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Inside Research

An Internal Newsletter for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research

June 2020

an aerial view of the Outer Banks

Learning from Disaster-Struck Communities

June 1 marked the official start of hurricane season. How will COVID-19 affect the already vulnerable coastal communities preparing for these storms? These communities' unique resilience may prove an asset against the pandemic, as they are able to quickly mobilize and identify sources of support, says UNC environmental anthropologist Caela O'Connell. In a new project, O'Connell will unwrap the lessons survivors of natural hazards have learned and how to apply them to the current crisis.

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Working Toward Racial Equity in the Research Enterprise
by Terry Magnuson, Vice Chancellor for Research

UNC Research condemns the most recent atrocious acts against men and women of color. We need to listen to our colleagues to uncover the racism that exists in academia.

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Starting June 1, the OVCR began phasing in the return of research faculty, staff, and trainees to campus over time in a coordinated process that ensures appropriate physical distancing and the availability of personal protective equipment and other supplies to protect against COVID-19.

Research labs and facilities were operating at approximately one-quarter capacity. In the initial phase of ramp-up, operations will increase in research labs, clinics, and other facilities up to 50 percent of their on-site capacity. While labs and facilities will be permitted to increase activity, all research and scholarship that can be performed remotely (e.g. via teleworking) should continue to be performed in that fashion.

Because every school's research program is unique, the OVCR, in consultation with UNC's infectious disease and epidemiology experts, is partnering with each school and the College of Arts & Sciences to determine the order in which research programs will resume. The OVCR will assess these individual plans to ensure they sufficiently address mission-critical operations, control and manage specific work environments, and adequately access available on-site resources. After June 1, research on campus will no longer be restricted to specifically approved "critical research activities," and the forms for that purpose will no longer need to be submitted to the OVCR.

We expect physical distancing requirements will need to be continued for some time and that, as a result, it will be important to maintain a reduced number of individuals on campus. As staffing on-site increases and operations expand, the OVCR will monitor the status of the pandemic and any potential spread of the virus, as well as the impact of our existing policies and procedures to mitigate it. If localized outbreaks emerge, tighter restrictions and reduced staffing may need to be implemented again.

We have created a website to provide a comprehensive set of guidance and direction for resuming research on campus. The site includes links to pages providing specific direction for particular types of research including laboratory-based research, human subjects research, and field-based research. These principles must be followed at all times by faculty, trainees, and other staff involved in university research. These baseline practices will be revisited on a regular basis and may be amended based on new information.

Please pay special attention to the requirements for wearing of face masks, physical distancing, hygiene, and cleaning practices while on campus. Face masks, cleaning products, and hand sanitizer will be distributed to "distribution coordinators" for each school, department and/or center, who will be responsible for providing them to their researchers.

The OVCR has organized a research team of infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, molecular virologists, genomics experts, and data scientists that is working to develop a voluntary COVID-19 surveillance study that includes testing and contact tracing. This team's work may inform future decisions around the conduct of research on campus. We will provide more details on this effort as it develops.

Individuals with questions may pose them to vcr@unc.edu. Periodic campus Q&A sessions will also be held as needed. Information on these sessions can be found at the UNC Research COVID-19 website. For additional questions regarding COVID-19, visit the UNC coronavirus website and the UNC Health coronavirus website.

UNC Research News & Updates

FPG review of 30 years of autism research points to new best practices and trends

Investigators at the UNC Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute who lead the National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice have completed an updated systematic review of literature related to interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), uncovering new information on what practices produce positive outcomes for children and youth through age 22. The review revealed that while more recent literature adds new data on the experiences of adolescents with autism, more research is needed on young adults between the ages of 19 and 22, as well as the experiences of underrepresented groups within the population. To date, only the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (NPDC) at FPG and the National Standards Project at the National Autism Center have conducted comprehensive reviews of focused intervention practices for children and youth with autism.

Second project announced through UNC-Deerfield partnership

In announcing its second funded project, Pinnacle Hill, the research and development partnership between UNC and Deerfield Management Company, will support the development of treatment for Angelman Syndrome, a neuro-genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays, abnormal brain activity, and severe seizures. There is currently no effective treatment for the disease. The awarded project is led by Ben Philpot, Kenan Distinguished Professor and associate director of the UNC Neuroscience Center in the School of Medicine, and is supported by an interdisciplinary team of scientists from both UNC and Pinnacle Hill. Their work focuses on manipulating gene expression which may be the most direct treatment strategy for Angelman Syndrome.

Research for Me connects researchers and participants to COVID-19 projects

Hosted at the NC TraCS Institute, Research for Me is a website that connects researchers and their study opportunities with potential study participants. Most recently, Research for Me has developed a website for COVID-19 projects. This resource is intended to help people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, frontline health care workers, and people who want to support researchers as they work to understand how the pandemic is impacting the world. Prospective researchers and participants interested in assisting with the COVID-19 pandemic should head to Research for Me's COVID-19 page to learn more about research happening at UNC and UNC Health.

