Faculty research tackles vital issues, touches lives across world

Carolina’s research touches lives across the world.

To showcase some of the people and programs making an impact on significant issues, both in North Carolina and around the globe, the University held three faculty-led academic panels Oct. 11 – the day before Carolina celebrates its 220th birthday and installs Carol L. Folt as its 11th chancellor.

Folt wanted to convene the panels to shine the spotlight on Carolina research and some of the faculty and students who make it possible.

Water in Our World (watch video)

The campus-wide Water in Our World academic theme was launched in 2012 to inspire interdisciplinary research and spark new thinking around water issues. The panel discussion, moderated by music professor Terry Rhodes, showed that the theme is accomplishing both. For example:

  • In 2013, one-third of Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA students graduated with a concentration in sustainability, said Carol Seagle Hee, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship. That shows the school’s commitment to teaching corporate social responsibility.
  • Roughly 21,000 students are now enrolled in Donald Hornstein’s “Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy,” a Massive Open Online Course that is allowing students from all over the world to learn and innovate, despite the lack of physical proximity.
  • UNC students are contributing key research to international water problems, said Jamie Bartram, director of UNC’s Water Institute and co-chair, with Rhodes, of the Water in Our World theme. That includes the impact of water safety plants on health, as well as mapping different water supplies around the world and analyzing their vulnerability to extreme climate events around the world. (Another student, Hee said, has a patent for a waterless toilet.)

“One thing about water is that it is notoriously fluid,” said Hornstein, from the School of Law. “It crosses conceptual boundaries, it crosses physical boundaries. It crosses international boundaries, presenting some of the most intractable problems across public policy and science that exist.

Donald Hornstein, makes his remarks at the "Water In Our World" panel discussion only October 11, 2013. At podium center is Jamie Bartram and, at right, Carol Seagle Hee who also participated in the discussion.

Donald Hornstein makes his remarks at the “Water In Our World” panel discussion on Oct. 11, 2013. At podium center is Jamie Bartram and, at right, Carol Seagle Hee who also participated in the discussion.

Innovation and Impact (watch video)

Appropriately for a panel devoted to new ideas, the fresh faculty faces at the table discussing the University’s innovation and impact, moderated by School of Nursing Dean Kristen Swanson, had some fascinating facts to share:

  • Twitter saves lives.
  • The atmosphere is out to kill us.
  • And when choosing our life’s work, we should be doing what we think about in the shower.

The three panelists hit some common themes – about starting in one discipline but being led by their curiosity into another, and about how ignorance of the impossible is a great way to solve problems.

Take, for example, the three 20-somethings who used Twitter to coordinate supplies for 10 makeshift hospitals in Tahrir Square. When Zeynep Tufekci, from the School of Information and Library Science, asked one about the inspiration behind Tweeting medical logistics, “he said he got the idea from the cupcake store.”

Innovation is all about thinking outside the box or, in the case of Will Vizuete, the petri dish. Vizuete, from the Gillings School of Global Public Health, has patented a device that other researchers are clamoring for because they have been squirting lung cells with liquid from pipettes, but “we don’t breathe that way.”

All three said they felt tremendously supported at UNC and welcomed opportunities to practice “team science,” as Cheryl Woods Giscombe, from the School of Nursing, called it. “We have to discover our passion,” she said. And to keep their shower-inspired ideas from going down the drain, innovators should focus on the long-term impact and whether those ideas will be “sustainable and culturally relevant” in the real world.

The Public Research University (watch video)

Kim Strom-Gottfried, Smith P. Theimann Distinguished Professor for Ethics and Professional Practice in UNC’s School of Social Work, talks at the "Public Research University" panel. At center are Maryann Feldman and James Johnson, Jr., who were also on the panel.

Kim Strom-Gottfried, Smith P. Theimann Distinguished Professor for Ethics and Professional Practice in UNC’s School of Social Work, talks at the “Public Research University” panel. At center are Maryann Feldman and James Johnson, Jr., who were also on the panel.

The three panelists, moderated by John McGowan, director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, reflected on the importance of the public research university, how it is “under siege” and what needs to be done to save it. The case has to be made for both public education and a research university, panelists said.

“Budget cuts and stagnant salaries are not only making it harder to attract faculty, but harder to reward them,” said social work professor Kim Strom-Gottfried. “Eventually, faculty members see greener pastures and take offers elsewhere.” Public research universities are in peril, she said, because they are functioning on increasingly smaller budgets and declining state support.

The foundation on which public research universities were built transformed the economy of North Carolina, said Maryann Feldman, from the department of public policy.

She talked about Carolina being inspirational. The land grant of 1862 expanded opportunities and created a university for the masses that was secular and vocational. Feldman called the land grant the single most important event to create economic development in North Carolina.

Then, the industrial genesis of the state came with the development of Research Triangle Park a half-century ago. “We have to continue to fight for public research universities because they produce faculty and students who create knowledge and new ideas, which is what local economies need to survive,” she said.

Jim Johnson, professor of management, said he was deeply concerned about the poor quality of K-12 education. “We are losing our customers. We need to build an AHEC [Area Health Education Centers] model of K-12 education,” he said.

To sustain the model of a public research university like Carolina, not only is it necessary to have new knowledge and ideas, but it also is imperative to do a better job educating our children, he said. “We need to help the state in spite of itself.”

Story by Thania Benios, Susan Hudson and Robbi Pickeral of News Services

Published October 12, 2013.