Graduate School News

Graduate students honored for helping North Carolina

April 7, 2010

UNC News Release:

From seeking to end chronic pain to working toward creation of artificial human organs, research by graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill aims to make a positive difference.

In a program Thursday (April 8), the Graduate School will present its Impact Awards to 16 graduate students whose research projects are deemed outstanding and most likely to help citizens in North Carolina and beyond.

Graduate School Dean Steven Matson, Ph.D., will preside at the annual Graduate Student Recognition event, free to the public from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the George Watts Hill Alumni Center on Stadium Drive. The award winners will present their research and receive cash prizes. The awards are privately funded by contributions from members of the Graduate Education Advancement Board.

A faculty committee selected the award-winners from among 47 applicants.

The projects concern the economic development of North Carolina, the health and human services delivered to its citizens and the quality of educational systems and environmental resources.

The work of graduate students is vital to the University's mission, Chancellor Holden Thorp said recently.

“We can't succeed at research without succeeding in graduate education,” he said. “And that's important, because the very best undergraduates want to come to universities where new ideas are part of the culture.”

This year’s Impact Award winners and their projects are listed below alphabetically by North Carolina county and by state. All study in the College of Arts and Sciences unless otherwise noted.

Devin Barrett, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, designed biodegradable polymers, a form of plastics, from naturally occurring molecules, focusing on possibilities of creating artificial organs. Barrett's dissertation adviser, Muhammad Yousaf, assistant professor of chemistry, said, “Devin’s research strategy has separated him from the rest of the field while highlighting his creativity. His research can help the field of tissue engineering become a more reliable alternative for patients suffering from organ failure.”

Valerie Cooley, who recently earned a doctorate in public policy, studied data from 93 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, examining use and effects of community-based sanctions for juvenile offenders — that is, punishments other than jail, such as community service. Cooley found that greater availability of local sanctions reduced juvenile crime and custody rates, and that community residential programs had the strongest effects. Her work supports efforts to strengthen local sanctions and create more residential facilities in lieu of prisons for juvenile offenders.

Jennifer Costanza is a doctoral candidate in environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She looked at ways to improve management of longleaf pine ecosystems in North Carolina and found public-private partnerships to be most effective in accomplishing preservation goals. For example, they help landowners work together to minimize risks of such restoration activities as prescribed burning. Her faculty adviser, Aaron Moody, an associate professor of geography, said longleaf pine forests are part of the history, identity and future of North Carolina.

Jennifer Marie Gierisch is a doctoral candidate in health behavior and health education in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She noted that North Carolina ranks in the top 15 states in breast cancer-related deaths, with more than 1,300 each year. Gierisch found that women were less likely to get regular mammograms if they were less satisfied with their last mammography experiences, reported one or more barriers to getting mammograms, had fair to poor health or were aged 40 to 49. Her findings may help structure public health programs to promote regular mammography.

Kathryn Hamilton, a doctoral candidate in cell and molecular physiology in the School of Medicine, used human colon cancer cell lines to explore the role of a protein, which she found can limit intestinal cancer. More study will determine whether the protein is silenced in the intestines of patients with increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Her research has the potential to identify the protein’s promise in new drug development or improve early detection and survival.

Penelope Hatch, who recently completed a doctorate in speech and hearing sciences in the School of Medicine, studied 43 adolescents in a North Carolina school who had moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. She found that daily access to a range of age- and ability-appropriate texts improved their reading — even more so when the access was provided by teachers familiar with comprehensive literacy instruction. Her research may impact students with disabilities and their teachers across North Carolina.

