Stories powered by UNC Research
. 2019 - 2020
EXPLORING ECUADORâ€™S CARBONSHED Page 18
MESSAGE FROM the VICE CHANCELLOR for RESEARCH
t is with great excitement that we present the 2019-2020 Endeavors magazine, a showcase of what makes the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill one of the top research institutions in the world. The unique breadth and depth of the research enterprise here at Carolina is illuminated throughout the following pages. But how did we get here? And what fuels our relentless pursuit of knowledge and answers to societyâ€™s largest challenges? As Vice Chancellor for Research, I have worked collaboratively with colleagues across our great campus to articulate answers to those questions. This process has resulted in acknowledgment of our strengths in health and natural sciences, as well as the social sciences and the arts and humanities, leading to investment around our strategic research priorities. These priorities stimulate virtual research networks that concentrate talent and resources on bold ideas, while simultaneously freeing the development of those ideas from typical organizational boundaries. Our goal is to move new ideas and discoveries into practice. Research at Carolina is thriving. We are discovering cures for diseases, answering questions in every research discipline, accelerating business through technology advancements, and creating tens of thousands of jobs in our great state. We conduct research in every county in North Carolina and in over 100 countries across the globe. We are facilitating the basic curiosity, passion, and creativity thatâ€™s inherent in our faculty, staff, and students with the goal of unleashing their innovative potential. As you will see in this edition of Endeavors, research at UNC improves lives and generates tremendous cultural, social, and economic worth. I am excited about our future and how the work of our faculty, trainees, and staff will continue to impact the world.
Terry Magnuson Vice Chancellor for Research
STRATEGIC RESEARCH PRIORITIES BRAIN
Discovering the biology and diseases of the nervous system and drivers of human behavior.
The study of natural systems, global environmental change, resilience, and health.
OPPORTUNITY, WELL-BEING, & CULTURE
PRECISION HEALTH & SOCIETY
Improving lives through cancer research and advancing cancer prevention, detection, treatment, and health practice.
Exploring how opportunities shape success and well-being over a lifetime and across societies; and humanities as a lens for understanding our world.
Developing and applying big data tools to solve scientific and societal problems.
Tailoring health care practice, delivery, and therapeutics to individual circumstances, using factors from genetics to social and environmental influences.
CONTENTS 18 COVER: Exploring Ecuador’s Carbonshed
A geographer brings Carolina students to one of the most carbon-rich areas of the world.
2 Carpe Datum
The Swiss Army knife of data management.
4 Combating Concussions
Run, roll, aim: why military head injuries require different protocols.
12 Chasing Cephalopod Dreams
Ask Jared Richards why he loves cuttlefish.
14 A Tooth for a Tooth
Relocating teeth in kids who lose them early.
28 Confronting Conflict with Creativity Chérie Rivers Ndaliko empowers students, from Carolina to Congo.
32 Research in the Real World
From a new type of birth control to a video chat with your dentist.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2019 - 2020
Terry Magnuson Vice Chancellor for Research Don Hobart Associate Vice Chancellor Layla Dowdy Director, Office of Research Communications Alyssa LaFaro Editor Megan May Lead Photographer & Videographer Corina Cudebec Designer Darren Abrecht Webmaster Contributors Johnny Andrews Sarah Daniels Steve Exum Jon Gardiner Annie McDarris Liah McPherson Ben Premaux Alkebu Film Productions
An Origin Story
Sea Turtle Secrets
The woman who says black holes might not exist.
Magnets: how sea turtles navigate the earth.
endeavors.unc.edu Printed in North Carolina Copyright © 2019 UNC Research. All rights reserved.
SPECIAL FEATURES University Cancer Research Fund
Stimulating cancer research and
reducing North Carolina’s leading cause of death. See page 10.
34 The Known Unknowns
What’s in your drinking water?
Delving into the lives of UNC researchers, beyond their labs and offices. See pages 23 & 37.
CARPE DATUM Story & photo by Alyssa LaFaro
Automated Ingest Auditing
ust imagine the number of books available at your local library. While they exist in the physical space, there is also a computer system that logs the entire collection — or data that gets ingested when new books arrive, are stored, and then get disseminated when someone files a request. On a grander scale, for example, the National Library of France — the seventh largest library in the world — houses more than 40 million items alone. Simply put, that’s a lot of data. A decade ago, all people could talk about was the “data deluge.” In fact, in 2010, The Economist released an article with that exact title, reporting that humans created a billion gigabytes of data in 2005 and that 2010 promised to yield eight times that amount. “The data deluge is already starting to transform business, government, science, and everyday life,” the article points out. “It has great potential for good — as long as consumers, companies, and governments make the right choices about when to restrict the flow of data, and when to encourage it.”
Storage Tiering The data game is a familiar one at UNC. “The whole story about the data deluge eight to 10 years ago has now become so pervasive that we don’t talk about big data anymore, we just talk about data,” says Jason Coposky, the executive director of iRODS. Located within RENCI, iRODS stands for integrated Rule-Oriented Data System. It’s a data management middleware that insulates data against changes in technology.
iRODS does a lot more than protect data from aging technology. Think of it like a Swiss Army knife — one tool that accomplishes many things, from the ability to examine the data over time (auditing) to improving the speed of data retrieval operations (indexing) to setting rules for who can and can’t access the data (compliance). “iRODS helps tell the story of the data from front to back,” Coposky says. It establishes a data management policy — the “secret sauce,” according to Coposky — that can assign data to specific media, folders, and even geographic locations based on organizational needs. “Telling the story of the data is like telling the story of the glaciers,” RENCI Director Stan Ahalt agrees. “It’s an evolving, living, growing, breathing, changing thing. And if you want to keep track of those changes, there has to be some way to write the history. A log of all those changes is a powerful way of capturing the evolution of the data.” But iRODS didn’t always have those
“We don’t talk about big data anymore, we just talk about data. [...] iRODS helps tell the story of the data from front to back.”
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It functions similarly to Google, Coposky says — when it does its job well, users don’t even know it’s there. “It’s basically invisible,” he explains. “And it protects your data because, eventually, your infrastructure is going to change out, or you’ll need to buy new storage so you need to move your data, which is a very difficult thing to do when you’re dealing with petabytes and millions of files.”
capabilities. In 1995, when Reagan Moore and his team at the San Diego Supercomputer Center first developed the software, it was nothing more than a file system for physics simulations. “At the time, these particle physicists were generating reams of data on a bunch of different computers and they needed a way to tie it all together,” Coposky says. The policy component came later, when Moore’s group began the next generation of software with a complete rewrite. Shortly after, the team relocated to UNC. Today, iRODS provides a data backbone for major research projects such as Hydroshare — a National Science Foundation-funded, open-source platform for hydrologic data and model sharing — and the National Institutes of Health Data Commons, a shared virtual space where biomedical researchers can easily and securely work with data, analytical tools, and applications. It is also utilized by a variety of major institutions, from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics to the Library of France. “Libraries use it to curate data the same way they would physical artifacts,” Coposky says. iRODS is also experiencing growth among life science companies and has acquired several notable clients like Bayer, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, MSC, Syngenta, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Other growing industries include pharmacy and finance, according to Coposky, and the consortium is slated to have 30 members by the end of 2018. “When scientists can spend less time managing, curating, and transforming data in order to get to the point where they do the actual science and not spend their time massaging data, everybody wins,” Coposky says. “The same can be said for any enterprise entity that manages data at large scales. That’s why RENCI has transformed iRODS, taking what was effectively a science project and turning that into an enterprise product.”
A GLOBAL NETWORK
Today, iRODS is open-source, which means it’s customizable and fully accessible to the public. It’s used by universities, research organizations, businesses, and government agencies across the globe — so many that, in the last decade, RENCI had to develop a plan to sustain its use. So, in 2012, the institute created the iRODS Consortium, comprised of members who
want to see the software evolve and the user base grow. Before learning about iRODS, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands would deposit and store their data on faculty network shares and local external disk drives — a process that led to unmanageable data deluge and lost information. “iRODS allows us to safeguard and manage massive amounts of data on an information management level rather than at the data storage level,” Ton Smeele, an IT data management specialist at the university, says. To make iRODS even more effective for researchers, he explains, the university has combined its functions with a web application called “YODA” — short for Your Data — to create a userfriendly interface. “With YODA, my research group can work together on our data, manage access, and easily and neatly archive and publish our data,” says Vincent Buskens, a professor of sociology and institutions at Utrecht University. “These used to be separate processes, but now we avoid double work and have safer storage.” The publishing component is especially helpful, Buskens points out, as a growing number of academic journals now require it to maintain integrity and transparency. Researchers who utilize iRODS also stand a better chance of obtaining grants. “They can prove that they manage data safely and in line with the FAIR Data Principles,” Smeele says. Such principles help make data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable.
“A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING”
iRODS’s success stems from the fact that it’s multipurpose, Coposky says. “It does a little bit of everything for everybody. It’s really a question of how you want to use it.” Over time, clients explained how they could use the software more extensively if it had certain characteristics it didn’t have in its original form. “So we modified it,” Ahalt says. “And made some pretty extensive changes to the code base. It really creates a platform that, by writing rules you can construct a data management universe.” “We’ve taken what was once a custom implementation for every one of our users and put those into boxes in a way that they can just be taken off the shelf and installed and configured,” Coposky adds. For the future, both Coposky and Ahalt hope to see the community utilizing this
WHAT IS DATA?
Merriam-Webster defines data as “information expressed as numbers for use especially in a computer.” iRODS manages digital data, which is “information captured onto a storage medium with a known structure and representation,” according to Coposky.
