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From vaccines to food deserts, meet UNC grad students pioneering award-winning research

travis howell
Travis Howell is a PhD student in the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Contributed by Ilich Meija.

Graduate students at UNC continue to set the bar high for the students that follow them.

This year, 15 graduate students and recent graduates were awarded the Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Award, which recognizes research that will show a positive change in the cultural, economic, educational, physical or social well-being of North Carolina citizens. The Impact Award acknowledges graduate students who have a research plan that can be applied to people's everyday lives in the near future. 

Five other people were also awarded the Horizon Award, which recognizes research that shows potential to be impactful longterm. Horizon Awards acknowledge graduate student research that is more theoretical but works to solve big issues in North Carolina. Their research may require years of follow-up information, but the end results can be significant to North Carolina and beyond. 

Travis Howell – Impact Award 

Travis Howell is a PhD student in the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Contributed by Ilich Meija.

Travis Howell conducted research on how coworking has been beneficial to the work environment. At the Kenan-Flagler Business School, Howell is interested in entrepreneurship and how coworking in spaces helps people throughout their businesses. He found that in coworking environments, people are open to discovering new ideas and advice on how to tackle work-related issues. His research considered whether coworking spaces help entrepreneurs, and he found out that it does. 

“I could not have done it without UNC. There have been several faculty members, students, other administrators and everything else that have helped me along the way," Howell said. "My adviser has been incredible. The Kenan Institute here at the business school, they've been incredibly helpful as well.”

Leah Chapman – Impact Award 

Leah Chapman investigates ways to help people in rural areas find healthy food options in grocery stores. Photo contributed by York Wilson.

In the Department of Nutrition in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Ph.D. student Leah Chapman sought out ways to help people in rural areas find healthier options in convenience stores and grocery stores. Working within the Food, Fitness and Opportunity Research Collaborative, her team wanted to implement cost efficient interventions that could be transferred to other locations if successful.

“Oh my gosh, UNC has been so incredible. I am just so thankful that I came here for my Ph.D. program. The course work that I have taken, the mentoring I have gotten from both my advisers and also just other professors in the department is just so top notch and unbelievable,” Chapman said.

They tested four experiments in both the convenience and grocery store settings to test changes in consumer purchases. The first test they did was put a giant orange arrow sticker on the ground that guided shoppers to the produce section in the stores. 

The second was a scarcity intervention. Chapman said a lot of research shows that people are more likely to purchase a product if they think it is scarce. Researchers made a sign that said ‘while supplies last’ in the same produce sections of the two stores. 

The third individual experiment was a product placement intervention. They found that taste expectations can influence purchasing behaviors, so they decided to move healthy granola bars, such as Clif bars and Nature Valley bars, to the candy bar sections of the stores. Their goal was to influence buyers to think of granola bars as comparably tasty to any candy bar. 

In the last intervention, researchers decided to test all of the other three experiments at the same time. Each intervention lasted for four weeks at a time.  

"I am incredibly honored and humbled to have received this award. I am so thankful to the UNC Graduate School for selecting me, and I want to give an enormous salute to all of this year's recipients, each of whom have made incredible contributions to the state of North Carolina," Chapman said.

Charlotte Fryar – Impact Award 

Charlotte Fryar researched history of racial judgement movements led by Black students. Contributed by York Wilson.

Charlotte Fryar researched the history of racial justice movements led by Black students and workers at UNC starting in 1951 to present day. Her work tells the story of how Black students and workers contested white supremacy and built spaces to build the community on campus. Fryar did work around the history of the Sonja Hanes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. She also wrote about different social spaces for Black students, such as the Upendo lounge in SASB North and South Campus residence halls such as Rams Village.

“So what I hoped to achieve was being able to share the stories of the incredible alumni and faculty and workers at Chapel Hill who led these movements for racial justice and really fought back against the white supremacy that’s inherent to the institution of UNC Chapel Hill," Fryar said. 

At, anyone can read Fryar's essays about the different spaces on campus for Black students, look through archival documents and photographs and more. Also on the website is an interactive map of the campus that points out buildings that are connected to Black history so that people can learn more about the history of the University.  

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Paul Shafer – Impact Award 

Paul Shafer, PhD candidate in health policy and management, presenting work from his 2018 summer fellowship at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Taken at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Human papillomavirus is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States and can cause cervical cancer. Impact Award winner Paul Shafer researched an HPV vaccine that aims for cancer prevention.

“A new formulation of the vaccine against HPV was developed and introduced in North Carolina in the summer of 2015, and we wanted to understand why the innovation of this better vaccine was going to have any effect in terms of increasing pickup of it,” Shafer said. 

Shafer said this vaccine is underused, so he and his team wanted to understand who was getting the new vaccine compared to the old one. People who receive publicly funded doses of the vaccine through Medicaid or through a program called Vaccine for Children were more likely to receive the older dose. The older version of the vaccine is said to only protect four strains of the virus, while the newer vaccine protects against nine strains. 

Within a year of the introduction of the new vaccine, the state almost transitioned fully to the newer vaccination. 

Ahmed Rachid El-Khattabi – Impact Award 

Ahmed Rachid El-Khattabi's research focused on the role that prices play in promoting conservation. He wanted to see how much people reduce their consumption in response to a price change and what type of household is responding the most to these changes. 

Water, for example, can easily be conserved, but this basic resource is overused every day. Rachid El-Khattabi looked at wealthy and non-wealthy households to see who responded to price the most. In his findings, he concluded that wealthy homeowners do not respond to price, while lower-income households do. 

Thinking about North Carolina’s past and future, Rachid El-Khattabi said he is trying to help plan for future droughts or scenarios where conservation will be needed. In the early 2000s, there were two big droughts in North Carolina, and water utilities are still worried about the possibility of the next drought. 

“Water scarcity is real and it is a scary thing people do not necessarily think about. When we are taking long showers, no one is thinking about how much water they are using, or when we are over watering our lawns we’re not thinking about our water, but that water is extremely valuable,” Rachid El-Khattabi said.

Danielle Gartner – Impact Award 

Interested in the stark racial and ethnic differences in hysterectomy incidents in North Carolina, Danielle Gartner looked at hysterectomy rates among different groups of women. A hysterectomy is a surgical operation in which a female’s uterus is either removed partially or completely. 

Gartner found that Black and Native American women have higher rates of hysterectomies, while Asians and Hispanics have lower rates. Given the changing context of health care delivery, she wanted to determine the best ways for people to ensure that the estimates they looked at were the best available. Using things like hospital billing data, Gartner tried to get a better idea of who is getting hysterectomies. She paid attention to who was getting hysterectomies, where were they getting it and potentially why were they getting it. 

Gartner said that Native Americans are usually left out of studies due to people’s mindsets that they are too small of a population, but in North Carolina, there is a large population of Native Americans, so she decided North Carolina would be an ideal place to do her research. Being Native American herself and studying at UNC, Gartner wanted to conduct research that not only included other Native Americans, but also people from all ethnic groups in the states’ population.