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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

4 faculty members honored with Hettleman awards

Four highly promising Carolina faculty members in diverse fields have been awarded the Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prizes for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement by Young Faculty. This year’s prizes were announced at the Oct. 12 Faculty Council meeting.

Joaquin Drut

Drut works in the realm of quantum mechanics, the branch of physics that uses complex mathematical equations and computers to predict how matter and light behave at atomic and subatomic scales.

Drut’s particular research focuses on quantum many-body physics, the branch of physics that provides the framework for understanding the collective behavior of large numbers of interacting particles, said Christian Iliadis, chair of the physics and astronomy department. This field of inquiry, which operates between the world of physics and applied mathematics, searches for answers beyond the reach of classical physics.

At the heart of this work is the quest to explain how collections of quantum particles work together to give rise to the observed phases of matter — such as liquid, solid, superfluid and superconducting — and then understand how to use that knowledge for real-world applications.

“The quantum many-body problem is one of the central challenges of modern natural science,” Iliadis said. “Dr. Drut is a key player of international prominence who is pushing on this boundary of knowledge.”

Born and raised in La Plata, Argentina, Drut earned his doctorate in physics at the University of Washington in 2008 and completed postdoctoral work at Ohio State University and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico before joining Carolina’s physics and astronomy department as an assistant professor and Melchor Fellow in 2012.

Since joining Carolina, Drut has won two large National Science Foundation grants, including a $400,000 grant that was a prestigious CAREER award for 2015-20. He also served as visiting professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

Shawn D. Hingtgen

Hingtgen harnesses the potential of stem cells to develop new and better methods for treating terminal cancer.

Hingtgen joined the faculty in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy in 2012 and holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the School of Medicine.

Michael Jay, chair of the pharmacy school’s Division of Pharmacoengineering and Molecular Pharmaceutics Division, described Hingtgen as an “energetic and open collaborator” who has an innate ability to ask his research questions from different perspectives and apply tools and techniques from various disciplines to produce groundbreaking results.

The key to Hingtgen’s treatment is “skin flipping,” a technology for creating neural stem cells from skin cells. That technology won a Nobel Prize in 2012. The first step is to harvest fibroblasts — skin cells responsible for producing collagen and connective tissue — from the patient and then reprogram those cells to become what are called induced neural stem cells. Working closely with an interdisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians, Hingtgen showed how these neural stem cells can hunt down and deliver cancer-killing drugs to glioblastoma, the deadliest malignant brain tumor in adults, in initial preclinical studies published in Science Translational Medicine on Feb. 1, 2017.

“His work has changed the field and is the basis of work in many cutting-edge laboratories around the world,” Jay said.

In 2015, Falcon Therapeutics was founded to advance the discovery generated in Hingtgen’s lab toward the clinic to redefine the care for patients with glioblastoma and other cancers that are currently incurable.

Hingtgen earned his doctorate at the University of Iowa and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. 

Juan Song

Song, who came to Carolina in fall 2013, leads a research team trying to understand how the healthy adult brain regenerates and to apply basic learned principles to the degenerated or injured brain to promote regeneration upon neuronal loss.

The birth of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, is important for normal learning and memory, stress response and mood regulation. By understanding how neuronal circuitry and signaling mechanisms regulate the birth of new neurons in the adult hippocampus – an area of the brain critical to memory formation – Song’s team hopes to create therapeutic interventions for brain injuries, degenerative diseases and mood disorders by targeting these adult-born neurons.

At Carolina, Song has developed a reputation both as “an innovative and fearless investigator” and a “model of friendship and collegiality” whose work blends exceptional experimental skills with originality and creativity, said Henrik G. Dohlman, chair of the pharmacology department.

When Song was a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, she studied how neural stem cells create new neurons and how these new neurons contribute to specific brain functions. Building on these findings, Song and her team at Carolina have published 13 research articles in some of the most prestigious scientific journals. On Nov. 2, 2017, Cell Stem Cell journal published a Song lab paper later selected as one of the journal’s best eight articles of the year.

“I have worked with some high-achieving individuals over the years, including several Nobel laureates and National Academy members,” Dohlman said. “Even in this distinguished comparison group, I consider Dr. Song to be one of the most ambitious.”

Gabriel Trop

Trop, who came to Carolina in 2010 after earning his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, is a rising star in the field of German literature and philosophy. His research interests tend to examine the relationship between literature, science and philosophy, with a special focus on German idealism, comparative romanticisms and poetics and aesthetics.

His major scholarly achievement to date is his monograph, Poetry as a Way of Life: Aesthetics and Askesis in the German 18th Century, published by Northwestern University Press in 2015. Reviewers described the book as “refreshingly original,” “bold” and “groundbreaking” and heralded it as a major reinterpretation of Germany poetry.  He has also published 13 peer-reviewed articles in prestigious scholarly journals in Europe and North America.

Eric Downing, interim chair of the Germanic and Slavic languages department, who completed Trop’s nomination after the death of former chair Jonathan M. Hess, said departmental course offerings in the field of literature and philosophy have expanded exponentially since Trop came to Carolina. For instance, Trop designed a new first-year seminar, Intensity, Vitality and Ecstasy, and revamped and revitalized key courses such as German Intellectual History and The Age of Goethe.

In addition, Trop is an adjunct associate professor in the English and comparative literature department and an official mentor for the Carolina Scholars Program. He has also served as a visiting professor at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen. He earned a Johnston Teaching Excellence Award, a Global Partnership Award and a Schwab Academic Excellence Award. 

Said Downing, “Trop has truly distinguished himself as a scholar, teacher, mentor and colleague since joining the Carolina community.”