Coposky joined RENCI as a senior research visualization engineer in 2006. He teamed up with iRODS eight years later as their chief technologist.
software grow — ideally through an industry closer to the public sphere. And with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data at our fingertips daily, they may not be far from that goal. “It’s not really about the number of members for the consortium,” Coposky says. “It’s about building a community around all of this.”
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A concussion is a type of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) from a blow to the head that causes the brain to bounce or twist within the skull, triggering chemical changes and sometimes damaging cells. Since 2000, nearly 384,000 service members were diagnosed with a TBI — and more than 82 percent of those were concussions.
UNC PhD student Julianna Prim (right) completes pilot testing for an upcoming project at Fort Bragg. She monitors the heart rate of physical therapy student Ryan Brooks, as he steps up and down on a platform.
COMBATING CONCUSSIONS Story & photo by Alyssa LaFaro
he hum of engines lulls the plane’s passengers. It’s midnight, but the weight of their gear and adrenaline building in their bodies keeps them wide awake for the long morning of training exercises ahead of them. They wear green backpacks laced with yellow static lines, which unravel their T-11 parachutes as they head out into the darkness, one by one. The summer air hits Caroline Cleveland’s face as she falls 1,250 feet toward Earth. Her chute carries her carefully but quickly. She propels toward an open field at Fort Benning and lands with a hard thud — her helmeted head smacks the turf. “I just laid there on my back for a couple of seconds, looking up at the night sky, contemplating the cliché of why we jump out of perfectly good airplanes,” Cleveland says, chuckling.
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Paratroopers in the U.S. Army make 10 to 15 jumps a year. It is a requirement of their training — and just one of many exercises that can lead to concussions. Jumps, blasts, and gunfire all have the potential to damage the brain. At the time of her jump in 2008, Cleveland didn’t consider concussion as a possible injury amidst the more visible threat of broken bones and sprained ligaments taking center stage in landing zones. She recalls being asymptomatic — but, in hindsight, she also considers herself lucky for being at low risk of getting a
compounding second concussion because she had a week of downtime to rest. Since then, the former U.S. Army captain has completed her doctorate in physical therapy at UNC, a program she learned about while still active duty in 2013. While researching schools, she stumbled across the faculty page of Karen “K-Mac” McCulloch, a UNC researcher studying traumatic brain injury in the military. On a whim, Cleveland sent an email to ask if she could assist in an ongoing study. Cleveland spent the next two years working with McCulloch, physical therapist Amy Cecchini, and U.S. Public Health Service Captain Henry McMillan on the project at Fort Bragg. Upon its completion, Cleveland enrolled in UNC’s physical therapy program and continued to work with McCulloch for three more years. “I have a different perspective today and see why screening and awareness are so important,” says Cleveland, now a physical therapist. “A concussion can be so easily overlooked in the midst of all the other things a service member is prioritizing and thinking about. They generally put their health last because they are taking care of everyone else.” Most concussions in the military don’t happen in combat, according to McCulloch. “Concussions happen just as a result of training exercises and things that they are normally doing — things that are recreational, car crashes, that kind of
“A concussion can be so easily overlooked in the midst of all the other things a service member is prioritizing and thinking about.”
thing,” she says. “And they happen more stateside than when they’re deployed.” McCulloch began developing military specific concussion testing protocols for active-duty service members nearly 10 years ago. An expert in traumatic brain injury, she knew the current testing regimen for civilians was far removed from the rigors that military men and women often experience. Simply put, the stakes are high for returning to duty compared to, for example, an athlete who wants to return to play. “Think about the kind of speed at which people have to react in combat zones,” she says. “If you are not at full capacity, you are potentially jeopardizing your safety and that of the people in your unit.”
methods compare the collected information with that of healthy service members of the same age in an effort to determine when a service member’s movement approximates “normal” and when return to duty is appropriate. For another task, McCulloch instructs study participants to watch a virtual scene during an exercise step test. After a
year. A primary care provider determines whether a physical therapist is needed, and if symptoms continue, the person is referred to a higher level of care including rehabilitation for more comprehensive evaluation and intervention. Having deployed to Afghanistan during her service, Cleveland can attest to the difficulty of conducting concussion testing in these settings. “K-Mac’s work is particularly vital because it strives to be feasible within a military environment that is often dangerous, chaotic, busy with many competing priorities, and systemically governed by a mindset of selfless service,” she says. That’s why McCulloch strives to limit setup to small spaces and use equipment that is durable, easy to maintain, and userfriendly — like smartphones. Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military — but that 1 percent is physically and mentally overtaxed, according to McCulloch. “There is one guy in one of my study’s healthy control groups who has had 12 deployments — and an estimated 50 concussions,” she says. “But he’s still serving as an active duty Special Forces member. I think a lot of people in our country don’t realize that people are still deploying. So, to me, it’s really important work to meet the needs they have and keep them as safe as they can be.”
“Think about the kind of speed at which people have to react in combat zones.”
A MULTI-TASK MINDSET
Run, roll, aim. These are the components of a combat roll, which is a standard individual movement technique used in nearly every branch of the military. Service members train to run with a weapon and complete fast, agile transitions to the ground, followed by rolls and visual targeting — all the while making smart, measured decisions. It’s a complex mix of cognitive and motor skills. When McCulloch and a group of occupational and physical therapists began discussing concussions among this population, they took note of these rigorous requirements and observed that current testing methods only focused on singular activities. At the time, doctors tested for balance and cognition separately and then reported symptoms — the same protocol given to anyone with a potential concussion. “When some of these people get tested, you look at them and they look fine,” McCulloch says. “They can all run. So you couldn’t just use a stopwatch and say, Yeah, that person’s too slow. It’s a lot subtler than that.” McCulloch and her team incorporated dual- and multi-task scenarios into their testing methods, mimicking the run, roll, aim training. They outfitted each participant with movement sensors to create a data set that reveals the subtle changes evident in someone with a concussion. Smartphones actually have these sensors built in and are what McCulloch uses to collect and analyze the data — the analyses for which are being developed by UNC biomedical engineer Oleg Favorov. These
concussion, people often suffer from vestibular dysfunction, when the eyes fail to stabilize vision during head and body movements. This step task is similar to what it’s like to read on an elliptical, McCulloch explains — it requires a lot of visual stability and can be dizzying for someone who’s had a concussion. “We want tasks to be challenging, so we push their limits,” McCulloch says. “If they try to do these tasks and realize they can’t do them, they’re sort of like, Oh, wow. I’m not ready to go back. Whereas some of the traditional tasks they have in physical therapy are just standing and walking and not doing anything that dynamic.”
PROTOCOLS AND PROTÉGÉS
McCulloch quickly discovered that the post-concussion return-to-duty time frame differs for everyone. “Ultimately, it’s a commander’s decision,” she says. “Some physical therapists were using the tasks we developed to assess readiness, but then there would be commanders who would just ask the person if they were ready to go back.” McCulloch was a key player in helping the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center develop a more rigorous concussion protocol for rehabilitation called Progressive Return to Activity (PRA). Released in 2014, it sidelines service members who’ve sustained their first concussion and continue to have symptoms after a few days, as well as those who receive their second concussion within a Photo courtesy of Caroline Cleveland
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AN ORIGIN STORY Story by Alyssa LaFaro Photo by Megan May
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n the northern tip of Ireland, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic, waves smash into 40,000 ancient, hexagon-shaped pillars at Giant’s Causeway — the result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. Small pools form in the cracks between each column. As the winds rage, the sun scorches the landscape, and a bone-chilling sweat settles over Laura Mersini-Houghton, who shifts uncomfortably. Across from her, a documentary filmmaker stands behind a video camera and asks her a question. She tries not to shiver as she replies. “Think of these waves leaping over the rocks as the wave function of the universe trying to travel through this landscape structure. If I think of the rocks as the energy field and each pocket representing an energy valley on the landscape, as the waves come through, many will be trapped in different pockets rather than travel further. Each pocket can be a birthplace for a universe similar to ours.” Mersini-Houghton is explaining the multiverse hypothesis. First suggested by the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, it is the idea that our universe is one of many formed by a Big Bang-like event — a concept that Mersini-Houghton agrees with. A UNC cosmologist and pioneering theoretical physicist, she began studying the origin of the universe decades ago. Why? Because the probability that our universe should even exist is basically zero, according to MersiniHoughton. “The chances are one in 10 with 123 zeroes behind it, so pretty much zero.” In 2005, Mersini-Houghton had a curious idea. A frequenter of coffee shops, she sat in quiet contemplation at the Starbucks on Franklin Street, staring thoughtfully at her pen and pad on the table. She began to think about the mathematical representation of the universe, which forms a wave, and spent hours lost in thought over it. Then something clicked: What if she combined the physics of string theory (the idea that matter and energy are composed of tiny, vibrating strings) with those of quantum mechanics (how matter and light behave at microscopic levels)? She used the former to manipulate the wave, and after calculating how that waveform evolves, she found that the result is many universes — each with their own properties and constants — and one high-energy Big Bang. To the average mind, the process sounds complex, but to Mersini-Houghton, “it’s so simple that it’s too simple,” she chuckles. After taking more time to work out the problem, Mersini-Houghton developed her first calculation for the origin of the universe. “We got the correct answer theoretically for the first time in science,” she says. “Before then, we hadn’t been able to derive an answer to the origin of the universe. That gave me hope to check for predictions to test that theory. But getting the right answer does not guarantee what nature does. What does nature
care about some theory I cooked up?” Although Mersini-Houghton is not the first person to support a multiverse hypothesis, she is the first to successfully derive the answer from basic physics principles and live in a time when there’s physical observations that support it.
