizon Award

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the number-one cause of long-term disability in North Carolina. An estimated 20 percent of stroke survivors require long-term health care, and up to 30 percent are permanently disabled. Current treatment focuses on restoring blood flow (known as reperfusion) as quickly as possible, but this life-saving process creates complications that can cause irreversible brain damage. Copper/zinc superoxide dismutase (SOD1) has the potential to effectively fight reperfusion injury, but this enzyme is not stable in the circulation and exits the body rapidly.

Yuhang Jiang, Ph.D., focused on developing a formulation for SOD1 that would protect it in the circulation and keep it in the body for a longer period of time. His team developed a semi-permeable, biodegradable "cage" carrying SOD1 that circulates within the blood stream; this system is injected at the same time blood flow is being restored. The cage prevents SOD1's exposure to blood components that degrade it and allows free flow of reactive oxygen species (ROS), a prime factor in reperfusion injury. As ROS flows into the cage, SOD1 removes it. Jiang's delivery system for SOD1 was found to reduce its clearance from the kidneys by half, lengthen its circulation time by three-fold and reduce total stroke damage by 60 percent on a mouse model of stroke. His discoveries, already the subject of two research papers, offer promise in preventing stroke-related brain damage.

"The advance of pharmaceutical science and translational medicine needs more talented and hard-working young scientists like Yuhang. He has a passionate dedication to providing an affordable medical solution for reperfusion injury in North Carolina stroke patients," said adviser Alexander Kabanov, Ph.D., Dr.Sci.

Bianca Lopez

The Changing Nature of Urban Forests

Bianca Lopez, Environment and Ecology

GEAB Impact Award

The Research Triangle area's population has almost tripled since 1980. Some of the development accompanying this growth has replaced forests and created smaller forest patches separated by roads, parking lots and housing developments. During three summers, doctoral student Bianca Lopez focused on the impact of urban development on plants within 50 Research Triangle forest sites next to streams. Lopez found no difference in the number of plant species within urban and rural forests; however, urban forests have more introduced species (such as ornamental plants introduced by the horticultural industry) and fewer species native to North Carolina than rural forests. She also discovered that urban development appears to alter the plant species composition of forests, primarily through changes in local environmental conditions (particularly warmer temperatures) and less movement of seeds among forest patches.

Former doctoral student Liz Matthews, Ph.D., had documented plant species composition at the best remaining examples of forest situated near streams. By comparing urban forest sites to these reference sites, Lopez found that many rare species found in reference sites are absent from urban forests. Native species whose seeds travel only short distances are also found at lower frequencies in urban forests than in reference sites. These results suggest potential challenges for maintaining and restoring native plant biodiversity in urban areas.

Lopez has identified plant species that are highly affected by urban development and those that are resilient to this process. Her study findings indicate the need to set aside larger forest patches for conservation to encourage seed movement and buffer the effects of warmer urban temperatures. She plans to share her information with city and state officials to inform forest conservation and restoration policies.

"Other studies focus on larger urban areas such as New York City, Baltimore and Phoenix, meaning that Bianca's focus on the Research Triangle area will document a new kind of situation. Her work will inform land-use and land management decisions in our area," said adviser Peter White, Ph.D.

Maggie Reinsvold

Detecting Heart Risk Factors for Farmworkers

Maggie Reinsvold, Public Health Leadership

GEAB Impact Award

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers number more than 86,000 in the state, according to 2009 N.C. Employment Security Commission estimates. The number increases to more than 155,000 when dependents are included. Research involving the health of these workers has primarily centered on occupational and environmental health concerns. Little to no research has been conducted to understand the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors within the state's farmworker population. Recent master's degree graduate Maggie Reinsvold focused on this under-resourced area of research, conducting a study involving migrant and seasonal farmworkers served by the N.C. Farmworker Health Program in 2012 and 2015.

