Delight, honor and excitement — punctuated by an enthusiastic “hell yes!” from associate professor Daniel Matute — is a glimpse into the shared celebration of the four UNC associate professors who were awarded the Hettleman Prizes for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement. On Tuesday, the scholars each presented a short, virtual discussion on their research as part of University Research Week.
The Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prizes for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement, established by UNC class of 1921 graduate Phillip Hettleman and his wife Ruth, are awarded to four young UNC faculty members each year to honor their innovative research, outstanding achievements and academic promise. The 2021 recipients include Alice Marwick, Nicholas Law, Daniel Matute and Cleo Samuel-Ryals.
Alice Marwick, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, studies online harassment, which she explained through an example of a woman named Elise.
Elise is the pseudonym for an Asian American classical musician who Marwick studied in her research. Elise tweeted criticism of a white-owned Chinese restaurant and received hate comments targeting her and her culture on her post.
“We don’t have a metric to describe this kind of harassment,” Marwick said. “We don’t have tools for how to determine if it is morally motivated or to reinforce social norms. My research aims to answer these kinds of questions.”
Nicholas Law, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is designing one of the world’s largest telescopes. He researches exoplanets such as Proxima Centauri b.
“We’ve been studying Proxima for quite some time and one night we saw Proxima do this," Law said. "For a few minutes, it got 100 times brighter."
Law and his research team saw Proxima Centauri b experiencing superflares — bursts of energy 10 to 1,000 times larger than the biggest flares from the sun — which they had never seen before on this particular planet.
“Why can we come along in 2021 and say that we found something new about this planet we’ve been studying for so long?” Law asked.
The answer lies in the Evryscope telescope he created, otherwise known as the Argus Array, which is named after a telescope array in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This tool allows researchers to see objects that would be 1,000 times fainter, leading to their discovery of the superflares.
“The Evryscope doesn’t have to pick one star — we can see them all at the same time,” Law said.
Daniel Matute, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, researches genetics and pathogens over time. Matute began his presentation with a surprising introduction: Pokémon trading cards.
“We didn’t see it coming, but there was one day about three weeks ago that our daughter came home with a Pokémon card,” Matute said. “We didn’t know where it came from, but then there were two and then there were four, so I went in to research a little bit of the history of Pokémon cards.”
This kind of phenomenon is reflective of the research his lab conducts, Matute said.
“We are trying to understand how one species multiplies into more than one,” Matute said. “In particular, when you have one single species and it starts accumulating genetic differences and splits into two, the resulting population also becomes genetically differentiated. How differentiated they are is the question my research tries to answer.”
Cleo Samuel-Ryals, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, researches the intersection of racial justice and health equity.
“My goal is to remind you all that racism is and has always been a problem in our country,” she said. “Within the context of my talk today, it is also important to understand that racism is also a public health problem.”
In her research, she studies the inequities of cancer care.
“In my work, what I have shown is that there are disparities in every phase of the cancer care continuum," Samuel-Ryals said "But in particular over the last seven years, I have really zeroed in on focusing on palliative and supportive care inequities.”
Palliative and supportive care are the particular types of care that are given to prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms and side effects of its treatment, in addition to its psychological, social and spiritual problems, she said.
Samuel-Ryals closed the discussion with the same message she opened with: the idea of getting into “good trouble.”
“This idea of getting into good trouble comes from the late, great civil rights activist John Lewis,” Samuel-Ryals said. “In his work over many decades, he often spoke about getting into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble, in order to advance this movement and work for justice and equity.”
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