THE SAME SKY
If other universes exist, then those closest to our own would exert a gravitational tug, causing matter to shift. Think of it like a piece of fabric. Pull on it from both sides and it begins to stretch. Continue tugging on it and, over time, a hole forms. For MersiniHoughton, this meant that, somewhere in our universe, there should be a void. A big one. “The sky we observe today is just a blown up version of the sky from 14 billion years ago,” she explains. “So whatever happened in the universe’s infancy — it’s still there somewhere in our sky. And we can track it down.” In August 2007, University of Minnesota physicist Lawrence Rudnick did just that — accidentally. While studying data from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey, he discovered an abysmal hole, nearly a billion light-years across, containing virtually no matter. And it was located in the region Mersini-Houghton and her collaborators first predicted it would be in 2006. “We got lucky,” she admits. “It was first observed accidentally only seven months after we predicted it. It caused huge fights in the astrophysics community about whether those observations were correct or not.” Data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite helped verify the void’s presence. The satellite measures temperature fluctuations throughout the universe, and the hole’s location runs cold. But it wasn’t until 2015, after using a more precise satellite called Planck, when the cold spot’s existence was officially recognized and confirmed. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Mersini-Houghton says. “When I was working on these predictions I thought we would not have these observations in my lifetime. They’re challenging our understanding of the universe — and we cannot brush them under the rug.” What Mersini-Houghton calls luck has drastically propelled her career forward. She’s since been tenured and is regularly sought after as an expert in her field, with appearances in a variety of documentaries including the BBC’s “What Happened Before the Big Bang” (2010) and “Which Universe Are We In?” (2015), as well as the Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” (2011).
“There is a general awe for how our universe came to be, [...] it’s a question that has fascinated humans since the cavemen and is crucial to our existence. We are here now. We observe the world around us. We would like to know where it came from.”
INTO THE VOID
After spending 10 years tweaking her multiverse hypothesis, Mersini- Houghton shifted her attention to a popular topic of debate in the physics world: black holes. “Even today, nobody understands what happens inside a collapsing star that is about to become a black hole — especially in quantum mechanical terms,” she says. endeavors | 7
This is Mersini-Houghtonâ€™s calculation for the origin of the universe.
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Problems often arise here due to conflicting theories. Einstein’s theory of gravity suggests that the gravitational attraction of a black hole is so powerful that not even light can escape its grasp. But a fundamental law of quantum theory states that no information from the universe can ever disappear. And in 1974, Stephen Hawking first argued that black holes do emit a type of radiation that reduces the mass and energy of the hole. Today this is called Hawking radiation. “But in order to have a consistent study, we need to incorporate both theories simultaneously,” Mersini-Houghton says. Physicists who tried to combine the two theories in the past were left with a mathematical mess called the information loss paradox. In 2014, Mersini-Houghton developed a novel numerical solution to the problem, suggesting that as a star sheds radiation it also sheds mass — a process that stops the formation of singularities in the center of black holes. Singularities are one-dimensional points containing a huge mass in an infinitely small space, and they continue to vex scientists because the laws of physics cease to operate where they exist. “They are thought as holes that pinch the fabric of space time in our universe and give rise to many speculations,” MersiniHoughton says. “But we don’t yet know if singularities can be physically found at the center of a black hole.” Does that mean black holes don’t exist? No, it means that quantum effects can prevent the formation of a singularity at the center of the black hole. “It’s a difficult problem,” Mersini-Houghton stresses. “And I wasn’t completely happy with my model, which made a lot of approximations. So I decided to call the founding fathers in Stockholm and hold a conference.”
In 2015, in a small conference room at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, a university in Stockholm, Sweden, a group of scientists gathered around four rows of tables, engaged in animated discussion. Some sat patiently. Some paced around the room. Others threw their hands up in frustration. “What, to us, is passionate debating, to an outsider might look like vicious fighting,” Mersini-Houghton once told a reporter from the News & Observer. This is how the world’s most renowned theoretical physicists work to uncover the unknowns of the universe. In August 2015, Mersini-Houghton brought 31 of them together — with help from UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, then-Provost Ron Strauss, and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Kevin Guskiewicz — to discuss black holes. The 2015 Hawking Radiation Conference was more like “a huge brainstorming session than a conference,” she says. For six days, the greatest minds in physics — including Nobel Prize winner Gerard T’Hooft and the late Stephen Hawking — participated in dozens of presentations and hours of in-depth discussion. After all was said and done, the problem that’s stumped scientists for more than 40 years continues to do exactly that. But it did open the door to new ways to study the topic and help pass that information onto the next generation of physicists.
ON THE FRINGES
The most challenging part of this type of research is time, Mersini-Houghton says. “It’s racing against time. When I’m thinking about a problem, I can’t get it out of my head. And I love spending four, five, six, seven hours just thinking and grinding at it. Quite often, I can’t do that — I have to teach, show up to meetings, apply for grants, be a mom. I have to wait to start my science until the evening, when everything else is taken care of, and then work until 2 or 3 in the morning.” Time has become even more limited for Mersini-Houghton since she began writing a popular science book on her work two years ago. But with such little time, why write a book? “We as scientists have not done a great job at sharing that science and enthusiasm and results with the public,” she admits. “An element of our job is to be ambassadors of science. And that’s a big motivation for the book.” But the true impetus for the book, she says, is the public’s request for one. The book, like her own research, starts at the beginning, providing a history of ancient civilizations and their big questions about nature. Where do we come from? Why do we live in this universe? How deep does it go? “All of those questions were first answered with mythology,” she says. “You have gods and goddesses, monsters and dragons, colliding univeres and worlds. It’s all driven by that same curiosity. And over time it evolved from myths to philosophy to science and technology.” With the book slated for release next year, Mersini-Houghton has refocused her attention from the origins of the universe to its end. Specifically, she’s interested in dark energy, an opposing force that counteracts gravity and causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate. “Nobody knows what it really is,” she says. “We know it makes up 75 percent of the universe right now, but that’s about it.” What theoretical physicists do know is that it’s the same kind of energy that caused the Big Bang. And because it grows over time, it’s likely to be the only thing left in the universe at some point. “We’ve never come across anything like it before. It’s probably the toughest problem in physics.” When you ask Mersini-Houghton what’s the point of all this, she’s quick to reply: “Because this is our home.” Why did Homo sapiens feel the need to produce those beautiful drawings in the caves of France and Spain 17,000 years ago? Why did ancient cultures invest such effort in explaining, through myths, how our universe came to exist? The reason is simple: The survival of the human race depends on understanding our environment and using that knowledge to our advantage. “There is a general awe for how our universe came to be,” she continues. “And it’s something that I’ve talked about, randomly, with people who attend my public lectures, at parties, or someone I sat next to on an airplane. It’s a question that has fascinated humans since the cavemen and is crucial to our existence. We are here now. We observe the world around us. We would like to know where it came from.”
“Because this is our home.” endeavors | 9
UNIVERSIT Y CANCER RESEARCH FUND
OUTREACH ACROSS NORTH CAROLINA CANCER INFORMATION & POPULATION HEALTH RESOURCE * This data-rich research tool links multiple population, clinical, and other data sources for all of North Carolina’s cancer cases. It includes health claims data for 5.5 million people insured by public and private insurers, covering about 80 percent of the state’s cancer population. It provides researchers with real-world data of the cost and quality of cancer care in N.C., allowing them to investigate a wide range of issues, from cancer outcomes to treatment-related financial toxicities. 10 || UNC UNC Research Research 2019 2019 -- 20 20 10
GET REAL & HEEL
Remote Video Participation Piloted in CarolinaEast Medical Center and McCreary Hospital, this physical activity telehealth research project provided opportunities for cancer patients who live in areas with no access to complementary services to receive live instruction on how to engage in regular exercise. Broadcasted live from UNC’s Get Real & Heel Cancer Program two to three times per week, it included one hour of exercise with real-time instruction from trainers.
LOSE NOW NC Studies have demonstrated the connection between obesity and certain cancers, including breast, colorectal, pancreatic, and endometrium cancers. This feasibility study tested a four-month hybrid internet and face-to-face weight-loss program with patients from Cabarrus and surrounding counties.
The University Cancer Research Fund (UCRF) was created by the North Carolina General Assembly to stimulate cancer research and to reduce North Carolina’s leading cause of death. Supported by $47.8 million in annual state legislative funding, the UCRF is a national model that builds upon the exceptional research base at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, the state’s only public National Cancer Institutedesignated comprehensive cancer center. Its research portfolio includes 413 research studies, which enrolled more than 4,500 North Carolinians in 2018.
CLINICAL IMMUNOTHERAPY RESEARCH INITIATIVE * UNC is one of a select few academic centers in the U.S. with the scientific and technical capabilities to identify new tumor targets and then use a patient’s own immune cells to develop and deliver novel chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy to attack the target. The university currently has research studies open for the treatment of lymphoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and neuroblastoma and is developing CAR-T strategies to treat other cancers, such as ovarian cancer and glioblastoma.
CAROLINA CANCER SCREENING INITIATIVE This multidisciplinary effort leverages UNC’s expertise in the development, testing, and implementation of data-driven interventions to improve cancer screening in practice. Catalyzed by emerging evidence of high colorectal cancer (CRC) mortality in northeast North Carolina, an initial strategic focus will be on addressing CRC screening disparities in this region. It is also expanding to focus on lung cancer screening.
CAROLINA BREAST CANCER STUDY: PHASE 3 This study of 3,000 breast cancers uses biospecimens to identify how breast cancer biology varies between African American and non-African American women, disentangling tumor biology by analyzing the different characteristics and treatments for individual patients. The vision is to expand this highly effective population research approach to other cancers, such as multiple myeloma and endometrium cancer.
