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), whose members truly believe in the importance of graduate education at Carolina.
Isoprene, a naturally occurring emission from trees, does not pose a significant threat to human health and the climate. However, in combination with emissions from coal-fired power plants and vehicles, isoprene can lead to the formation of particles with potentially adverse effects. Little is known about the toxicity of these newly discovered isoprene-derived particles, and doctoral student Maiko Arashiro is investigating whether or not inhalation of these particles can contribute to lung inflammation.
In the study, human bronchial epithelial cells were exposed to particles generated in the Gillings Outdoor Chamber located on the rooftop of the Gillings School of Global Public Health. Within this controlled setting, investigators are able to make injections of pollutants to simulate atmospheric reactions. Results show a statistically significant increase in expression of two genes associated with lung inflammation after the cells were exposed to isoprene-derived particles.
It is believed that Arashiro and other members of the laboratory of Jason Surratt, Ph.D., in collaboration with Rebecca Fry, Ph.D., Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D., Avram Gold, Ph.D., and Kenneth Sexton, Ph.D., have demonstrated for the first time that this newly recognized source of fine particulate matter could potentially harm human lung cells.
"This work could have important policy and regulatory implications, especially since isoprene-derived particulate matter is enhanced when combined with emissions from coal-fired plants and vehicles," said adviser Jason Surratt, Ph.D.
In North Carolina, 27 percent of children and 19 percent of people overall are food-insecure. For many families, food pantries are a fixed source of sustenance. Doctoral student Ashley Chaifetz investigated connections between food-insecure populations and foodborne illness risk, focusing on the food pantry supply chain and its standard operating procedures.
To assess the extent to which donated foods are kept safe through distribution, she created a novel data set based on interviews and observations at more than 100 food pantries in 12 N.C. counties. Her data reveal that, on average, a food pantry gets food from 3.73 types of sources, including food banks, grocery stores, farms and school gardens. Procedures, such as the kinds of food, prevalence of on-site repackaging and food preparation, and storage practices, vary greatly across pantries—often inadvertently increasing the risk for pathogen growth. With her research partners at N.C. State University, Chaifetz created "best practices" food safety guidelines specific to emergency food. The guidelines address three essential areas—time-temperature control, hand washing and cross-contamination—and come alongside a template for drafting standard operating procedures. Chaifetz's information, now available online, provides a crucial tool for food pantry managers and volunteers.
"Ashley's research provides insights into food transport, storage and handling practices in the emergency food sector, a completely neglected area of food safety policy," said adviser Pamela Jagger, Ph.D.
In North Carolina, 72 percent of adult men are estimated to be overweight or obese compared to 60 percent of women. Despite this, men are less likely to join weight loss programs than women. Doctoral student Melissa Crane set out to test the effects of what is believed to be the first behavioral weight loss program developed specifically for men in North Carolina.
The Internet-delivered REFIT (Rethinking Eating and FITness) program helps participants modify diet and physical activity by focusing on key weight loss behaviors. Unlike traditional weight loss programs where participants "count calories," this program focused on making at least six 100-calorie reductions from typical eating patterns each day. Crane's study enrolled 107 N.C. men. After six months, men who received the REFIT program lost an average of 11.7 pounds. Participants in this program were able to maintain meaningful weight losses after three months of reduced program contact—evidence that changes made by participants can be sustained. Indeed, 96 percent of participants said they would recommend the program to a friend. Crane's research shows that a new type of weight loss program holds promise for men who seek to lose weight.
"From day one, Melissa has been focused on an under-recognized disparity: the underserved population of overweight and obese men," said adviser Deborah Tate, Ph.D.
