Campus News

Creating conditions for discovery

Initiative 4 from the University’s strategic plan addresses the importance of exploring new ideas, solving problems and filling gaps in human knowledge.

photo collage featuring a close-up of lab scientist's hands as he pipettes liquid into a tube; woman carrying crab traps in a marshy area at dusk; a sculpture of a person with a load of cargo on her head.
Initiative 4: Discover encompasses research and scholarship from a world of disciplines. (Photos from left to right courtesy of Megan May/University Research/Copper Canyon Press)

“The pandemic has not stopped the research enterprise,” said Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research, during a discussion of Strategic Initiative 4: Discover of the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good.

Far from it. In many ways, the world has relied on Carolina’s expertise in infectious diseases, public health, virology and other fields throughout the yearlong coronavirus crisis, underscoring the vital role of research at the University.

Magnuson serves as co-captain, along with Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Joyce Tan, for the Discover initiative, which encompasses research.

The introduction to the initiative begins this way: “We look to faculty to help us comprehend and solve immediate challenges. We rely on them to inspire us through imagining new works of art, music, literature, theater and creative expression that remind us of human grace. And we need them for discovery: for exploring new ideas, solving problems, imagining different ways of seeing, working to fill gaps in human knowledge and for the simple reason that we do not know what knowledge we will need next.”

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

As the 12th largest research university in the United States, Carolina ranks sixth in federal research expenditures, fourth for federally funded health science research and first in the nation for federally funded social and behavioral science research and development.

The Well spoke with Magnuson and Tan about discovery and what makes Carolina a leading global research university.

The pandemic led some strategic initiative captains and teams to rethink their objectives. How has the pandemic impacted Strategic Initiative 4: Discover?

Magnuson: Not that much. We have an amazing infectious disease group here at UNC-Chapel Hill in the School of Medicine, Eshelman School of Pharmacy and Gillings School of Global Public Health, covering everything from virology to public health outreach to drug discovery, and they all came together and focused on the pandemic.

The READDI initiative came out of a Creativity Hub that we funded well before the pandemic. The goal of that Creativity Hub, which Nat Moorman is leading, is to find antivirals that can work across several classes of viruses, coronaviruses being one. The idea is to target host cellular machinery that viruses need to replicate. So if you can destroy that, then the viruses can’t replicate. The idea with READDI is to get antivirals on the shelf waiting for a pandemic. And, lo and behold, a year later, we were there.

Terry Magnuson

Terry Magnuson (John Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Tan: As a university, we have invested a lot in infectious disease research and prevention for many, many years. That made us ready for this new wave of challenges.

Say more about the Discover initiative and how it came to be.

Magnuson: When I came into the job as vice chancellor — I had been in the School of Medicine for 16 years — the first question that I had was: What is research at Carolina? We had all of our schools and the College of Arts & Sciences. But what was the focus? That’s when we started meeting to figure out our strategic priorities. That led to our establishing seven institutional research priorities: brain and neuroscience; cancer; data science; environment; infectious disease; opportunity; well-being and culture; and precision health and society. And that work fit right into the Carolina Next strategic plan.

That’s very important, because if we’re going to put resources into things, we want to do it in a very deliberate manner, so we can increase where we have strengths and where we think the science is going based on the national funding priorities and so forth.

There are three objectives under this initiative. Explain the importance of the first: “Pursue creative collaboration in research and scholarship.”

Magnuson: Research these days is multidisciplinary — bringing teams together with different expertise. COVID is a good example, where one is bringing basic scientists together with public health experts and infectious disease doctors and even experts from the arts and humanities who express cultural aspects of what the pandemic is all about. That objective is about bringing teams together and attacking the grand challenges.

Joyce Tan

Joyce Tan (Mary Lide Parker)

Collaboration is a strength at Carolina. It’s one of the reasons I ended up here versus going somewhere else, because the culture and the environment here is very different than most universities. That attitude is set from the top. It’s just the way we operate here. In developing our seven areas, we focus on bringing these groups together in a very pointed way.