Findings by Andrew C. Hemmert, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry and biophysics in the School of Medicine, has the potential to help advance North Carolina's biotechnology industry and save soldiers' lives. He developed a protein-based therapy with the ability to detoxify nerve agents used in warfare much faster than current treatments. He is working on an injectable version to protect soldiers, and on mini-detectors to signal the presence of nerve agents. Hemmert's results are being examined at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

Maiysha D. Jones is a doctoral candidate in environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She identified bacteria capable of biodegrading industrial pollutants called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are present in 32 hazardous waste sites in North Carolina. Her research has the potential to contribute to a lower cost, environmentally friendly technology that would help reduce the risk of human exposure to potentially carcinogenic compounds and eventually allow development on previously contaminated sites.

Recent graduate Kathryn Remmes Martin earned a doctorate in health behavior and health education in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She analyzed data from a sample of North Carolinians in 32 communities. She found that the availability of public transportation and the numbers of restaurants and hospital beds in any given community affected how many healthy versus unhealthy days the study subjects reported. Community poverty was linked to unhealthy days. Martin’s findings may help policy makers better allocate resources where they might make the biggest impact.

Elizabeth R. Matthews, a doctoral candidate in environment and ecology, is compiling detailed vegetation information on floodplain ecosystems. Many such areas have been destroyed or degraded. Matthews collected data in hardwood forested wetlands of the five major North Carolina Piedmont river basins: the Cape Fear, Catawba, Neuse, Tar and Yadkin. Biology professor Robert Peet, her dissertation co-adviser, said that Matthews’ work promises to increase the success and decrease the cost of wetland restoration programs in North Carolina.

Geography doctoral candidate Timothy P. Morrissey used publicly available data to create an automated system for identifying potential new public water supplies in North Carolina. His work has the potential to impact government agencies charged with managing water resources. In recent years, droughts, population growth and economic development have sometimes left municipal water supplies alarmingly low. Morrissey’s work may affect future reservoir location studies across North Carolina.

Stephen D. Richardson is a doctoral candidate in environmental sciences and engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. He noted that through the mid-1900s, manufactured gas plants provided much of the country's energy. Poor waste management at these sites resulted in contamination of soil and ground and surface water. North Carolina has more than 30 such sites. Richardson treated some of the soil with a technique that uses natural soil micro-organisms to degrade the contaminants. His findings have the potential to help remediate contaminated sites.

Alexis M. Silver, a doctoral candidate in sociology, studied a rural North Carolina community where numbers of Latino residents grew from negligible in 1990 to half the population at present. She focused on documented and undocumented children of immigrants as they moved from high school to college or jobs. Silver found that school programs and close-knit communities can help to propel these youth toward upward mobility. Her findings have policy implications for North Carolina as its Latino population continues to grow.

Nathaniel A. Sowa, a doctoral candidate in neurobiology in the School of Medicine, identified two members of a class of proteins that inhibit pain signals in the body, creating pain-relieving compounds in the nervous system. Sowa also created injectable forms of the proteins and found that they relieved pain eight times longer than morphine. Of current painkillers, none is completely effective and some have undesirable side effects. Sowa’s discoveries hold promise for the estimated 30 percent of North Carolinians who suffer from chronic pain.

Melanie B. Weed is a doctoral candidate in toxicology in the School of Medicine. She noted that from 1999 to 2008 in North Carolina, the percentage of adults who are overweight increased 5.5 percent; the percentage of obese adults grew by 15.5 percent. Weed discovered an unsuspected role of a certain receptor in the body in regulating fat metabolism and obesity. She found that a drug inhibiting the receptor, now used to treat cancer, could reduce fat mass. Her discoveries have the potential to spawn new treatments that can reduce weight gain as well as cancer risk.

History doctoral candidate Timothy Joseph Williams noted that in the early 19th century, Northerners viewed Southern schools as teaching sectional loyalty, and their students as dimwitted, brash and immoral. In UNC libraries, Williams studied letters, diaries, literary society records and other materials of UNC students during that time. He found that the young men appeared to be learning to lead virtuous, responsible lives; they viewed education as key to advancing North Carolina and developed the American values of industry, temperance and discipline.

Photos: To download photos of the winners, visit