UNC-Chapel Hill's department of statistics and operations research offers graduate students an opportunity to provide insights and solutions to real-world problems. Through a research project in summer 2014, master's degree candidate Bryan Davis assisted lawyers from N.C. Prisoner Legal Services in understanding trends in North Carolina's parole system. By comparing the profiles of paroled and non-paroled offenders, Davis constructed a model to analyze influential factors in determining parole review outcomes. Relying on public data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety, he focused on more than 2,400 inmates given life sentences before 1995. His research showed that 1) the severity of an inmate's crime and behavior while in prison were statistically significant factors, 2) the type of crime mattered, with violent criminals more than twice as likely to be paroled than sex criminals, and 3) older prisoners were more likely to be paroled, independent of the amount of time served.
Davis is currently working on a joint project with his department and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication aimed at providing easier access to Department of Public Safety and other public data, to assist other researchers who study trends in the N.C. prison system.
"Bryan's research has allowed for a more in-depth understanding of the parole process, and the factors that affect that process, which will have implications for the way such cases are dealt with in the future," said adviser Vidyadhar Kulkarni, Ph.D.
Diabetes is a group of chronic diseases characterized by accumulation of glucose in the blood. Almost one in 10 N.C. residents has been diagnosed with diabetes. The traditional treatment of type 1 and advanced type 2 diabetes involves multiple injections of insulin daily to control blood glucose levels. However, frequent insulin injections are often associated with pain, microbial contamination and nerve damage at the injected site.
Doctoral student Jin Di has developed a system that painlessly releases insulin by applying focused ultrasound waves to a single injection of an insulin reservoir, which is made up of insulin-loaded biodegradable nanoparticles. The remote ultrasound waves can promote the release of insulin from its reservoir. In animal studies, this technology regulated the blood glucose level of type 1 diabetic mice up to 10 days. This work has been published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, featured as a front cover. Di's system has potential to provide a powerful tool for noninvasive, rapid and pulse-activated regulation of blood glucose levels for diabetes management. This technology can also be extended to deliver other therapeutic agents in a similar way.
"Jin has exceptional passion in developing new methods for improving diabetics' quality of life," said adviser Zhen Gu, Ph.D.
Teachers have the highest prevalence of asthma of any group of non-industrial U.S. workers. Many schools have had mold or moisture problems. Could classroom humidity levels be a risk factor for teachers' respiratory symptoms? Kim Gaetz, Ph.D., enrolled 10 schools recruited from two N.C. school districts to study this question. Low relative humidity (RH) can increase the spread of respiratory viruses. High RH can increase chemical emissions from building materials and encourage mold growth, among other triggers for people with allergies and asthma.
Gaetz found that most monitored classrooms were not able to maintain RH within the ideal range (30 percent to 50 percent). Also, the odds of having RH over the maximum recommended limit were 5.8 times higher for classrooms with annual versus quarterly heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system maintenance. The use of an economizer (which modulates the outdoor air intake based on outdoor temperature) was also associated with high RH. She found teachers' asthma symptoms to be slightly higher in classrooms where RH was lower than 30 percent or higher than 50 percent compared to classrooms where RH was within the ideal range. Her findings provide practical solutions to improve air quality in classrooms.
"Her study has really improved our understanding of North Carolina teachers' exposures to moisture in their school buildings," said adviser David Richardson, Ph.D.
Cochlear implants are a medical miracle, providing the gift of sound to deaf children and adults alike. However, outcomes vary widely, from increased lip reading to the ability to carry on normal conversations and even talk on the phone. Working with surgeons at UNC Hospitals, M.D./Ph.D. student Christopher Giardina has constructed custom surgical tools designed to detect cochlear trauma at the time of implantation. This information can help surgeons recognize trauma and ideally adapt their technique to minimize further trauma during surgery.
Utilization of Giardina's custom surgical tools has advanced from gerbil models to routine use during cochlear implant research surgeries in the operating room of UNC Hospitals. Giardina, along with faculty members Oliver Adunka, M.D., and Douglas Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., received a UNC Health Care/School of Medicine Innovation Pilot Award for commercializing this technology in 2014. Giardina's research team is now assessing the collected data for possible associations between degree of hair cell and nerve fiber damage and a patient's speech comprehension after surgery. The team hopes this data may ultimately help audiologists correctly tune implants for each person receiving them—and lead to better speech outcomes for all who receive this surgery.
