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Greg Copenhaver Inducted into the National Academy of Inventors

February 29, 2024

Gregory Copenhaver, director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute for Convergent Science, has been named a 2024 senior member by the National Academy of Inventors in recognition of his work as both an innovator and a mentor to future inventors.

The National Academy of Inventors comprises over 250 universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes across the globe and includes over 4,000 individual inventor members. The NAI announced this newest group of 124 senior members, the largest class to date with members from 60 member institutions, on Feb. 27.

Senior members are active faculty, scientists and administrators from the academy’s member institutions who have demonstrated remarkable innovation-producing technologies that have a real impact on society. They are also fostering success in patents, licensing and commercialization while continuing to educate and mentor the next generation of inventors.

Collectively, Copenhaver and his academy peers are named inventors on over 1,000 U.S. patents. READ MORE

Karin Pfennig: Working on Women In Science (WOWs) Scholar

February 28, 2024

College of Arts & Sciences Dean Jim White announced the two newest scholars in our Working on Women in Science (WOWS) initiative, which is dedicated to professional advancement in the sciences in the College. Congratulations to Professors Laura Mersini-Houghton in physics and astronomy and Karin Pfennig in biology.

As WOWs Scholars, they will serve two year-terms, receiving annual grants to pursue initiatives of their choosing, and working in close partnership with Associate Dean for Research and Innovation Kelly Giovanello and Senior Associate Dean for Natural Sciences Jaye Cable. Their appointments begin July 1.

Karin Pfennig is a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist who blends field and laboratory work to understand the role of behavior in the origins and distribution of biodiversity. She and a team of faculty and scientists have started a new collaborative organization, the Carolina Biodiversity Collaborative, to develop solutions to the global biodiversity crisis.

She has a strong record of advancing women in the sciences, including work with national programs such as Girls Advancing in STEM. Here at UNC, she has served as a peer mentoring circle facilitator for female junior faculty as part of the Targeting Equity in Access to Mentoring (TEAM) ADVANCE program. She has served in several leadership roles at UNC-Chapel Hill, including service as a member and chair of the Appointments, Promotions and Tenure Committee and as biology’s associate chair for academic affairs. She is a graduate of the University’s Academic Leadership Program.

Dean White looks forward to learning what initiatives Professors Mersini-Houghton and Pfennig will take on in their new role as WOWS Scholars.

NIH Researcher Spotlight: Andrew Davidson, F32 Recipient

February 23, 2024

Dr. Drew Davidson is an F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to investigate context-dependent behaviors in animals. The F32 funding opportunity supports the research training of promising postdoctorates early in their postdoctoral training period.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative funding portfolio enables the collaborative and multidisciplinary research necessary to help us understand the brain’s complexities. Dr. Drew Davidson received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support his research on associative learning. The F32 program rewards promising postdoctorates early in their careers by enhancing their research training in project areas that advance the goals of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. This article is part of a series that highlights the careers of NIH BRAIN Initiative F32 grantees. READ MORE

Professors Shiau and Yang Win the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Grant!

February 22, 2024

Biologists Celia Shiau and En Yang at UNC-Chapel Hill have been awarded a competitive Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grant to tackle unsolved grand challenges in neurodegenerative diseases and fundamental neuroscience. The awards were announced on Feb. 21.

The scientists received a 2024 CZI Neuroscience Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Award for their project “Mapping Cholesterol Dynamics across Brain-wide Neural Circuits.” This is only the second cycle of these awards since 2018. The awards are given to a pair of investigators and their teams to use innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to tackle new and bold directions of neuroscience.

The CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network brings together experimental scientists from diverse research fields to accelerate fundamental neuroscience and neurodegenerative disease research that leads to the development of new strategies for the treatment and prevention of neurodegenerative disorders.


Biology Alum Heads to Space!

February 5, 2024

A former University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill student, and now a NASA astronaut, Zena Cardman, is set to embark on her first spaceflight as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-9 Mission.

Scheduled for launch no earlier than August, Cardman will join three other crew members on a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS). READ MORE

Enigmatic fossil plants with three-dimensional, arborescent-growth architecture – “Dr. Seuss” Tree, feat. research by Patricia Gensel

February 2, 2024

Newly discovered tree fossils from ~350 Ma in New Brunswick, Canada, are architecturally unique, and Gastaldo et al. interpret them to presage modern treefern lineage growth forms. These fossils, preserved by earthquake-induced burial in an Early Carboniferous rift lake, may represent early evidence of a subcanopy forest niche. Robert A. Gastaldo, Patricia G. Gensel, et. al.

New York Times “A Fossilized Tree That Dr. Seuss Might Have Dreamed Up”
Wall Street Journal Rare Fossilized Dr. Seuss-Like Trees Reveal Oddball Natural Experiment”

Current Biology Paper: GastaldoGensel2024 Sanfordiacaulis[1]

‘A picture of winners and losers’: Several Triangle bird species declining as the climate warms, feat. Allen Hurlbert

February 1, 2024

Bird populations are declining, including in the Triangle.

A 2019 study led by bird research and conservancy organizations found “major” population loss among North America’s birds — nearly 3 billion birds have been lost since the 1970s. That’s more than a 25% decline in total bird abundance.

“That finding was a really big shock, and maybe a wake-up call that our ecosystems are no longer able to support biodiversity in the way that they once were,” said Allen Hurlbert, a UNC-Chapel Hill biology professor.

According to UNC-Chapel Hill biology professor Allen Hurlbert, white-eyed vireo populations are among the approximately 13 well-monitored bird species that are doing well in North Carolina’s Triangle region. Twenty-two well-monitored species show a strong decreasing trend.
Hurlbert oversees a lab that explores large-scale patterns in biodiversity across the globe. He also runs North Carolina’s Mini Breeding Bird Survey, a bird monitoring program that spans Orange, Durham and Chatham counties.


An “Emergent” Field Possibly Guides the Future of Cell Engineering, feat. Kerry Bloom

January 30, 2024

Particles bouncing off a surface, altering their direction of movement; electric fields acting on charges; mass continuing its motion after a push. These are the basic physical properties many are intimately familiar with, yet the laws of underpinning them — those of quantum mechanics — are far less intuitive. More importantly, these physical properties interact on a larger scale and constitute observations in daily lives, once again eluding intuition.

Cells also contain similar mysteries. On one hand, the genomes — guides to the creation of raw materials for the mansion of organisms — of various species including humans, have been accurately sequenced since the 1990s. One notable example is the yeast cell that was sequenced in 1996. This was the first eukaryote, which has linear DNA capable of highly complicated coiling, to be sequenced. On the other hand, biologists have had little insight into how to construct the intricate machinery of cells — holding every single building block in their hands — without a guidebook of how to put those blocks together. The ambition of Dr. Kerry Bloom in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with his lab members, is to contribute to writing this guidebook, specifically regarding DNA.

“Change is our one constant,” remarked Dr. Bloom when discussing the path of exploration undertaken by his lab.

READ MORE on page 14 in the most recent issue of Carolina Scientific

‘It’s insane’: New viruslike entities found in human gut microbes, feat. Mark Peifer

January 29, 2024

Analysis of sequence databases reveals novel circular RNA genomes belonging to “obelisks”

As they collect and analyze massive amounts of genetic sequences from plants, animals, and microbes, biologists keep encountering surprises, including some that may challenge the very definition of life. The latest, reported this week in a preprint, is a new kind of viruslike entity that inhabits bacteria dwelling in the human mouth and gut. These “obelisks,” as they’re called by the Stanford University team that unearthed them, have genomes seemingly composed of loops of RNA and sequences belonging to them have been found around the world.