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2023 Hettleman Prize recognizes early-career researchers and professors

Dr. Yaiza Canzani, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Pengda Liu, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Physics, and Brian Conlon, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, pose for a portrait at the Old Well on Friday, Oct. 18, 2023. UNC Research announced that all three professors, alongside Angel Hsu and Alex Worsnip, have received a Hettleman Prize.

Earlier this week, UNC Research awarded five junior faculty members the 2023 Hettleman Prize: Yaiza Canzani, Brian Conlon, Angel Hsu, Pengda Liu, and Alex Worsnip.

“Winning a prize of any kind is always flattering. Research can be long, it can be tough and it comes with its fair share of knocks, so it's punctuated by the odd victory,” associate microbiology professor Brian Conlon said.

Established in 1986 by UNC 1921 alumnus Phillip Hettleman and his wife Ruth Hettleman, the Hettleman Prize is a prestigious award given to junior faculty members who conduct cutting-edge research and show great potential.

The faculty eligible for the prize include third- or fourth-year assistant professors already recommended for a second term, assistant professors in their second term, and associate professors who have been at UNC for less than three years.

While research can be “cutthroat,” Conlon said that as soon as he visited UNC, he felt like there was a “collaborative and collegial” atmosphere. Fellow award recipient Angel Hsu, the founder and principal investigator of UNC’s Data-Driven EnviroLab and an assistant professor of public policy and environment, energy and ecology, echoed his remarks. 

“I would say that one of the best aspects of working at Carolina is just how open and collaborative everybody has been,” she said. 

Hsu’s research focuses on climate change and environmental policy. She said she hopes receiving the prize will elevate the issue of climate change.

Conlon, whose research focuses on the field of antibiotic resistance, said receiving the prize didn’t solely mark his own accomplishments but also the accomplishments of his peers — like those in his lab. 

“I get the award, but it's really for all their work. I more think of it as kind of an acknowledgment for how well the lab has grown as a unit for the last few years,” Conlon said. “It means a lot to me that we've been able to do that as a group.”

Conlon, Hsu, as well as associate math professor Yaiza Canzani, said the mentorship they received from more senior professors helped to support their achievements.

“I’ve been so lucky to collaborate and work with so many amazing mentors throughout my career, who really helped to anchor a lot of these ideas and broader context,” Hsu said.

Jason Metcalfe, UNC mathematics department chair and a mentor of Canzani, said in an email that UNC’s faculty consists of “world-class minds” who bring energy, unique perspectives, creativity and visibility to their departments. He also said mentor relationships provide enthusiasm and opportunities to newer faculty members. 

“In Yaiza’s case, she is an outstanding instructor, an internationally recognized scholar, and a role model and mentor,” he said in the email. 

Canzani said mentorship has been important in helping junior faculty navigate their careers. She said that finding a “role model” can be imperative in developing a career in research.

“The tenure track process, and also finding someone to support you along this process makes a huge impact in someone's career. I was lucky to be able to find such a person here and in this department,” Canzani said. 

While she stressed the importance of mentorship, Canzani, whose research plays a role in explaining physical phenomena such as heat conduction and quantum evolution, also touched on what the award meant to her as a whole.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by UNC for the work that I am doing,” Canzani said. 

@dailytarheel |

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