The objective identifies a strategic opportunity: “Develop the implementation plan for a new School of Data, Information and Society.” Why is this important and what’s the timeline?

Magnuson: I would say that is our biggest initiative, the major thing that we want to accomplish. Every school and the College at Carolina, every department has data scientists. Having a School of Data, Information and Society would start to coalesce our programs both on the theoretical aspects — the data science — and then on the practical applications of data science.

We’re at the last step of the organization, and we would like to kick off initial aspects of it by July. We’ve spent a lot of time on it. A lot of faculty have worked on it. It’s one of Bob Blouin’s signature initiatives.

A lot of universities have done this, but I think the way we’re approaching it is different. It’s more of a humanistic approach. How are data really going to affect society, culture and our everyday applications?

Tan: In the College, for example, within the humanities and the arts, we are providing support for graduate and undergraduate students to do research on the American South through the Southern Futures initiative. In partnership with the Graduate School, Southern Futures is building out a National Science Foundation framework to train students to be “boundary spanners.” Boundary Spanner scholars use humanistic and data analysis tools to support teams addressing COVID-19-related concerns in North Carolina communities.

Another example: Southern Futures and the Center for the Study of the American South, in partnership with the University of Georgia and two other universities, received a $150,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to better understand how coastal communities across the region are adapting to climate challenges. There’s a focus on humanities questions generated by archival research, oral history and anthropology.

I’d also like to highlight the work on health disparities. For example, Giselle Corbie-Smith in partnership with Duke [University] has convened this large project to expand COVID-19 testing to underserved and vulnerable communities. And there’s work being done by John Easter and others around telehealth to help more remote rural communities during the pandemic.

Involving students in research is a thread in this initiative. Why is that important and how does the initiative create opportunities for student research?

Magnuson: Involving students — and I’ll say “trainees” because it’s students at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoc levels — is incredibly important because, 1) you’re training the next generation of researchers, and 2) they come with incredible ideas and thoughts. They’re the ones that really make the experiments or whatever you’re trying to tackle work because they focus 100% of their time on the problem.

Tan: Students and post-doctoral trainees tend to float around from one place to another. They have social and working networks within the University. They’re the ones who oftentimes bring the ideas together from one research program to another. The trainees are here to be trained, but they’re also part of the innovation that helps drive research.

Magnuson: A good example is in the lab. If you’re approaching a problem, and you need certain technology that doesn’t exist in the lab, it’s generally the trainee that goes out and finds where it is and learns how to do it and brings it back into their group.

Why is the Institute for Convergent Science a priority and how does it fit into Initiative 4?

Magnuson: The Institute for Convergent Science falls under Objective 3 [Lead in solving the world’s most challenging problems]. Chris Clemens [professor in the College’s department of physics and astronomy and senior associate dean for research and innovation] has been the leader in this.

Tan: The institute itself is both a space and a navigator. It has a framework of three lanes of innovation, kind of like a pipeline. There are places where people can go and bump into each other [once the pandemic ends] and people have facilities for meetings to talk and to generate ideas and ways to work together. And then there are spaces where people, once they’ve formulated concepts, can create prototypes or refine their work or invent new things. And then the last lane is Launch, where faculty can do entrepreneurship work to create start-up companies.

But there’s also convergence and collaboration among administrators as well, where we’re partnering with each other to help facilitate some of this work through funding partnerships.

Magnuson: Yes, it’s not only a convergence among the researchers but among the rest of us in the institution that have all kinds of programs to converge, which helps the researchers.

A good example would be what RTI just launched, which is this $5 million dollar challenge to come up with a major idea. And the idea is going to have to involve working with RTI and three other of the five universities in the plan. That first space can be an area where people really come and figure this out.

“Lead in solving the world’s most challenging problems” encompasses a lot. Where do you begin, and how does Carolina Next help position the University for success?

Magnuson: It focuses us going back to our seven priorities. And, of course, it’s an evergreen process. Priorities change as the problems change. Think about COVID-19. The idea of bringing groups of people together to attack new problems allows for a lot of flexibility in that we’re always fresh and looking at new ideas and new ways to approach things.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.