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CHASING CEPHALOPOD DREAMS Story, photo, & video by Megan May
12 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
“My fascination with the natural world actually started off when I was really young. Growing up in [Maryland], my parents would always take me to the Smithsonian.”
sk people about their favorite animal and most will probably say a dog or a cat, maybe even something more exotic like a dolphin. Ask Jared Richards and he will tell you he loves the cuttlefish — an animal related to the octopus, with eight arms and two tentacles lined with suckers. These relatively small and quick creatures can change their color and pattern in a fraction of a second and are thought to be among the most intelligent invertebrate species. “Cephalopods have always been my favorite group of animals,” he says. “I remember when I first made the connection that they’re in the same phylum as the common garden snail. It’s kind of crazy.” Richards, a UNC junior, spent the past summer working as a natural history research experiences intern with the Smithsonian Naitonal Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His research involved cataloguing over 400 cephalopods — like cuttlefish, squid, and octopods — caught more than two miles below the sea surface during a 2009 research expedition at the Atlantic Ocean’s Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone. He also employed computer science techniques to calculate the abundance of species in the region based on what researchers brought back. At the Smithsonian Institution Museum Support Center in Maryland, Richards pulls a cart through the mollusk room. The large storage area bursts with floor-to-ceiling shelves, lined with over 100,000 clear jars
containing marine life. Richards loads up his cart with vessels of all sizes, from small bottles to five-gallon buckets. Back in the lab, he carefully places the containers on a table and gets to work. With a textbook open beside him, he examines each specimen to confirm it is correctly identified. Spending hours in a cloud of alcohol fumes, poking and prodding a squishy octopus may not be everyone’s idea of a great time, but Richards loves it. He even got the chance to inspect what his mentor believes may be an undiscovered species. “It’s something that I never expected in my life — that I’d ever have the opportunity to see, besides in photos, what these deepsea organisms look like,” he says. “It’s astounding.” His biggest unexpected opportunity, though, was acceptance into the Smithsonian Institutions’ internship program. Growing up just an hour away, family trips to D.C. centered around visiting the museums, which helped cultivate his fascination with zoology. As Richards walked through the ocean hall of the National Museum of Natural History as a child, he never imagined years later he would be making that same walk on his way to work. “To grow up around the museum and to know that it’s the United States’ hub for zoology and natural history, and then have the ability to work there is just truly amazing,” he says.
Watch the video at endeavors.unc.edu/chasing-cephalopod-dreams/
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TOOTH FOR A TOOTH
Story by Alyssa LaFaro Photos by Ben Premaux
This X-ray shows how Victoria Griner’s left front tooth, which wasn’t outwardly visible in her smile, was impacted and growing upward toward her nasal cavity. 14 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
ast year, Roberta Griner spent 120 days at the dentist. Her three daughters all needed major work on their teeth. Victoria, her middle child, had a particularly tricky situation: Her front tooth was growing backward, toward her nasal cavity. The 9-year-old was in a lot of pain, so their pediatric dentist and orthodontist, Sonny Long, recommended its removal. “He told us she would never have a tooth there,” Griner says. To temporarily solve the problem, Long inserted a false tooth held in place by wires attached to the back molars. “The moment he put that tooth in her mouth — her smile brightened in every single photo I took of her after,” Griner says. “It made a huge difference.” There’s a psychological component to consider when a child loses a tooth, especially in the front of their mouth. “We’ve done some studies about the psychological impact of your teeth and your smile. It is an awkward time just in general to have that added burden — it
can affect you for a very long time,” says Jessica Lee, a UNC dentist and chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry. Beyond psychology, technical problems also ensue when children lose teeth unexpectedly. Dentists can replace the missing tooth with a temporary one, but that replacement won’t develop as the child grows. Thankfully, Long, Lee, and a dental team at UNC had been corresponding with Pawel Plakwicz, a Polish oral surgeon who was practicing an innovative technique called autotransplantation — when a “throwaway tooth,” like a premolar, is removed from the mouth and implanted in the location of the missing tooth. Plakwicz first learned of the procedure 18 years ago, when his colleague Ewa Chzochrowska invited him to Oslo to learn how she was using the procedure to treat growing patients. “I’d seen kids without any chance for treatment for years,” Plakwicz says. “This is a special group of patients. This is a very sensitive group. These are decisions that
UNC oral surgeon Glenn Reside and Medical University of Warsaw oral surgeon Pawel Plakwicz assess 10-year-old Victoria Griner’s teeth to figure out which tooth to relocate to the site of her missing front tooth.
are made for their whole lives. We are responsible for choosing the proper option to treat this.” In January 2018, Plakwicz traveled from Warsaw to Chapel Hill to teach the Department of Pediatric Dentistry how to autotransplant a tooth — and Victoria, now age 10, became one of the first two people in the United States to benefit from the procedure. “Millions of teeth are taken out every year for orthodontic reasons like wisdom teeth removal,” Lee explains. “So we thought, let’s put them to good use.”
to be regularly changed out as the child develops, and implants in adulthood have their own disadvantages such as bone loss in neighboring teeth. But an autotransplanted tooth lasts for a lifetime. “If you put in an implant, it doesn’t have the capability of growing,” Lee explains. “With an autotransplanted tooth, though, the bone grows, the jaw grows — everything grows along with the tooth. It’s pretty remarkable.”
BE YOUR OWN DONOR
Teeth roots teem with periodontal ligament (PDL) —a fibrous tissue that connects a tooth to the surrounding bone — and stem cells, which replenish dying cells and regenerate damaged tissue. When a tooth is transplanted to another location in the mouth, its PDL induces enough bone growth to root the tooth in place and then the stem cells regenerate the pulp. While the concept seems simple enough, the process is not. Before removing the donor tooth, the socket it will be transplanted into needs to be reshaped to fit the root of the new tooth. But how can Lee and her colleagues achieve this without the tooth itself? They take images of the tooth in the mouth and create a 3D-printed version of it to use as a model to build the socket. “It’s amazing that we’re able to do that,” Lee says. “The technology that’s available today wasn’t a couple of years ago.”
When a person undergoes organ failure, a doctor will probably suggest a transplant — when a partial or entire organ from a heathy person is removed and then inserted into the sick patient. For tooth autotransplantion, though, the patient is their own donor. “If you needed a heart, well, you only have one of those,” Lee says. “But we have multiple teeth. So autotransplantation is self-donation. Basically, we move one of your teeth to another location in the mouth, and the body takes it just like an organ.” In her two decades at UNC, Lee has seen multiple cases where a child’s adult tooth has been knocked out after traumatic events like falling off a bicycle or getting hit with a baseball. Finding a solution for these problems is always difficult, Lee says, because these kids still have a lot of growing to do. A false, temporary tooth will have
GROW THE BONE
“Millions of teeth are taken out every year for orthodontic reasons like wisdom teeth removal. So we thought, let’s put them to good use.”
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Once the donor tooth is removed, it must be immediately inserted into the restructured socket or else risk damage — the changes in pressure, pH, and moisture that occur during this process can harm the PDL and stem cells needed for growth. For the next three weeks, the tooth must be monitored regularly to track progress and check for infection. It takes years for the tooth to fully develop — and dentist visits to make sure it’s doing so properly — but once it does, it is filed and reshaped to match the other front teeth. The key to success here is teamwork, according to Plakwicz. It takes a pediatric dentist, orthodontist, oral surgeon, and prosthodontist to complete the full procedure. “The surgeon cannot plan the treatment by himself,” he says. “The bigger the group of dentists aware of transplantations, the sooner the best results, because it takes years to get the group together and to know how to do this.”
TREAT THE TRAUMA
UNC Health Care has the only pediatric dental trauma center on call in North Carolina — making it the perfect place to introduce such an innovative procedure. It also means Lee and her team have seen all sorts of tooth loss in children and have long been motivated to find alternative solutions for replacement. The pediatric dental team is collecting referrals from dentists across the state for patients who might benefit from autotransplantation, and Lee recently began a research project to develop an evidencebased, clinical protocol for teaching the procedure. Once that’s complete, she hopes to share it with colleagues at universities in the Midwest and on the West Coast, creating hubs across the nation. While there’s no doubt autotransplantion will eventually spread to practices across the country, Lee remains curious about why it’s just now coming to the U.S. — especially since doctors in Europe have been practicing it for decades. To learn more, UNC pediatric dental resident and master’s student Anastassia Dokova has been interviewing local doctors to uncover the barriers to utilizing the procedure and develop solutions to overcome them.
Victoria and Roberta Griner 16 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
“We’re still really confused on why this hasn’t been adopted,” Lee admits. “It has good science and biological procedures behind it.” A rush of referrals have already come in from across the state, she adds, stressing the need for this innovative procedure. Looking ahead, Lee believes that tooth autotransplantation has other potential applications. It could, for example, treat cleft palates, when there’s a split or opening in the roof of the mouth. “What if a tooth could induce some of that growth?” Lee wonders. “The more we understand that pathway of how an autotransplanted tooth works, the more applications we might have. This could be applied to a lot of areas of medicine.” A patient in Scandinavia, for example, experienced a trauma that required a small section of bone be removed from the jaw. But after autotransplanting a tooth, the bone grew to the point where it fully rebuilt what was missing. Lee even notes the potential for replacing bone in patients who have had sections of their jaw removed from oral cancer. “This has indications beyond dentistry,” Lee says. “If we can understand all the biological mechanisms happening here, why can’t we apply it to other things? Autotransplantation is one of the most groundbreaking procedures I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been doing research for 20 to 25 years. This is a complete shift from what we’ve been doing. There’s just so much we don’t know. This is just the beginning.”