"The ENT department at UNC does more implants than any other center in the state so we hope that Chris's contribution to the project will lead to direct benefits for North Carolina patients in the near future," said adviser Douglas Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
A commonly held view is that homeownership contributes to economic mobility, and public and private programs have taken the initiative in helping low-income households obtain financing to purchase homes. Critics of these policies have questioned the financial ability of low-income homeowners to carry out maintenance of their property. In a collaborative project with Sarah Riley, Ph.D., doctoral student Sofoklis Goulas used 2003-2012 data from the Community Advantage Program (CAP) to examine what few researchers have studied: low-income homeowner expenses on maintenance and improvements. CAP was founded as an initiative of the Ford Foundation, Fannie Mae and Self-Help (a nonprofit lender founded in Durham).
The study's findings indicate that many low-income homeowners purchase relatively new properties, and that a majority do not live in low-income neighborhoods. In addition, the research team found that the expenditures of low-income households are somewhat less than the average for all U.S. homeowners, but their spending on maintenance and improvements were comparable to households with similar types of homes and other household characteristics. In Goulas' study, home maintenance and improvements spending is positively related to house price appreciation, with an annual real gain of 1 percent attributable to such investment.
"At the time the CAP program was initiated, concerns were expressed that low-income households might be unable or unwilling to spend enough on their homes to prevent rapid depreciation. The clear message of this paper is that these concerns are unfounded," said adviser Lutz Hendricks, Ph.D.
North Carolina has been identified as one of the nation's top 10 "diabetes hot spots," where the burden of diabetes will be greatest in the next 15 years. Every patient with diabetes is at risk of vision loss from diabetic retinopathy (DR), the leading cause of new cases of blindness among U.S. adults ages 20 to 74.
Master's degree student Pooja Jani, M.D., is project director on the North Carolina Diabetic Retinopathy Telemedicine Network, an innovative screening program that uses the emerging strategy of telemedicine to improve DR evaluation by allowing physicians to remotely capture, send and receive retinal images. Jani has been instrumental in laying the programmatic groundwork for the network, which aims to reduce rates of blindness in North Carolina by providing efficient, effective retinal evaluation to diabetics who may not otherwise receive proper and timely eye care. Her adviser and principal investigator of the project, Seema Garg, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at UNC-Chapel Hill, obtained funding from the Duke Endowment to set up the network between UNC-Chapel Hill ophthalmology department and five Area Health Education Center affiliated primary care clinics: Mountain AHEC in Asheville, Moses Cone Internal Medicine and Family Medicine clinics, East Carolina University Family Medicine and Southern Regional AHEC in Fayetteville.
"She has a real desire to improve access to eye care through telemedicine and reduce the impact of blinding diseases such as diabetic retinopathy for all North Carolinians," said adviser Seema Garg, M.D., Ph.D.
In recent years, the odds of being obese in North Carolina have been 50 percent higher for rural children than for urban children. Doctoral student Jayne Jeffries focused on the strategy of showing elementary-age rural children that fruit and vegetables are fun lunch choices. Known as Food Explorers, the community outreach program adapts cafeteria recipes and food presentation style, and includes ways to change perceptions of healthy foods. The pilot program, which she helped develop, was tested in rural elementary schools in Rockingham County. Each student received a Food Explorers "passport" with fact pages for each fruit and vegetable on the new menu, and trading cards featuring these items.
Using these Food Explorers materials, students were able to engage with one another about the new, healthy menu items, thus incentivizing fruit and vegetable consumption. Jeffries conducted in-depth interviews and focus groups with parents, cafeteria staff members, principals and students; she then statistically analyzed the program's effectiveness. This pilot showed increased fruit consumption among those participating in the program, and was received with great enthusiasm from cafeteria staff, teachers and students alike. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Reidsville Area Foundation funded this project.