Reinsvold led all data analysis and research coordination, with UNC-Chapel Hill professor Anthony Viera, M.D., and assistant professor Gayle Thomas, M.D., providing consultation and advising. Outreach workers collected demographic and clinical data during annual health assessments. Reinsvold's research found 23 percent of farmworkers served by the N.C. Farmworker Health Program included in the study were hypertensive (i.e. blood pressure measured at or above 140/90) in 2012 and 25.6 percent of the population in 2015. Additionally 78.7 percent of all participating farmworkers with body mass index data available were overweight or obese in 2015. Finally, compared to seasonal farmworkers, migrant farmworkers demonstrated nearly double the odds of hypertension in 2012, and more than 1.5 the odds of hypertension in 2015.

The N.C. Farmworker Health Program is using Reinsvold's research to improve blood pressure screening and cardiovascular health of farmworkers. Her research provides greater understanding of broader health challenges facing this underserved population in North Carolina.

"Maggie carefully considered in advance how her analysis could be used to increase awareness of issues in farmworker health and how the information could be shared," said adviser Anthony Viera, M.D.

Dalia Stern

Do More Food Shopping Options Lead to Healthier Decisions?

Dalia Stern, Nutrition

GEAB Impact Award

About 30 percent of N.C. adults and 37 percent of U.S. adults are obese, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. Some leading research has suggested that less access to grocery stores and higher access to smaller store types, such as convenience stores, are contributing to the national obesity epidemic. But does shopping at grocery stores lead to healthier food purchases, compared to other types of stores?

Dalia Stern, Ph.D., examined where people shopped for food, what foods they purchased and the nutrient profile of their purchases. She used information collected from a large, nationally representative sample of households between 2000 and 2012. Stern's analysis suggests that while grocery stores account for the majority of U.S. household food purchases, a growing volume of packaged food purchases are occurring at mass merchandisers. Racial minority households are more likely to shop at a combination of large and small stores, compared to non-Hispanic white households.

Her findings show no nutritionally meaningful differences in the energy, sugar, saturated fat and sodium content of total packaged food and beverages purchased at grocery stores, mass merchandisers, warehouse clubs and convenience stores. Additionally, salty snacks, grain-based-desserts, breads and tortillas, candy and sweet snacks, sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit juices were among the main food and beverage groups purchased in all types of stores. Stern's research suggests that future food policies focused on improving eating habits should go beyond healthy food access and should incorporate consumers' complex shopping behavior—and their ease in locating less nutritious food and beverages in all stores.

"Dr. Stern's research was particularly innovative and impactful. It was the first nationally representative set of studies that showed that low-income and minority shoppers did not just shop at local small bodegas or similar small stores that had no produce or healthy food but rather they all shopped at a mixture of stores—from supermarkets to large club stores to small local stores that represented what we call food deserts," said adviser Barry Popkin, Ph.D.

Frank Stillo III

Water Quality, Health Disparities in Wake County

Frank Stillo III, Environmental Sciences and Engineering

GEAB Impact Award

North Carolina households without access to municipal water service typically rely on private wells for their drinking water. These households are solely responsible for ensuring their water's quality. Several studies have identified African-American communities that are completely encircled by municipal borders yet remain without access to municipal water services.

Associate professor Jackie MacDonald Gibson, Ph.D., had conducted research within communities meeting these geographic criteria in Wake County, finding that the likelihood of exclusion from that county's municipal water service increased with the proportion of African Americans in the population. Her research identified 1,010 households with approximately 3,800 residents adjacent to municipal borders that lack connections to nearby municipal water infrastructure. Although previous studies have documented disparities in access to municipal water service, little is known about health risks of exclusion from municipal water service. Doctoral student Frank Stillo III followed up with residents in Gibson's study, testing private well water samples for 57 households. He recruited and trained volunteers from a UNC-Chapel Hill student organization to collect the samples and perform microbial testing.

Overall, 65 percent of homes and 47 percent of samples tested positive for microbial contamination. Stillo used these findings in estimating the number of emergency department visits for acute gastrointestinal illness within the neighborhoods studied. He found that about 22 percent of 114 annual emergency room visits may be attributable to private well water contamination. Stillo's study findings have informed N.C. Division of Public Health outreach initiatives to affected Wake County residents and policy discussions on solutions to drinking water disparities in North Carolina.

"Frank's research has not only had impacts on programs within the North Carolina Division of Public Health but also has directly benefited individual North Carolina households struggling to ensure the safety of their drinking water," said adviser Jackie MacDonald Gibson, Ph.D.

