Skip to content

University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

DeSimone describes innovation as a contact sport

Jeffrey Stringer moved his entire research team to Carolina last spring. After reviewing the pros and cons of universities across the country, the group chose UNC because of its rich research environment.

“We wanted to be here because of the kind of multidisciplinary, deep-bench environment UNC has,”

Stringer, director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ), told the 21st Century Vision Committee on Research at its Nov. 14 meeting.

The committee, led by Vice Chancellor for Research Barbara Entwisle and Trustee Lowry Caudill, is examining how Carolina’s research enterprise can address the pressing problems of the 21st century. The committee is one of three groups Chancellor Holden Thorp created to help envision a new model for the 21st-century American public research university.

Stringer, who also holds joint appointments in the schools of medicine and public health, established CIDRZ in 2001 while he was on the faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The center focuses on HIV/AIDS treatment and research, maternal-child health issues and treatment of malaria and tuberculosis in Africa.

Stringer said he and his research team had their eyes on Carolina because of the scope of HIV-related research conducted here as well as the University’s global vision and its strengths in OB-GYN and epidemiology.

In March, the School of Medicine created UNC Global Women’s Health (GWH), a collaboration between CIDRZ and the University’s established multidisciplinary program in neighboring Malawi to address issues facing women and their families in developing world settings. Stringer is the GWH director.

Stringer’s work exemplifies what Carolina does so well – multidisciplinary research that addresses real-world problems, Joe DeSimone told the Board of Trustees at its Nov. 15 meeting. DeSimone, the Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at Carolina and director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, is also a member of the 21st-century research committee.

“As researchers, we are privileged to choose the problems we work on,” DeSimone said. With that privilege, however, comes an obligation to make the research relevant to the real world, he said. And that’s where Carolina’s strength in the liberal arts is an asset.

“We do science, we don’t just learn it. That’s our secret sauce,” he said.

He described innovation as a contact sport, explaining that the more diverse the perspectives of the research group, the more optimum the impact of the research. “You learn most from those you have the least in common with,” DeSimone said.

Many important ideas come from the crossroads of technology and the liberal arts, he said. In fact, DeSimone’s current research focuses on applying lithographic fabrication technologies from the computer industry toward the design and synthesis of new medicines and vaccines.

Creating and expanding such partnerships is vital, he said.

In fiscal 2010, Carolina was ranked 9th among top research universities for federal funding devoted to research and development. Recent data show that the top 25 universities draw 35 percent of the federal research budget, and of those top schools, he said, only two lack engineering departments: Carolina and the University of California, San Francisco.

Without an engineering program, DeSimone said, Carolina has to find ways to partner with other institutions that have strong engineering, particularly N.C. State (DeSimone is also on the chemical engineering faculty there) and Duke University. But he acknowledged that multi-institutional partnerships come with their own set of challenges.

Thorp said that he and Chancellor Randy Woodson from N.C. State were discussing some of these ideas with UNC President Tom Ross and the Board of Governors.

Because North Carolina’s research universities are drivers of the state’s economy, DeSimone said, “The University has to be instrumental in the big ideas going forward.”