"As part of the Food Explorers research team, she has taken a leadership role in planning and developing an intervention designed to increase access to healthy foods among children in Rockingham County," said advisor Laura Linnan, Sc.D.
Managing both the physical and mental health needs of patients with severe mental illnesses is a complex challenge for primary care providers. The patient-centered medical home, which applies a primary care physician-led team approach, can enhance care. Mona Kilany, Ph.D., sought to identify how urban and rural location may factor into medical home effectiveness. She focused on care for Medicaid beneficiaries with severe mental illness. Overall, her research found that generally people enrolled in medical homes did better than people not enrolled in medical homes across urban, non-metropolitan urban and rural areas in North Carolina. However, people with severe mental illnesses within rural medical homes did not fare as well for specialty mental health service use.
Based on this finding, Kilany then studied how rural primary care provider caseload and rural mental health workforce shortages might affect rural medical home performance. Within rural medical homes, her findings suggest that people with severe mental illnesses who receive care from primary care providers with high severe mental illness caseloads have more primary care, specialty mental health and emergency department visits than people with these illnesses who receive care from primary care providers with few patients with severe mental illness. Experienced physicians matter but other resources also need to be developed in rural areas to meet the needs of patients with severe mental illness.
"Mona's findings underscore the value of medical homes for people with severe mental illness in all geographical areas of the state but they also point to other resources that are needed, especially in rural areas," said adviser Joseph Morrissey, Ph.D.
The 2010 U.S. Census places North Carolina's Latino/Hispanic population at more than 800,000, or 8.4 percent of the state's total population. Previous research has identified possible gaps or lags in diagnosis and treatment for Hispanic children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and little research exists on the effectiveness of interventions for primarily Spanish-speaking families. Doctoral student Jessica Kinard explored the success of an early intervention called Adapted Responsive Teaching (ART) in improving the communication skills of young children with ASD from Hispanic families in North Carolina. She also examined the perspectives of the participating families after the intervention. Through ART, a professional coaches families on strategies they can use to improve their child's communication skills.
Two out of the three children in Kinard's study showed improvements in communication skills during ART. Across all children, improvements were demonstrated in four out of seven communication skills that were targeted. For the two children who showed skill improvement, their parents had used the intervention strategies consistently; however, the third parent demonstrated inconsistent use of the strategies. All parents reported that the ART intervention was feasible and acceptable for their families, overall, and provided suggestions for modifications. Kinard's initial evaluation shows how parent-training interventions, such as ART, could be a successful option for culturally and linguistically diverse families of children with ASD.
"Interviews with the parents who participated in Jessica's research yielded many attestations to the impact her project had on these families, and expressions of their gratitude for the opportunity to work with a Spanish-speaking researcher," said adviser Linda Watson, Ed.D.
In North Carolina, heat-related illness accounts for more than 2,000 emergency department admissions every year. Doctoral student Maggie Kovach studied the temperature levels associated with emergency department admissions for these illnesses. Using a variety of health and climate data sets, she identified temperature thresholds for different populations and regions of the state.
Emergency department admission rates increase substantially on days with abnormally high daily maximum temperatures (95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit)—but Kovach found that emergency department admissions for heat-related illnesses decreased on days with extreme heat (greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit). This finding suggests that the N.C. residents take adaptive or preventative measures during extreme heat. She found that the largest number of heat-related emergency department visits occur in rural areas, particularly in eastern North Carolina, where a large proportion of the population lives below the poverty line or engages in outdoor labor. The State Climate Office of North Carolina and the Southeast Regional Climate Center have used her research results in creating a web-based heat vulnerability tool. Her research will be integrated into early heat warning systems and targeted public health efforts geared to saving lives.
"The findings of Maggie's research are being incorporated into a model that predicts the number of emergency room visits on hot days," said adviser Charles Konrad, Ph.D.