“Autotransplantation is one of the most groundbreaking procedures I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been doing research for 20 to 25 years.”
UNC RESEARCH MEANS
BUSINESS Research is the wellspring for a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC. Carolina supports faculty and student researchers with promising new technologies and business ideas through programs like Innovate Carolina, Carolina Kickstart, Startup UNC, the Office of Technology Development, and the Pinnacle Hill partnership.
CAROLINA: A NATIONAL RESEARCH POWERHOUSE Federal Research th 5 Expenditures Nationally
Carolina Research Ventures (CRV) is a UNC venture fund that provides critical early stage capital and industry expertise to UNC faculty innovators.
CRV Portfolio Companies
Total Annual Research Spending
Based on research from Mike Ramsey’s lab at UNC, Genturi is developing a fully Integrated microfluidics genomic sequencing platform for the rapid delivery of low-cost genomic maps for clinical and non-clinical applications.
This gene therapy spin-out is based on work from Aravind Asokan’s lab at UNC and Mavis Agbandje-McKenna’s lab at the University of Florida. Stride is developing engineered viral vectors to address limitations in gene therapy caused by neutralizing antibodies.
students provided research teaching and training opportunities, fostering a creative environment where the world’s top experts collaborate to solve problems, discover new technologies, and save lives.
9th9th Founded by a UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA graduate, WalletFi’s mobile technology allows users to easily identify and move recurring charges, subscriptions, and card-on-file payments across cards in their digital wallet.
Based on discoveries from Ned Sharpless’ lab at UNC and Kwok Wong’s lab at Dana Farber, G1 is developing novel therapeutics for the treatment of cancer. Sharpless is now director of the National Cancer Institute.
Based on research from the lab of Kevin Weeks at UNC, Ribometrix is building a technology platform that enables RNA to be targeted with small molecules.
With founders from UNC and Duke, Bivarus has developed a unique patient survey platform enabling real-time quality and patient satisfaction data, driving additional revenues and assisting in patient retention for health systems.
most innovative university in the world for advancing science, inventing new technologies, and powering new markets and industries.
contributed annually to N.C.’s gross state product by UNC research and startup businesses.
N.C. businesses spun out of UNC, more than 200 of which emerged from UNC research.
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Riveros-Iregui stands at the head of the field site. “I’m amazed by how this project has come together,” he says. “It’s rare. I had a fear it was going to be very chaotic. But it hasn’t been. Little bits here and there, but overall it has gone really well.”
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Story & photos by Alyssa LaFaro
“The carbon content per unit area of soil in this area of the Andes Mountains is among the highest on the planet.”
oss-covered molehills pepper the landscape, each a different shade of autumn. Some are mustard yellow, others evergreen. Upon closer inspection, petite red buds peep through the growth while spindly, fingerlike plants called lycophytes grow long and tall on the mounds’ surface. It’s as if a coral reef was scooped up from the ocean, lifted 14,000 feet into the sky, and plopped on top of a mountain. UNC students leap from one mossy hump to another, occasionally overshooting their mark and slipping into the muddy waters in between. As they stop to catch their breath, quickly exhausted from the high altitude, they drop a sensor into one of the small pools to measure carbon. Between measurements, they look up to admire the dusty white peaks of Antisana, the fourth-highest volcano in Ecuador. Just behind it sits Cotopaxi, once thought to be the highest summit in the world and now one of South America’s most active volcanoes, having erupted more than 50 times since 1738. Home to 27 volcanoes, Ecuador has accumulated organic matter for thousands of years, as volcanic soils accrue more carbon than any other ecosystem. Called a páramo, this type of landscape is found in the northern Andes Mountains. It’s a tropical environment, but because of the high elevation, the temperature remains low and the decomposition of organic matter slows. Scientists call locations like this carbon sinks — places of long-term carbon storage. “The carbon content per unit area of soil in this area of Andes Mountains is among the highest on the planet,” says UNC geographer Diego Riveros-Iregui. He leads the Carbonshed Lab, which studies water and carbon cycles. In the last three centuries, both natural and human-made carbon dioxide emissions have contributed more to climate change than any other greenhouse gas. It traps heat in the atmosphere, and while there are other gases with more potent heat-snaring ability per molecule than CO2, they are simply far less abundant. When CO2 is emitted, 40 percent resides in the atmosphere for 100 years and 20 percent hangs around for 1,000. The final 10 percent takes 10,000 years to turn over.
As the planet continues to warm, carbon decomposition rates within the North Andean páramo will increase and release all that organic matte, further heating the planet. Riveros-Iregui is using his 2019 National Science Foundation Early Career Award, a five-year grant that combines research and education, to better understand these processes. He spent six weeks in Chapel Hill training five undergraduates and a PhD student on carbon measurement methods within water systems. This past summer, the team spent two months in Ecuador measuring the carbon in a watershed at Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve. This is the first of three cohorts he will take to South America. Inland waters like those found in the North Andean páramo are very important in the carbon cycle because they emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane at different times of the year depending on how much water is flowing downhill. “These ecosystems are emitting a lot more carbon than previously thought,” Riveros-Iregui explains. “Given the elevation and mean annual temperature of these tropical environments, these would be sources of atmospheric carbon that are currently unaccounted for.” These tropical watersheds have never undergone consistent monitoring for this long, and the students involved have never conducted fieldwork — a challenge that entices Riveros-Iregui.
Knit hats. Face masks. Waterproof gloves. Winter jackets. Rainboots on top of three layers of socks. This is the reality of conducting research at the reserve, located just west of the continental divide. Some days it’s 50 degrees and sunny; others, it’s 25 and sleeting. When humidity generated hundreds of miles away in the Amazon crashes into the Andes Mountains, it undergoes orographic lifting, which is when air is forced from lower to higher elevation, causing it to cool quickly and form precipitation. Today, a white mist settles over the mountain. It’s 36 degrees. The wind moves at about 10 mph. Visibility is 30 feet. Just 15 minutes endeavors | 19
Seniors Maribel Herrera and Chloe Schneider and junior Nehemiah Stewart use an infrared gas analyzer to measure carbon dioxide levels in the peatlands of the North Andean páramo.
Senior Chloe Schneider preps a floating sensor for one of the stream sites. Most students have piled on their wardrobes — not just hats and coats but layers of shirts, pants, and socks. away, toward town, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. But here, it’s like being trapped in a snow globe. Senior Chloe Schneider pulls on a black facemask and gloves, then heads down a steep, wooded hill, grabbing handfuls of long grasses and shrubs to stay upright. She carries a homemade carbon dioxide monitoring station — two pieces of wood attached to a gray plastic box containing a battery-powered datalogger. Face swathed in a rainbow-colored scarf and hat, senior Megan Raisle follows, wielding a piece of rebar that will secure it to the ground. After making their way to the slope’s bottom, they walk about a hundred feet to the left, where a small waterfall weaves through the site. They secure the monitoring station, running a wire from the box to a sensor placed inside a PVC pipe embedded in the streambed. Later in the day, Schneider and Raisle repeat this trek, a different 20 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
instrument in tow. On top of measuring the CO2 present in the water, they also need to record what’s being emitted into the air. To do this, they’ve created floating sensors using large flowerpot saucers with plumbing components wedged into the centers to hold the air collection chamber firmly in place. “Building the sensor housings and platforms feels like an exercise in critical thinking,” says geography PhD student Andrew Murray, who designed the first iteration of these devices. Additional sensors — 18 in all — measure water flow, dissolved oxygen, solutes like chlorophyll, other forms of carbon, and salt. During the entire two-month expedition, they remained in place, collectively recording nearly 2,000 environmental observations a day and, overall painting a broad picture of what happens to the carbon stored in these ecosystems every time it rains.
Senior Maribel Herrera is well-versed in geography and environmental science, her two majors, but she’s just beginning to learn the analysis aspect. “I’m comfortable with doing the hands-on work and deploying the sensors and stuff,” she says. “But then when I get the data, it’s all these numbers. How do I synthesize this and what do these numbers mean?” Cue Murray. Not only did he create the blueprints for the sensor stations and oversee the project’s execution in Ecuador, but he also specializes in R — a complicated computer programming language for data management analysis — and guided the students in that work. “Collecting good data is just one part of this work,” Murray says. “Knowing what to do with it and being able to work on it collaboratively with other people is another.”
PATH TO THE PÁRAMOS
Riveros-Iregui grew up in Fusagasugá,
The carbon dioxide monitoring stations contain a circuit board, data logger, and battery, which needs to be changed out every two or three days.
Colombia, which sits about 10 miles from the Sumapaz páramo. While these environments have long fascinated him, he didn’t begin studying them until the past decade. Having completed his undergraduate degree in Colombia, Riveros-Iregui only had two specialties to choose from as part of his geoscience curriculum: oil or mining. At first, he thought he’d pursue a career in the oil industry. But halfway through his program, he realized he enjoyed the study of rocks more. “Mining had components of what we call hard rock geology. You study rocks and look at them under a microscope,” he says, adding that while it was more interesting than oil, it still wasn’t fulfilling. After finishing his program in 2001, he traveled to the United States with the plan to enroll in graduate school. But he discovered that his English was insufficient, the cost more than expected, and the U.S. education
system confusing. “My conclusion at the time was that graduate school was not going to be in my future and that I’d probably need to find something else to do,” he says. A neighbor suggested enrolling in a community college, even though he already had a four-year degree. “It sounded like a good idea,” Riveros-Iregui laughs. “And I did not have a plan B.” After earning an associate’s degree in computer programming, he was offered a teaching assistantship at the University of Minnesota, where he completed his master’s in geology. Stumbling over the
The research site for the project is an area of hundreds of small alpine wetlands connected by a series of narrow streams.
