Two School of Medicine professors earn UNC Hettleman prizes

Mara Buchbinder and Spencer Smith were awarded $5,000 as Hettleman Prize winners, Buchbinder for her work on social and ethical health care challenges and Smith for his work on understanding the roles of brain connections in human health.

Two School of Medicine professors earn UNC Hettleman prizes click to enlarge Mara Buchbinder, PhD (photo by Jon Gardiner, UNC-Chapel Hill)
Two School of Medicine professors earn UNC Hettleman prizes click to enlarge Spencer Smith, PhD

Four rising stars among the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been awarded the Philip and Ruth Hettleman Prizes for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement by Young Faculty.

The recipients, who were recognized September’s Faculty Council meeting, include UNC School of Medicine’s Mara Buchbinder, PhD, associate professor of social medicine, and Spencer Smith, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and physiology.

Buchbinder, who is also adjunct associate professor of anthropology in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the UNC Center for Bioethics, has published on a range of critical issues that hold significance for medicine, the social sciences, and bioethics.

Much of her research explores the social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of clinical encounters in the United States, with a particular interest in the role of language in medicine.  Her recent work focuses on how patients, families, and healthcare providers navigate social and ethical challenges resulting from changes in medical technology, law, and health policy.

She is the author of two books, Saving Babies? The Consequences of Newborn Genetic Screening and All in Your Head: Making Sense of Pediatric Pain.

Buchbinder joined the UNC School of Medicine faculty in 2010 after receiving her doctorate in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She was selected for a Greenwall Faculty Scholars Award – a career development award that enables junior faculty to carry out innovative bioethics research.

Jonathan Oberlander, PhD, professor and chair of social medicine, said Buchbinder’s scholarship is “original, impactful, and noteworthy for its remarkable blend of social science theory and ethical inquiry with careful empirical investigation.”

“Dr. Buchbinder has investigated intimate contexts of suffering and care, family dynamics, and local clinical cultures,” Oberlander said. “She has chosen to work on problems of vital importance to medical care delivery, illness experiences, health care ethics and policy.”

Smith, who is also a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, leads a highly interdisciplinary research program that focuses on better understanding how parts of the brain work in concert to perceive stimuli, perform computations, and drive behavior.

Smith’s research is currently focused on the visual cortex, the part of the mammalian brain that solves sophisticated computational problems. The long-term goal of Smith’s lab is to explain principles of brain function to identify potential therapeutic targets and strategies for treating complex neurological disorders.

Kathleen Caron, PhD, chair of the department of cell biology and physiology, said Smith is “one of our most creative, innovative, and groundbreaking scholars” who possesses dual talents as an inventor and critical thinker.

Smith designs and builds new imaging systems to conduct experiments that have never before been attempted.

“As an inventor, Dr. Smith has relied upon his training in mathematics and physics to develop new machines, microscopes, and lenses that permit the real-time visualization of actively firing neuronal circuits on a wide scale, and in some cases, even within two different areas of the visual cortex simultaneously,” Caron said.

During the early phase of his independent career, Smith has also published 14 papers in such prestigious journals as Nature, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron, Nature Neuron and Journal of Neuroscience.

Smith’s creativity and innovation has resulted in several prestigious junior investigator awards and grants from the McKnight, Simons, Whitehall, and Klingenstein foundations, two from the Human Frontiers in Science Program, and two NSF BRAIN Initiative grants, including one this year for $10 million to lead a national consortium of researchers to create new technologies to study the mysteries of the brain.

The two other Hettleman winners are James Cahoon, PhD, associate professor of chemistry in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, and Stephanie Wheeler, PhD, associate professor of health policy management in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

 

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