Cancer is the fifth leading cause of death in North Carolina's children, and medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor of childhood. Current treatments for medulloblastoma damage both cancer cells and normal cells, and this can have lasting consequences on a child's brain development. Research by M.D./Ph.D. student Patrick Lang, in the laboratory of Timothy Gershon, M.D., Ph.D., has found a promising new method to treat medulloblastoma. His approach utilizes a drug called VE-822, which targets a protein (called ATR) that medulloblastoma cells need to survive.
Lang collaborated with Eshelman School of Pharmacy faculty member Alexander Kabanov, Ph.D., Dr.Sci., and they successfully loaded VE-822 into Kabanov's patented nanoparticles. In a mouse model study, Lang demonstrated that this nanoformulation of VE-822 successfully penetrates into brain tumors. VE-822 caused DNA damage and cell death in medulloblastoma cells, while sparing normal brain cells. Lang's findings demonstrate that VE-822 treatment may be associated with reduced side effects because it more specifically targets the cancer cells of medulloblastoma than conventional therapy. He plans on conducting more experiments focused on creating safer and more effective ways to treat children with medulloblastoma.
"Patrick's efforts to find new ways to treat medulloblastoma may increase patient survival and inform the treatment of other brain tumors," said adviser Timothy Gershon, M.D., Ph.D.
Wrightsville Beach is surrounded by many pristine beaches. However, deteriorating water quality has been observed after storm events on the sound side of the island in the vicinity of storm drain outfalls. Master's degree student Kellen Lauer investigated sources of contamination within the water, conducting state-of-the-art tests to examine water for human and animal fecal contamination. She has also studied the impact of stormwater discharge on the water quality of the surrounding beach. Lauer designed a project to provide information on the areas along the beach that are impacted by stormwater contamination during a rainfall event. She designed the study to sample for the bacteria as it left the pipe, and how far from the pipe the heightened bacteria levels would reach.
During one storm event, she found fecal bacteria concentrations along the beach to be above safe levels used by the State of North Carolina to manage beach waters. Lauer has worked closely with the Town of Wrightsville Beach's stormwater managers for almost two years to understand the fecal contamination issue during storm events. Her study can help officials who will work to eradicate these sources of fecal material from Wrightsville Beach storm drain systems, and protect the health of all future beachgoers.
"Kellen's research and interaction with the Town of Wrightsville Beach will have a tangible impact on efforts to increase awareness and improve notification during periods of poor water quality," said adviser Rachel Noble, Ph.D.
"We all live downstream." In the world of stormwater management, this concept is particularly relevant. Polluted waterways have far-reaching impacts, and water quality is an increasingly serious and expensive issue in North Carolina. Green infrastructure, which uses soil and vegetation to mitigate runoff, is often presented as a cost-effective, environmentally friendly strategy to comply with water quality mandates. Master's degree student Anna McGeehan conducted a comprehensive review of 431 projects implemented in 44 states to identify green infrastructure design strategies that can be used in North Carolina. Her research includes project designs, size, cost, guiding regulations and funding mechanisms.
Among her findings: At the national level, green infrastructure projects are generally a retrofit or a new development, cost between $100,000 and $500,000, are less than one acre in size and involve public funding. Additionally, in North Carolina, about one-third of installations include large-scale projects such as constructed wetlands, and the remaining two-thirds include small-scale installations such as rain gardens and green roofs. The field of green infrastructure generally lacks an empirical framework to help guide smaller municipalities that may lack the technical or administrative capacity. McGeehan has created a data-driven tool that N.C. officials can use inform their best strategies.
"Ms. McGeehan has translated a complex environmental policy question and provided policymakers with a greater understanding of the challenges relating to stormwater management and drinking water," said adviser Andrew George, Ph.D.
Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes are diseases without cures. Recent research estimates that in North Carolina, approximately 200,000 children and 600,000 adults have asthma, approximately 400,000 adults have COPD and 1.1 million adults have diabetes or prediabetes. The decreased quality of life and healthcare costs associated with these lifelong conditions can be debilitating. Inhalers deliver medications to the lungs—but the medication must penetrate the natural mucus layer that coats the lungs before providing benefit to the patient.