Learn about the NSF RAPID Grant funding mechanism

NSF's RAPID Grants support research involving time-bound, quickly evaporating data of current social and political conditions. On June 9, the Office of Research Development gave a presentation on the basics of this grant mechanism, specifics as they relate to appropriate NSF divisions, and connections to UNC colleagues who have had success with these grants, followed by a Q&A session. While NSF welcomes applications from all scholars and researchers, this type of funding is geared toward supporting community- and equity-oriented projects that would be accepted to NSF's social science divisions including:

-Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences,
-Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences,
-the Office of Multidisciplinary Activities, and
-Social and Economic Sciences such as Law and Social Science, Science of Organizations, and Science, Technology, and Society.

Inside UNC Research

Rick Luettich addresses a crowd on a boat on the Neuse River

Preparing for the Unexpected
As the 2020 hurricane season began on June 1, we spoke with Rick Luettich, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS) and lead principal investigator of the Coastal Resilience Center (CRC), about this year's natural hazard forecast, planning protocols, and how COVID-19 may affect vulnerable populations.

What are the storm activity predictions for the 2020 hurricane season?

It looks like this year will be above average for tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ocean surface temperatures are above normal in both the Gulf of Mexico and the main hurricane generation region between the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean Sea. Also, the El Niño cycle appears that it will be near neutral through the summer and potentially become negative in the fall. A positive El Niño generates wind shear that tends to keep tropical cyclones from forming in the Atlantic. Neutral or negative El Niño conditions are more favorable for tropical cyclone formation in this region.

How will IMS, which is located in a vulnerable location on the coast in Morehead City, prepare for the active storm season? And how will the new upgrades to IMS facilities aid in this planning?

We are fortunate that while IMS is located on the shore of Bogue Sound in Morehead City, it sits on relatively high ground. Thus, it is not especially vulnerable to hurricane storm surge, although significant shoreline erosion can occur during hurricanes and can impact our outdoor experimental facilities. Otherwise, IMS is susceptible to damage from high winds, heavy rainfall, and extended power outages.

We prepare each year by keeping our grounds picked up, our facilities in good repair, and space reserved for our 48-foot research vessel, Capricorn, at a local boat yard. With funding from the OVCR, we were recently able to install an emergency generator to keep critical systems running such as our seawater-circulating system, deep freezers, and the building network and internet connection.

How, if at all, has ADCIRC been upgraded since last year's hurricane season to improve storm surge prediction and storm path?

The primary improvements we've implemented this year in ADCIRC are better representation of how vegetation on land impacts the storm surge predictions and better geospatial representations of several regions along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

How will the new planning scorecard developed by the CRC help local officials prepare for this year's natural hazards?

Due to the pandemic, rolling out the planning scorecard has occurred more slowly than originally intended. Also, planning has a longer-term horizon than the current year. Our hope is that better planning in the near term will affect development decisions in areas that have a high probability of being impacted by future hazards. The payoff will be realized down the road when flooding in these high-hazard areas has lessened impact on people and property.

How will COVID-19 protocols affect disaster preparedness plans?

I expect that fears of COVID-19 will greatly impact disaster preparedness plans due to the need to plan for social distancing on the one hand and high density congregation in shelters or other facilities in response to a major coastal weather event on the other. Similarly, it is not clear whether fear of COVID-19 might curtail neighbors helping neighbors in the aftermath of a storm. We continue to try to provide the best available information on storm surge and flooding from ADCIRC for each major coastal event so that it can be used in all planning activities.

Research Spotlight

Discover amazing findings from UNC Research

Cassandra Davis

Calculating COVID-19's Educational Costs

Cassandra Davis studies the impact of natural disasters on schools and communities, particularly at the K-12 level. Now the public policy professor is turning her attention to the impact of another kind of disaster — a global pandemic — on first-generation college students.

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a food deliveryman holds pizza boxes and rings a doorbell at a person's residence

Gig Workers Face More Risks During Pandemic

Sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle is interviewing 200 precarious workers — gig platform workers, creative freelancers, and essential low-wage workers in drugstores and grocery stores — to uncover how the pandemic is impacting their lives now and, ultimately, in the long term.

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Upcoming Events


Establishing Syringe Services Programs

Learn how to develop a registered Syringe Services Program — which provides education on safer use practices, infection prevention, and overdose reduction — in this live webinar hosted by the Injury Prevention Research Center and Injury-Free NC Academy.

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Finding Pragmatic and Relevant Outcomes for AD/ADRD ePCTs

Tune into this free monthly webinar from the National Institute on Aging Imbedded Pragmatic AD/ADRD Clinical Trials Collaboratory. June's presenters include Sheps Center senior investigators Laura Hanson, a professor in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, and Sheryl Zimmerman, a professor in the School of Social Work.

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Summer Institute on Implementation Science

Hear from international speakers about implementation practice skills and competencies and how to support implementation during the COVID-19 pandemic in this virtual event hosted by the School of Social Work and FPG Child Development Institute.

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Responsible Conduct of Research

Review how to report work honestly and accurately through the concept of Responsible Conduct of Research in this three-day course hosted by the N.C. Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

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By the Numbers


percent decrease in the world's carbon emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More…

50 years

That's how long archaeologist Steve Davis has spent preserving the history of N.C.'s Native American peoples. More…