Libbie Weimer

Environmental Justice Issues Related to Coal Ash

Libbie Weimer, City and Regional Planning

GEAB Impact Award

After a massive coal ash spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the first state law regulating coal ash waste: the Coal Ash Management Act. Race and socio-economic class are not included among the law's criteria for determining site prioritization and cleanup methods. Recent master's degree graduate Libbie Weimer sought to create an environmental justice profile of the communities affected by the state's 14 coal ash ponds and the two permitted coal ash landfills.

Using block-level data, Weimer measured total population density and other demographics, as well as estimating income, in regions that were one, three and five kilometers from each site. She incorporated information from the Environmental Protection Agency Toxic Release Inventory on facilities and pounds of onsite releases within five kilometers of each site, and then compared the data to local-, county- and state-level data. Of the 16 coal ash sites in North Carolina, her findings indicated that 14 have at least one measure of disproportionate impact to communities of color. For nine of the 16 sites, the closest buffer distance had the largest proportion of people of color. Clustered polluting facilities, as identified in EPA data, are present in 10 of the 16 sites.

Weimer also attended a community meeting and two public hearings, conducted four interviews, met informally with community organizers and had informational phone conversations with government officials. Based on this outreach, her demographic findings and other published data, Weimer recommends that policymakers employ environmental justice screening, increase opportunities for community participation and strengthen solid waste regulations.

"I believe Libbie's research findings will play an important role in guiding environmental decision-making by providing finer grained data that shifts policy conversations towards more equitable outcomes in North Carolina and nationwide," said adviser Danielle Spurlock, Ph.D.

Joshua Welch

Analyzing Cell 'Snapshots' to Improve Heart Disease Treatment

Joshua Welch, Computer Science

Horizon Award

Heart disease is the second leading cause of death in North Carolina. Heart damage from injury or disease is so serious because once an adult's beating heart muscle cells are lost, they cannot regenerate. Scar tissue builds around the damaged muscle cells, and this tissue cannot beat along with the healthy heart muscle tissue. The laboratory of UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor Li Qian, Ph.D., has developed direct cardiac reprogramming, which can convert heart scar tissue cells back into heart muscle cells. However, only a small fraction of cells exposed to the reprogramming treatment actually become healthy again.

Scientists need a precise understanding of changes leading to successful reprogramming, and doctoral student Joshua Welch has developed a computational approach, called SLICER, that holds promise. The approach uses experimental “snapshots” of genes that are turned on within single cells during a biological process such as cardiac reprogramming. The snapshots are from different points in the process, and they are in random order. SLICER identifies the correct order and the biological changes can then be observed in the proper sequence. Welch's team applied SLICER to experimental data from Qian's research group—and the approach identified thousands of genes that turn on or off during cardiac reprogramming. This analysis also revealed "roadblock" genes that may explain why only a subset of cells respond to the reprogramming treatment. SLICER's novel approach is producing insights into direct cardiac reprogramming that may ultimately improve treatment for heart disease.

"The implications of Josh's work for the treatment of heart attacks are enormous. It may take many years for this to reach clinical application, but the applications of his methods to the field are already profound," said adviser Jan Prins, Ph.D.

Sierra Woodruff

Helping N.C. Communities Plan for Climate Change

Sierra Woodruff, Environment and Ecology

GEAB Impact Award

Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, heavier precipitation, more intense storms and other signatures of climate change will have profound consequences for N.C. local governments. Many communities across the country and several communities in North Carolina are creating climate adaptation plans, which detail how climate change is projected to impact the area and what actions should be taken to prepare. Doctoral student Sierra Woodruff examined current adaptation planning practice in the United States to identify promising practices and potential weaknesses in these efforts. Specifically, she scored 44 U.S. local climate change adaptation plans on 124 criteria and then conducted case studies and interviews with stakeholders.