Mathematical modeling and simulation techniques performed by doctoral student John Mellnik quantify the percent of inhaled medication that will pass through an individual patient's lung mucus over time, as well as the percentage of drug that is cleared from the lung. He is now working with his adviser and colleagues in the Marsico Lung Institute on applying these tools to data from clinical studies to explore how patient characteristics such as age, body mass index and smoking history affect this dynamic. Mellnik's work represents a significant advance toward rigorous protocols for personalized inhaled medications, with the potential for safer and more effective standards of treatment.
"John's results are mathematically creative and novel, and their translational impact is potentially quite significant," said adviser Gregory Forest, Ph.D.
Nitrate contamination of groundwater in North Carolina is of high concern because of its harmful impacts to human and ecological health. Groundwater nitrate contamination is potentially carcinogenic and is known to cause "blue baby syndrome." Additionally, North Carolina's multimillion-dollar recreational and commercial fishing industry is heavily affected by nitrate contamination because it can lead to harmful algae blooms and fish kills. To complement current monitoring efforts, doctoral student Kyle Messier studied the space/time distribution of nitrate concentrations across North Carolina.
His findings indicate that groundwater nitrate levels are highly variable, with many areas in North Carolina predicted above the current standard. His evidence also shows that groundwater nitrate is likely being transported to areas outside the contaminant's source. Other findings show high concentrations in the southeastern plains and that wastewater treatment residuals and swine confined animal feeding operations are local sources of nitrate in monitoring wells. Messier plans further research focused on determining the extent of groundwater's contribution to surface water contamination, and his collected results will help inform agencies that create drinking water policies for North Carolina.
"Kyle's work has a significant impact because it introduces a state-of-the-art mapping method that can be used to map nitrate. Using this method, Kyle was able to find the sources of nitrate in North Carolina—and the extent of pollution," said adviser Marc Serre, Ph.D.
North Carolina surpasses the national rate of adult smoking (19 percent) by nearly 2 percent. Increased levels of destructive respiratory enzymes are associated with smoking-induced diseases. However, it is unknown if increased respiratory enzyme activity contributes to the increased rates of respiratory viral infections seen in smokers. TMPRSS2, a prominent respiratory enzyme, increases rates of influenza virus infection. Thus, therapies decreasing TMPRSS2 activity could protect against lung destruction and infection.
Doctoral student Megan Meyer found that TMPRSS2 is elevated in smokers' nasal secretions, as compared to healthy non-smokers. Nutritional supplementation with the antioxidant sulforaphane (SFN) has been shown to decrease TMPRSS2 expression in prostate cancer, and Meyer's research team discovered that SFN treatment also decreases TMPRSS2 expression in respiratory epithelial cells, the main cellular targets for influenza virus. Information from Meyer's study offers a possible reason why smokers are more susceptible to viral infection. Additionally, her findings offer a potential therapy, such as SFN, to protect against influenza infection. While smoking cessation is the best way to reduce smoking-induced diseases, Meyer's research points to nutritional interventions as a cost-effective secondary strategy to protect against cigarette smoke-induced health complications and possible respiratory viral infection.
"Studies like the ones conducted by Megan are crucial to reduce morbidity, mortality and health-care costs associated with smoking in North Carolina," said adviser Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D.
Sixty-five percent of North Carolina's adults are overweight and 29 percent are obese, as reported by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Obese individuals are more likely than healthy weight individuals to die from influenza virus infection. Justin Milner, Ph.D., used a mouse model to uncover complex factors potentially explaining how obesity results in more severe influenza. His findings indicated that, similar to obese humans, obese mice were more likely to die from influenza compared with lean mice. Additionally, a number of immune measures important for protecting against influenza virus infection were impaired in obese mice, especially antibody responses.