These burgundy clubmosses, lycopodium crassum, look like something you’d find in the ocean, but they are native to the Andes Mountains.
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From left to right: Anayancy Estacio-Manning, Maribel Herrera, Megan Raisle, Chloe Schneider, Andrew Murray, Diego Riveros-Iregui, and Nehemiah Stewart.
graduate school process is far from unique, he says. “I come across so many students who want to go, but don’t know how to go about it. With the right guidance and gaining some exposure to research during their undergraduate [career], students can become competitive for graduate school fellowships.”
MENTORS AND FRIENDS
For junior Anayancy Estacio-Manning, a global studies major, just being out in the field is unfamiliar, let alone being in a harsh environment. “I think the hardest part has been more psychological in that I didn’t expect I could do something like this,” she admits. Before traveling to Ecuador, the students spent more than a month in Chapel Hill prepping for the international fieldwork. During Estacio-Manning’s first few weeks, she felt lost. The other students, three of whom are geography and environmental science majors, would often discuss things like pH and dissolved oxygen levels with ease as they practiced setting up experiments. “I’d go back home and look up whatever it was they were talking 22 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
about,” she says. But Riveros-Iregui encouraged her abilities. “He understands me being out of my element as a social science major,” she says. “And he’s happy to explain things.” Now back in Chapel Hill, EstacioManning recognizes how far she’s come and has grown more confident. “Knowing the two, physical science and social science, makes me sort of bilingual,” she shares. “And so now I can be that translator. I don’t need someone to translate for me if I’m able to understand both comprehensively.” Now, Estacio-Manning and the four other students are using these new skills at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, where they are presenting on some of the work they performed in Ecuador to North Carolina families. Riveros-Iregui places special emphasis on teaching and mentorship, noting that he had few mentors during his college career. He navigated academia alone — a feat that draws him to students like EstacioManning, one of three first-generation students working on this project. “These undergrads amaze me,” RiverosIregui says. “I want them to know that if I
could do it, so can they.” Beyond the field experience, the five students agree that one of the biggest benefits has been getting to know one another. “No one can take this bond we have,” agrees junior Nehemiah Stewart. “What we’ve formed here is something crazy. What we’ve formed is lifelong friendships.”
“These undergrads amaze me. I want them to know that if I can do it, so can they.”
Research UNCovered is a weekly series showcasing the many faces of research at Carolina, from undergraduate students to faculty, across all disciplines. Learn what inspired our researchers to pursue their fields, how they’ve overcome obstacles, and a little about their lives beyond their labs and offices.
Juan Carlos González Espitia Juan Carlos González Espitia is an associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Romance Studies within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. In his historical study of syphilis in the Spanish-speaking world, he explores the ways the disease affects private and public life, literature, the arts, medical discourse, politics, and public policy. Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
A: This is a very difficult question. I don’t even know now what I want to be if I grow up! When I was young, I wanted to be a nuclear astrophysicist. I suppose that daydreaming, the news about the NASA space program, the fact that Steve Austin — “The Six Million Dollar Man” — had been an astronaut before his accident, and my knack for remembering all the trivia about space exploration played a role in my profession never-to-be.
A: In the Department of Romance Studies, we are proud to have housed three scholarly publications — Romance Notes, Hispanófila, and the NCSRLL Book Series — for over half a century. Nevertheless, history and tradition can make us rigid, oblivious to possibility, and unaware of our mistakes. While we were clearly successful in our standing in the field, the outdated way we were publishing was putting us at risk of becoming unsustainable. With the support of our incredible departmental administrative team we engaged in a thorough and successful process of modernization at all levels. We continue being touchstones in our field, proven by time and quality, but we are thriving only because of change.
Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study. A: I thought of becoming a lawyer, a priest, a military officer, and a farmer. I received a bachelor’s in philosophy from one university and a bachelor’s in social communication and journalism from another. I did a radio program. I became a book editor in a publishing house while pursuing my master’s in analysis of political, economic, and international contemporary problems. I loved everything I did, but something was missing. I was not getting any younger and I could not continue studying indefinitely. When Betty Osorio, a professor at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, told me that I should study literature I was briefly skeptical. Then it was perfectly clear — that was what I had been doing all along and what I wanted to keep doing. The perk? I can continue studying indefinitely, even when I am not getting any younger.
Q: Describe your research in 5 words. A: “Syphilis teaches us a lot.” Q: What are your passions outside of research? A: I love cooking, although I am not that good at it. There is something very special about the whole process: putting different things into play, getting a rapid result, experimenting. and having your friends and family as guinea pigs. But I especially like the happiness of sharing meals around the table — there is nothing better than that. Cooking gives me perspective, reminding me that something as basic as eating can produce joy.
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SEA TURTLE SECRETS I
Story & photos by Liah McPherson
t’s midnight. Kayla Goforth and her research assistants have been traveling by car, boat, and even golf cart for some seven hours to get to Bald Head Island — but the work is just beginning. They get into a utility task vehicle (UTV) and head to their field site: the nest of a loggerhead sea turtle. A biology PhD student in Ken Lohmann’s lab at UNC, Goforth studies the magnetic orientation of logger-head sea turtle embryos. Scientists already know that sea turtles navigate using a sense called magnetoreception, allowing them to detect slight fluctuations between Earth’s magnetic fields at different latitudes and longitudes. Mature turtles use this sense to return to the beach where they hatched when it’s time to mate and lay eggs. By studying embryos’ orientations, Goforth hopes to determine if they are imprinting on the magnetic field of this natal beach. Imprinting is characterized by the rapid and ingrained learning of a geographic or social feature during a critical period in an organism’s early life — in this case, likely prior to hatching.
As the clock strikes 1 a.m., Goforth and her team of UNC undergraduates drive down the beach, right up to one of the nests she studies. It’s approximately 45 days after it was laid — close to hatching time. Conducting this field work at night prevents the eggs from being exposed to sunlight and getting too hot. Late nights in the field don’t faze Goforth. She’s passionate about sea turtles and their environment and is particularly fascinated by their use of magnetoreception. “That’s something that we, as humans, can’t even fathom,” she says. At the nest, field assistants carefully unearth the eggs, dusting off sand with a paintbrush. On top of each one, they use a black colored pencil to draw an arrow pointing toward one of the cardinal directions — north, south, east, or west. Later, Goforth will measure the angles of these arrows in relation to the directions the embryos face. 24 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
Typically, loggerheads lay around 110 to 120 eggs per nest. “They tend to lay larger eggs toward the beginning of the season and smaller eggs later in the season. The same turtle might lay up to five nests in the same summer,” Goforth explains. By shining a flashlight through each egg, a process called candling, Goforth observes which way the embryo faces. These baby turtles will hatch soon. Goforth draws a red line from the turtle’s head to its tail, which marks its position and intersects with the black directional line drawn when the egg was first unearthed. The team places the eggs back in each nest exactly how they were found — in the same order, with the same orientation. Within a week or two, sea turtle hatchlings erupt from the beach above these nests, making a beeline to the water. They use various environmental cues to begin navigating immediately.
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Understanding sea turtles’ lives and navigation allows scientists to better protect the species and their environment. “Knowing how and when sea turtles imprint on the magnetic field, and how that might be affected when they’re on land, can help us implement better conservation practices for the nesting areas,” Goforth says. Staff and interns at the Bald Head Island Conservancy (BHIC) excavate every nest on the island after it hatches, examining the hatching success rate and the number of unfertilized eggs. They relay the statistics for each of Goforth’s nests back to her. “All of the nests that I dug into had over 80 percent hatching success, which is really great,” Goforth shares. The BHIC Sea Turtle Protection Program works with researchers like Goforth to learn more about sea turtle biology and behavior and to promote their conservation.
“Actions that we all can take to help protect sea turtles [...] will benefit all marine life.” 26 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
During excavations, the conservancy staff release turtles left behind in the nest. These events are public, so anyone can see the hatchlings make their journeys to the ocean — an experience that inspires support for sea turtle conservation. As a flagship species for their environment, sea turtles are charismatic animals that people want to protect, which, in turn, protects the environment they share with other marine life. “Actions that we all can take to help protect sea turtles — such as reducing plastic use and advocating for cleaner oceans — will benefit all marine life,” Emily Goetz, a staff biologist at the BHIC, explains. “This includes the critters that don’t get as much attention as attractive species like sea turtles.”
View the full photo essay at endeavors.unc.edu/sea-turtle-secrets/ endeavors | 27
CONFRONTING CONFLICT with CREATIVITY Story by Annie McDarris
hérie Rivers Ndaliko stands behind the music stand she uses for a podium, her hands clasped, and looks out over her class. “I’m going to stand up here, and I want you to tell me what you see,” she says. While she has completed this exercise with classes in South Africa, Brazil, and across the United States, the answers are always different. One student tentatively raises his hand. “Woman,” he says. A few others, slightly less hesitant: Black. Intellectual. Confident. “This isn’t a game of compliments, guys!” she laughs. These descriptions say something about her, she says — and they also say something about the students in her class and the subconscious assumptions people make about others. Why do they see her as an intellectual? As confident? She launches into her exposé about human perception and how colonial photographers, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, took advantage of this to portray the Congolese as primitive in the early 1900s. “What do you think of the framing
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in this photograph?” she asks the class, gesturing to a sepia-tinted print of three Congolese women on the screen. Three hands shoot up. Ndaliko dances through the discussion with practiced ease. An assistant professor in the UNC Department of Music, Ndaliko studies the role of film, text, images, and music on social justice in African war zones. Her work focuses on how African nations, particularly Congo, can use creative processes to fight against the disruption of war on a cultural front. “It’s very important to me that, when we look at situations of conflict and crisis, we also look at creativity,” she says. “There is, institutionally, a history of divorcing one from the other and assigning the research that deals with resolving conflict to a certain set of disciplines. And those that look at creativity are typically not consulted.”
