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Faculty & Staff Honors

Faculty & Staff Honors

UNC Faculty Members Awarded Grants to Fight Obesity, Improve Water Access

A number of University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health faculty members have been awarded grant funding to pursue solutions to two of the world’s most pressing challenges — the obesity epidemic and the global shortage of clean water.

The Creativity Hubs research initiative, which funds the research, was developed as a platform on which to assemble teams of researchers from diverse disciplines to tackle major societal challenges and leverage additional support from other sponsors.

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, professor and associate chair for research in the Gillings School’s nutrition department, will lead the Heterogeneity in Obesity project. Her team’s work will take a novel approach to assess the underlying causes of obesity, tapping information not traditionally studied to unlock new, targeted ways to treat the disease.

“UNC has a long history of outstanding obesity research in many different areas of science,” said Dr. Gordon-Larsen. “[However,] integration of all that valuable information hasn’t happened yet. The Creativity Hubs award has given us an amazing opportunity to have a diverse group of scientists working on a single project to develop tools for obesity research, prevention and treatment.”

By developing an automated tool to rapidly analyze and integrate large data sets, the team will seek answers to why individuals with the same diet experience weight gain and loss differently. The research is expected to lead to more personalized treatments that take into account the wide range of factors — from diet, to social influences, to genetics — that contribute to weight gain and loss.

[Photo: Top, left to right, are UNC’s Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, Dr. Michael Kosorok and Dr. Rebecca Fry; bottom, left to right, are Dr. Orlando Coronell, Dr. Jill Stewart and Dr. Cass Miller.]

Fifteen other UNC Gillings School researchers will contribute to the work, including Dr. Christy Avery, assistant professor of epidemiology; Dr. Ethan Basch, professor of health policy and management and director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s cancer outcomes research program;  Dr. Ian Carroll, assistant professor of nutrition; Dr. John E. French, adjunct associate professor of nutrition;  Dr. Rebecca Fry, Carol Remmer Angle Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering and director of the Institute for Environmental Health Solutions;  Dr. Annie Green Howard, clinical assistant professor of biostatistics;  Dr. Stephen D. Hursting, professor of nutrition; Dr. Michael R. Kosorok, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor and chair of biostatistics; Dr. Leslie Lytle, professor of health behavior and nutrition; Dr. Katie Meyer, assistant professor of nutrition; Dr. Kari North, professor of epidemiology; Dr. Sally Clark Stearns, professor of health policy and management; Dr. Susan Sumner, professor of nutrition; Dr. Deborah Tate, professor of health behavior and nutrition and director of the Communications for Health Applications and Interventions Core; and Dr. Steven Zeisel, professor of nutrition and director of the UNC Nutrition Research Institute and the UNC Nutrition Obesity Research Center.

Addressing a different need, one that affects more than 1.8 billion people worldwide, the Sustainable Access to Clean Water Creativity Hub will pursue the development of an innovative, affordable, membrane-based water purification tool that can safely remove a broad range of water contaminants.

“The Creativity Hubs initiative has allowed us to assemble a unique team of scientists and engineers with the background and expertise to tackle a major global problem,” said Dr. Theo Dingemans, principal investigator for the sustainable access to water hub. “Our team is excited to advance solutions to these scientific and engineering challenges, and we are especially motivated and inspired to provide practical and affordable solutions that will impact the lives of individuals and communities worldwide.”

The project team, made up of researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin, includes three faculty members from the Gillings School of Global Public Health – Dr. Orlando Coronell, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering; Dr. Cass T. Miller, Okun Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering; and Dr. Jill Stewart, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering and deputy director of the UNC Galapagos Initiative and the Center for Galapagos Studies.

Building on existing graphene and graphene oxide membrane technologies that have shown promise as water purifiers, the team will seek to develop new filters that make water purification more energy-efficient and to lay a foundation for large-scale, affordable membrane production.

Each team will receive up to $250,000 toward the development of their proposals. Progress will be assessed after one year and the teams could be eligible for up to an additional $250,000 in funding.

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