Led by these results, Milner and colleagues next evaluated if obese humans showed impaired antibody responses following influenza vaccination. A clinical study was performed at the UNC Family Medicine Center; blood samples were obtained from healthy weight and obese individuals. Milner and colleagues found that obese study participants exhibited impaired responsiveness to the vaccine as shown by a lower induction of protective antibodies following vaccination. Taken together, this research demonstrates that obesity impairs antibody defenses against influenza. Milner's data suggest that current vaccination measures for obese individuals require enhancements, and that lives could be saved as a result.
"Justin's work is extremely important in the area of vaccine development and in finding potential therapeutic targets for reducing influenza severity in an increasingly obese population," said adviser Melinda Beck, Ph.D.
Vehicles release air pollutants that can cause severe respiratory and cardiac issues. Recent master's degree graduate Marie Patane Curtis studied conventional fuel sources imported from outside North Carolina, as well as in-state sources of renewable electricity and compressed natural gas as transportation fuels to improve air quality, increase energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina.
Among the findings, her research indicates that 1) renewable energy resources for electric generation in North Carolina are in principle sufficient to accommodate all light-duty vehicles up to 2030, 2) solar energy provides 90 percent of the available renewable energy in the state and should be maximized, and 3) enough renewable natural gas resources exist in North Carolina to accommodate a significant number of the heavy-duty vehicles expected to be registered in the state by 2030. However, her findings suggest that renewable natural gas infrastructure costs must decrease for widespread deployment to occur. Curtis used multiple state and federal data sources, including the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuel Life-Cycle Environmental and Economic Transportation Tool, in identifying challenges and opportunities associated with several alternative fuel deployment scenarios. Her analysis will inform policymakers in their long-term energy and transportation infrastructure planning.
"I am not aware of anyone who has undertaken such a thorough assessment of motor vehicle energy demand and of the supply, demand and deployment issues associated with renewable fuel options for North Carolina," said adviser Richard "Pete" Andrews, Ph.D.
An estimated 250 million prescriptions for antibiotics are written in the United States every year, and more than 8 million are written in North Carolina alone. Antibiotics work by targeting and disrupting an essential cellular function in dangerous bacteria. A looming threat to antibiotic effectiveness is the rise of resistant bacteria. The ribosome, a cellular machine that produces all of a cell's proteins, is made of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and is a common antibiotic target. Finding other RNA targets that perform essential work may lead to the development of more effective antibiotics.
Doctoral student Greggory Rice is integrating experiments with innovative computer modeling to study how RNA (a central molecule in vital cellular tasks) interacts with proteins and antibiotics within living bacterial cells. Working in collaboration with faculty and other graduate students, Rice has helped enable the study of the structures of tens of thousands of RNA nucleotides in a single experiment by coupling biochemical technologies created at UNC-Chapel Hill with recent advances in DNA sequencing. This effort to uncover key regions in RNA and to predict RNA structures under a variety of conditions has major implications for discovering new avenues for the next generation of antibiotics.
"Gregg has a vision for transferring his basic science work to the deeply practical end of antibiotic discovery," said adviser Kevin Weeks, Ph.D.
Medication costs present a major barrier to chronic disease management for patients with low income and without health insurance. The UNC Health Care Pharmacy Assistance Program (PAP) is a charitable pharmacy benefit that removes financial barriers to medications for qualifying low-income, uninsured N.C. residents by providing prescriptions at low or no cost. Doctoral candidate Andrew Roberts, Pharm.D., and his research collaborators used administrative claims data from 2009 to 2011 to investigate demographic characteristics, and prescription and healthcare use patterns of 7,180 PAP members.
Roberts found that nearly half of PAP members receiving medications for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes were optimally adherent to these treatments, reflecting medication adherence levels commonly seen among insured populations. Older and more clinically complex PAP members were more likely to adhere to chronic disease treatments. Roberts also found that PAP members taking high blood pressure therapies as directed had significantly lower odds of hospitalization. Roberts and his collaborators contributed new knowledge that PAP provided reliable access to necessary drug therapies and may help reduce adverse health outcomes stemming from poor medication adherence. His findings will inform future efforts to bolster the impact of PAP and similar charitable programs serving financially vulnerable populations.