A DIFFERENT PATH
Ndaliko was born in northern California, but calls many places home. Ghana, Senegal, Denmark, Congo — her family was eclectic, she shares, and wanted her to have connections to places that were important
to them. She has been interested in social justice for as long as she can remember. “I grew up in a world that said that half of my family is not as important as the other half. In a world where, when my parents got married, it was not recognized in a number of states,” she says. Ndaliko’s mother is white and her father is black, and it became clear to her at an early age that there were structural inequalities in the world that she could not tolerate. A trained composer and pianist, Ndaliko turned to the arts as a way to work toward conflict resolution. She felt they were being overlooked in favor of routes that focused on the hard sciences — routes that she sees as not wholly effective. “We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” she says. “We’re addressing issues of inequity largely with the same strategies. I was curious to see where people are responding differently and what results they’re having.”
“POWER IN THE GUISE OF ART”
Ndaliko has conducted research in Senegal, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, and
photo courtesy of Alkebu Film Productions
photo courtesy of Alkebu Film Productions
As part of Yole!Africa, Chérie Rivers Ndaliko helps youth in the Democratic Republic of Congo use creativity to tell their experiences of conflict. Here, Ndaliko gives instructions on the set of “Matata,” a film by her husband Petna Ndaliko Katondolo.
eventually Congo, a place that she became fascinated with while studying organizations that fought institutional inequities. She moved there in 2008 and continues to live in Goma, a city near the Rwandan border, for most of the year. The city and much of eastern Congo has been a center of social and political upheaval since the first of two civil wars broke out in in 1996. The area is rich in mineral resources such as coltan, an important component of many electronics, and industrial exploitation of the land by other countries such as the United States have fueled and funded the conflict. Although the second war offiically ended in 2003, cycles of violence and power struggles have kept the central African nation in a state of blistering unrest. While estimates vary greatly, Ndaliko says that roughly 8 million people have died as a result of the fighting. Millions more have been displaced and impoverished. “It is the deadliest humanitarian conflict since the second World War,” Ndaliko says.
The instability that comes from decades of strife has made an indelible mark on the country’s political and social climate. Many young people, for example, lack stable access to education, which limits their opportunities. Out of this need came Yole!Africa, a Goma-based organization focused on promoting the arts in Congo. Founded in 2000 by acclaimed filmmaker Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, Yole!Africa was a major motivator for why Ndaliko decided to stay in Goma. She eventually married Ndaliko Katondolo.
used by cattle drivers, goat herders, and shepherds to call flocks together when danger is afoot. Like those shepherds, Yole!Africa provides a place for Congolese youth to come together away from violence. Yole!Africa encourages people to tell their stories in their own ways. The processes and skills that come from studying film, music, literature, and other art forms help young Congolese adults find a voice to tell stories about their country in ways that reflect their experiences. The center works to provide them space, skills, and education that may help them thrive in the war-torn region. Ndaliko is the director of research and education at Yole!Africa for now — the organization is working to move away from hierarchical labels — and helps provide artistic classes, workshops, and public events to 17,000 people of eastern Congo each year. Through the nonprofit, Ndaliko advocates for a shift in the way the world handles humanitarian and charitable aid in Africa. The organization has struggled to find
“We have fought — and continue to fight — against reducing people to experiences of victimhood.” “I was driven by a deep desire to learn to understand what is going on,” Ndaliko says. “And the more I learned about the unique history on Congo, the more committed I was to partnering with the people who were already doing such an extraordinary thing.” In many East African languages, the word yolé means “come together.” It is
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photo by Steve Exum ChĂŠrie Rivers Ndaliko and her husband Petna Ndaliko Katondolo
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funding that doesn’t focus on the trauma that people have potentially endured, but rather on their successes. “We have fought — and continue to fight — against reducing people to experiences of victimhood,” she says. “We don’t ask students to identify in those terms, as rape victims or child soldiers. If they identify as filmmakers, because that’s what they see themselves as, then we want to engage them as filmmakers, not victims.” People who have completed courses at Yole!Africa have gone on to become politicians, human rights attorneys, and journalists with media companies like BBC and Al Jazeera. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done and what the students produce there,” Ndaliko says. Ndaliko has produced two books about her work with Yole!Africa and the importance of cultural engagement in the face of conflict. She wrote “Necessary Noise: Music, Film and Charitable Imperialism in the East of Congo,” which won a Nketia Book Prize and an Alan Meriam Book of the Year Prize. She also co-edited and wrote chapters for “The Art of Emergency: Aesthetics and Aid in African Crises.” She has written almost a dozen articles and book chapters on Yole!Africa, aid, and artistic culture in Congo. Now, she’s working on a multimedia project, “Commemorating Congo: Unsung Stories of Resource Wars,” which shares the experiences of survivors and participants of the Congolese wars. “Sometimes creative expression is a matter of survival,” Ndaliko writes in “Necessary Noise.” “But sometimes it is a currency that cloaks the machinery of power in the guise of art.”
FROM CONGO TO CAROLINA
Carolina students work on a collaborative art project with their peers at Yole!Africa. Over Skype and Facebook, they produce music videos, songs, and photo essays. “They get really excited,” Ndaliko says. “And they make fast friends. There are plenty of folks I can think of who have maintained relationships with the people they’ve collaborated with.” Forging connections with Congolese students, Ndaliko believes, is a powerful way to learn about the conflict and advocate for change. “You’re not thinking about some abstract place, you’re thinking about the family of the friends who you’re producing a thing with, who you become close with on social media,” she says. “In my experience of the world, that kind of human connection will be a far bigger motivating factor.”
Grace Garcia sits in the Stone & Leaf Cafe and scrolls through a series of artfully designed slides on her laptop. This is the draft of her “look book,” a document that outlines the thoughts and discussions that she and her classmates developed in Ndaliko’s class last semester. She and Ndaliko are working on this project together. “So, this is kind of what I’m working on,” she says as she flicks through the earth-toned graphics, photographs, and lists. “I focused on incorporating the idea of film, specifically historical representations through film, through the actual design details of the look book.” Garcia is a first-year student studying journalism and art history at Carolina. Last semester, she took Ndaliko’s first-year seminar, “Arts, Activism, Africa,” and is now in her class focused on media and social change in Africa. She says that she has learned a lot about Congo from these courses. “The fact that I wasn’t hearing these stories, the fact that a lot if it remains in the shadows, was very eye-opening for me,” Garcia says. “Something that I had never consciously thought of is now something that I participate in daily. I read news articles about Congo, watch films by documentarians, and engage with musicians from the African continent, specifically in Congo.” Later this month, Garcia and Ndaliko will send the look book to directors and students at Yole!Africa. It will serve as a tool for Congolese students and help them understand and discuss the ways their peers in the United States navigate issues of Congolese representation, contextualization, and colonization. “We, as Westerners, need to recognize our own complicity in the issues that are current and also historical,” Garcia says. “We have the ability to have a voice and take action and to elevate the platforms that the Congolese have already created.” Without Ndaliko, Garcia admits, she never would have made these connections. “She’s been so inspirational,” she says. “I really aspire to look at the world the way she does.”
“Sometimes creative expression is a matter of survival, but sometimes it is a currency that cloaks the machinery of power in the guise of art.”
Bringing attention to the conflict in Congo was a large part of Ndaliko’s decision to bring her work to the United States. Ndaliko returned to the U.S. in 2010 while on tour for her husband’s film, “Jazz Mama,” which focuses on the strength and dignity of Congolese women in the face of violence. As part of the film’s introduction, she asked the crowds how many had heard of the wars in Congo. The responses were disappointing — usually less than three people raised their hands, and of those people, few knew what the conflict was about. The pair visited 33 universities and colleges and the results were the same. “This is an economic war. It is funded by multinational corporations, most of which are rooted in this country,” Ndaliko says. “Even if we can empower every single Congolese in this generation, they have no influence over American corporate policy. And the people who do have influence over that have no idea that this is even happening.” In 2012, Ndaliko decided to come teach at Carolina. “If we think of education as the long-term strategy of change, who needs this information?” Ndaliko asks. Her answer? Young Americans. As a way to forge a connection with Congo, Ndaliko has her
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RESEARCH IN THE REAL WORLD Mike Ramsey Chemistry
Partnering with global biopharma companies Celgene and MilliporeSimga to develop a new bioreactor monitoring technology to accelerate the manufacture of biologic medicines.
Pharmacy & Biomedical Engineering Founded a company to create AnelleO â€” the first 3-D printed intravaginal ring designed to treat a wide range of womenâ€™s health conditions.
Steven King & Richard Hobbs Media & Journalism / Medicine & Pediatrics
Working within the Emerging Technologies Lab to develop Adventure Squad, a mobile app using augmented reality to motivate hospitalized children to get out of bed and engage with caretakers.
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Shaun Matthews Dentistry
Uses and educates others about teledentistry as a tool to remotely interface with patients who lack easy access to dental care.
Ricky Hurtado & Elaine Townsend Utin Education
Leading an annual summer program for Latinx middle-schoolers to teach them about culture, the importance of education, and how to be leaders in their schools as part of the LatinxEd program.