Woodruff discovered that these plans drew upon multiple data sources to analyze future climate impacts and that they included a breadth of strategies. Most plans she studied, however, fail to prioritize strategies or provide implementation details. Her findings suggest that to improve adaptation planning in North Carolina, plan authors should 1) provide implementation details such as timelines, costs and evaluation metrics, 2) consider a range of potential future scenarios to most effectively account for uncertainty and 3) coordinate adaptation with existing planning efforts. Additionally, her research suggests that planners and elected officials should be engaged in the planning process.

Woodruff has shared her findings with policymakers, practitioners, scientists and students across the state. She has presented her findings publicly, including at the Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference, and is working with multiple stakeholders to create tools they can use to identify and prioritize strategies, and build support for adaptation plans.

"Sierra has created an entirely new way of evaluating the quality of climate adaptation plans, which can focus on the unique needs and situation of a community. Her ideas have been translated into a handbook for North Carolina communities that are hoping to plan for climate change," said adviser Todd BenDor, Ph.D.

Gongting Wu

Algorithms That Support Faster, More Accurate Diagnoses

Gongting Wu, Physics and Astronomy

Horizon Award

Breast and lung cancer are the two most frequently diagnosed cancers in North Carolina, and early detection is critical in reducing mortality. The current screening technique for lung cancer has low sensitivity and specificity; as a result, an estimated 85 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage. For breast cancer, the screening accuracy is heavily limited by the current hardware design, and breast cancer is still missed or misdiagnosed in some women.

Professors Otto Zhou, Ph.D., and Jianping Lu, Ph.D., have developed a novel X-ray imaging system for cancer screening. Using unique carbon nano-tube-based X-ray sources, their stationary digital tomosynthesis system produces a superior image quality and provides a faster imaging time, compared to commercial systems now available. Zhou and Lu have built systems for both breast imaging and chest imaging, and these technologies are in clinical trials at the N.C. Women's Hospital and the Biomedical Research Imaging Center (BRIC).

Doctoral student Gongting Wu, working with Zhou and Lu, has focused on developing the supporting software to improve the image quality for accurate diagnosis. Wu has designed and implemented image processing algorithms that recover more detailed three-dimensional patient images from two-dimensional X-ray measurement. His algorithms are also 100 times faster than other algorithms that produce similar image quality—making the software practical for clinical use. The new imaging systems, together with Wu's image processing algorithms, have the potential to improve diagnosis accuracy for breast and lung cancer screening in North Carolina and beyond.

"Gongting has developed and implemented software that is uniquely tailored to the nanotechnology-based breast and lung imaging systems invented at UNC. These new imaging systems will have the potential to increase the sensitivity of detecting breast and lung disease such as cancer and cystic fibrosis, benefiting a large population of patients including pediatric and young children," said adviser Jianping Lu, Ph.D.

Jicheng Yu

'Smart' Insulin Patch for Diabetes Management

Jicheng Yu, Biomedical Engineering

Horizon Award

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a “diabetes belt,” located primarily within the southeastern United States, in which residents are more likely to have type 2 diabetes. Thirty N.C. counties are in that region.

Diabetes can lead to serious health complications, including kidney failure and blindness. Current treatment for type 1 and advanced type 2 diabetic patients requires frequent blood glucose testing and may involve multiple insulin injections each day. Doctoral student Jicheng Yu and UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University associate professor Zhen Gu, Ph.D., focused on designing a “smart insulin patch” that can be readily administered onto the skin without pain, sense a change in blood sugar and deliver the needed dose of insulin. The laboratory team created a patch containing more than 100 very tiny needles that hold insulin-loaded vesicles. Due to the small size of the needles, the patch easily and painlessly penetrates the surface of the skin. Many very small blood vessels (capillaries) are located under the skin, and as the excess glucose from them crowds into the vesicles, a glucose-specific enzyme then enables the patch to sense this and deliver needed insulin.

In a mouse model study, the patch was found to lower blood glucose levels for up to nine hours. Most important, the smart insulin patch did not release insulin when blood glucose is at a normal level. Further studies are under way to incorporate new materials and technology toward enhancing the patch's performance—and improving the health of diabetic patients.

"This 'smart' insulin patch he developed was chosen as one of Science magazine's 'top 10 images of 2015.' The patch system is a step toward simplifying diabetes management and has widespread applications," said adviser Zhen Gu, Ph.D.