"Dr. Roberts offered to take a leadership role on one of the aims of this project, which examined adherence to medications among participants in the program and the effect of this adherence on health outcomes. This work resulted in an important first authored publication and accelerated the completion of the project and success of the grant," said adviser Joel Farley, Ph.D.
Coastal hazard risk assessments and beach management plans in North Carolina focus on storms and long-term sea-level rise. They don't assess risks presented by sea-level spikes, or anomalies, initiated by persistent northeasterly winds or reductions in the speed of the Gulf Stream. North Carolina's beaches and barrier islands are in close proximity to the Gulf Stream and are particularly vulnerable to these anomalies.
Doctoral student Ethan Theuerkauf measured beach erosion along Onslow Beach, a barrier island in North Carolina, after a year with frequent sea-level anomalies and no hurricanes and compared that erosion to a year with a hurricane and infrequent anomalies. His findings indicate that the magnitude of erosion in a year with frequent sea-level anomalies (2009-2010) was similar to erosion in the year of Hurricane Irene (2011-2012) at some sites along Onslow Beach. At other sites, the erosion associated with frequent anomalies was greater than erosion associated with a hurricane. Theuerkauf's study is believed to be the first to assess beach and barrier island erosion associated with anomalies. His findings demonstrate the need to include these events in coastal management plans in order to protect lives and property along the state's coast.
"Ethan's study was the first to measure beach erosion associated with sea-level anomalies and his results underscore the importance of including them in beach-erosion models and management plans," said adviser Antonio Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Today, manufacturing drives 19 percent of North Carolina's gross domestic product and employs more than 338,000 workers. The state is ranked ninth nationally in total manufacturing employment and first in the southeastern United States. Industries have pursued technologies that minimize the energy and resources necessary to make products in order to lower costs and fulfill consumer demand for "greener" manufacturing.
Doctoral student Sara Turner has developed a type of adhesive that could aid tremendously in automated production processes: a reusable material capable of de-bonding (un-gluing) and re-bonding (re-gluing) on demand in response to applied heat. This adhesive allows for remote repair of complex structural components in bonded parts by simple heating, and in the disassembly of bonded components at the end of their lifetime during recycling. The material, composed of "spaghetti-like" polymer molecules, also maintains its original strength after multiple de-bonding and re-bonding cycles. The design and implementation of robust new technologies such as Turner's adhesive will ensure that North Carolina is a top player in the green manufacturing industry.
"Sara's results are an important advance in the field of dynamic adhesives and represent a step forward for manufacturing processes," said adviser Valerie Ashby, Ph.D.
Brain cancers are among the most deadly and prevalent diseases in the United States. An estimated 2,000 North Carolinians are diagnosed with this type of cancer each year. For patients with the most common type of brain cancer, called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the median survival time is only 15 months after diagnosis. Radiation therapy is a major form of treatment for this cancer, but it can cause severe damage in normal brain tissue and the central nervous system. Microbeam radiation therapy (MRT) has been shown in animal model studies to keep normal brain tissue functionally intact, while simultaneously suppressing tumor growth—or even completely eradicating tumor cells. However, this new treatment technique previously was achievable only at several synchrotron facilities worldwide.
Doctoral student Lei Zhang's research focuses on developing a compact image-guided MRT system based on nanotechnology. The compact MRT has proven capable of producing all essential synchrotron MRT characteristics and has shown evidence of normal tissue sparing and tumor control in preclinical studies. Zhang's groundbreaking research, conducted under the supervision of Otto Zhou, Ph.D., of physics and X. Sha Chang, Ph.D., of radiation oncology, contributes strongly to the development of medical technologies that have the potential to increase survival and improve quality of life for brain cancer patients statewide and beyond.
"If human patients respond to microbeam radiation therapy in similar ways as shown in numerous MRT animal studies, MRT will literally revolutionize cancer treatment," said adviser Otto Zhou, Ph.D.