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THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS Story & photos by Megan May
Story and photos by Megan May August 15, 2019 34 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
“The thing that people need to realize is that PFAS like GenX are not only a North Carolina problem. This is a U.S. and worldwide issue, we’re just realizing the extent of it.”
arsten Baumann balances his entire upper body over the side of the second-story porch at his home in Morrisville, retrieving a device used to gather air samples. The UNC-Chapel Hill environmental engineer at the Gillings School of Global Public Health brings the equipment into the makeshift lab in his kitchen, carefully removing each compartment to collect the filtration system within. What is he looking for? He’s not exactly sure. Baumann is gathering samples to detect per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — a family of chemicals used in the creation of products containing non-stick coating like cookware, food wrapping, clothing, cosmetics, carpet, and even dental floss. Because this class of chemicals contains over 5,000 different types, he will only be able to detect about 55. Although these compounds are used in thousands of products, their impact on the environment and human health is largely unknown. “I think the challenge has been that there haven’t been enough health studies on these compounds simply because we’re just realizing the extent of the problem, especially in the last decade or so,” says Jason Surratt, a UNC-Chapel Hill atmospheric chemist and director of the NC PFAS Testing Network –– a collaboration between seven NC universities assembled to research these contaminants. Extensive research has been conducted on one particular PFAS, called PFOA, in large part due to a lawsuit brought against the chemical manufacturing company DuPont for knowingly dumping the toxic chemicals in the Ohio River and contaminating drinking water supplies for residents throughout Ohio and West Virginia. In 2016,
researchers published evidence of high rates of PFAS in the Cape Fear River basin – a drinking water source for 1.5 million North Carolinians. Previous findings have associated PFOA with a multitude of health concerns like high cholesterol, weakened immune system and response to vaccines, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, fetal development issues, and kidney and testicular cancer. These compounds are thought of as systemic toxicants in that not just one organ is particularly impacted –– the entire body is affected. Despite concerns from the scientific community, a majority of these compounds are approved for manufacture. “A feature of all of these compounds is that they’re unregulated,” says Detlef Knappe, a civil and environmental engineer from North Carolina State University. “So there’s no safe value that we can convey to the public or that a water treatment plant could target. So far, no PFAS has been tested that was deemed perfectly safe.” In recent years, researchers have uncovered high concentrations of these chemicals in drinking water sources across the country, causing alarm among communities. Knappe bets that if any one person in the United States were to have their blood sampled, PFAS would show up in the results. The North Carolina PFAS Testing Network, established by UNC-Chapel Hill’s NC Policy Collaboratory, was born out of this public health concern. Formed in 2018 as a legislative mandate by the North Carolina General Assembly and currently funded with $7 million in state appropriations, the network is comprised of researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, Duke University, UNC-Wilmington,
UNC-Charlotte, East Carolina University, and NC A&T State University. Their goal is to answer a wide range of questions about these compounds — from how they are transported through water, air, and soil, to potential human health impacts, and the effectiveness of at-home removal systems. The network consists of five different research teams, each focused on a different aspect of PFAS research. “We’re really fortunate in this state to have some of the nation’s leading PFAS researchers at these universities,” Surratt says, “So we’ve been able to assemble a very strong team of researchers to address this question.”
In 2010, Knappe was investigating how PFAS could be removed from water. Collaborating with scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the team focused on the Cape Fear River basin — a drinking water source for over 1.5 million North Carolinians. On average, the researchers found 630 nanograms per liter of the PFAS GenX in their samples. At the time, this wasn’t cause for alarm — the EPA provisional health advisory level was a combined 600 nanograms per liter for two types: PFOA and PFOS. But then came a shift that changed everything, Knappe explains. In May 2016, the EPA changed the advisory level from 600 to just 70 nanograms per liter. In addition, the team detected a large array of other contaminants in the river. Knappe estimates that by looking at the entirety of all the PFAS detected, their samples included tens of thousands of nanograms per liter. “Besides GenX we found a lot of other endeavors | 35
PFAS in the water that were present at much higher levels, but we didn’t have analytical standards for those compounds,” he says. “So we couldn’t exactly tell people, ‘There’s this concentration in the water.’ We just had a big signal on the instrument.” This issue is common when searching for PFAS. With thousands of different types, researchers often run into the problem of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” GenX, designed as a “safer” alternative to PFOA, was approved for manufacture in 2009, but has been dumped in the drinking water supply as a byproduct since the 1980s. Only recently has it been detectable with today’s technology. That same problem applies to the other PFAS; it is difficult for scientists to keep up with the pace at which these chemicals are released. So who is responsible for these compounds getting in the water in the first place? The good news is researchers found a specific point source along the Cape Fear River basin. The bad news is this is not the only source — there is a plethora of ways these compounds can enter the environment. The Fayetteville facility of the chemical manufacturing plant Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont, has been cited as the main source of these chemicals in the Cape Fear River. Not only has the facility released its PFAS-contaminated wastewater into the river for decades, but high levels of GenX have also been found in over 600 private drinking water wells within a 5.5-mile radius around the plant. Since the Wilmington Star-News broke the story of Knappe’s findings in 2017, state officials have been investigating and regulating the release of chemicals from the company, with varying degrees of success. Efforts include determining if Chemours violated the terms of its permits and the Clean Water Act, as well as an order from Gov. Roy Cooper to assess whether a 36 | UNC Research 2019 - 20
criminal investigation is warranted. Those steps, though, are just the starting point of assessing the extent of PFAS across the state.
A morning fog rises off the shallow water as NC State University’s Craig Jensen follows a fellow graduate student through a creek off the Cape Fear River in Fayetteville. At their designated sampling site, they carefully put their equipment on the shoreline and get to work, sticking a long metal rod into the soft creek bottom to extract the ground water below. Kylie Rock secures an alligator near Lake Waccamaw. NC State toxicologist Scott Belcher is leading a team identifying how PFAS move through the environment and up the food chain.
team looks at how the chemicals can be emitted through the air and deposited back down through rain. Then comes PFAS removal, investigating existing and emerging technologies that can remove these contaminants. Last, but not least, is the applied research opportunities team, comprised of scientists looking to answer questions beyond those mandated by the North Carolina General Assembly. They are studying human placentas to identify how PFAS affects development, taking samples from fish and alligators to see how the chemicals move through the food chain, gathering landfill leachate water to analyze its role as a point source, investigating what PFAS does to the immune system, studying how these compounds are taken up by crops, and building analytical models to understand how PFAS moves in the environment and living organisms. Data collected over the course of the past year will be reported back to the
Over 140 miles away, NC John Szilagyi works in State University Rebecca Fry’s toxicology lab at UNC. The team is toxicologist Scott studying human placentas Belcher and his to identify how PFAS team affect fetal development. are wrangling a 10.5-foot alligator onto the North Carolina General Assembly and shoreline of the Lake Waccamaw canal. made public online. From this baseline Once the animal is safely subdued, they information, they hope to better inform give it an on-the-spot vet check — stakeholders what future studies and determining sex, measuring its size, steps should be considered. collecting a blood sample, and While the network is focused on PFAS administering a tag. in North Carolina, Surratt says concerns While the scientists from each site are conducting dramatically different fieldwork, expand way beyond state borders. “The thing that people need to realize their goal is the same: gathering data for is that PFAS like GenX are not only a the NC PFAS Testing Network. North Carolina problem. This isa U.S. and Two of these teams are looking at worldwide issue,” he says. “We’re just water contamination. One is sampling realizing the extent of it.” every public water municipality in North Carolina, totaling over 350 water sources, while the other is sampling private water wells across the state. The air emissions
Research UNCovered is a weekly series showcasing the many faces of research at Carolina, from undergraduate students to faculty, across all disciplines. Learn what inspired our researchers to pursue their fields, how they’ve overcome obstacles, and a little about their lives beyond their labs and offices.
Eleftheria “Ria” Kontou Eleftheria “Ria” Kontou is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of City and Regional Planning within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. She uses transportation models to uncover whether ride-sourcing platforms like Uber and Lyft affect city road crashes, injuries, fatalities, and DUI rates to help urban planners identify solutions for safe and efficient mobility. Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A: Doctor! Little did I know that I would end up holding a doctorate degree in civil engineering. Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study. A: Working toward my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I had very supportive mentors who introduced me to the role that transportation engineers play in building and managing transportation networks. Taking an introductory course in this field was pivotal, helping me realize that people in this profession commit to achieving better mobility and, essentially, quality of life for all.
Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it? A: Transportation problems are complex and topics of study in several disciplines. How can we solve pressing transportation issues if we work in a vacuum? When I was working on understanding the impacts of ride-sourcing on transport energy use, I realized that I needed to get feedback for urban planners and behavioral scientists to better model driver behavior. Collaborating with other disciplines can really make a difference in the impact and visibility of our research output. Q: Describe your research in 5 words. A: “Paths to safe, shared mobility.” Q: What are your passions outside of research? A: I really enjoy hiking. I have visited several national and North Carolina state parks, and I am amazed by the diversity of landscapes. Most recently, I visited Chimney Rock State Park near Asheville with my spouse. Taking in the scenery of mountains, forests, lakes, and waterfalls helps clear my mind and improves my outlook. I feel rejuvenated after each hike and use the energy and creativity it provides in my research.
Know someone we should feature? Nominate a researcher at endeavors.unc.edu/category/runc
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Amanda Chau and Glamar Galeas measure the distance between their crime scene and Alumni Hall for the course, “Written in Bone: CSI and the Science of Death Investigation,” which teaches students the science behind human skeletal analysis.
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