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UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students, recent graduate alumni within numerous programs, earned honors for research benefiting North Carolina. Three recipients were from the UNC School of Medicine.

Seventeen UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students and recent graduate alumni have been selected to receive the UNC Graduate School’s 2020 Impact Awards and Horizon Awards. These honors, presented at the Graduate Student Recognition Celebration each spring, recognize research benefiting North Carolina. Three recipients were from the UNC School of Medicine.


Yael Natalie Escobar
Yael-Natalie Escobar

Yael-Natalie Escobar, doctoral student in toxicology and environmental medicine, earned an Impact Award. Here’s how she describes her work:

“Electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use or ‘vaping’ has skyrocketed in the United States since its introduction to the market in 2007. In North Carolina alone, there have been over 50 vaping-related lung injury cases, yet no single e-cigarette product or compound has been identified as the culprit. While a great deal of research has focused on the effects of the flavoring compounds and nicotine used in e-cigarettes, little attention has been focused on the base compounds, propylene glycol (PG) and glycerol (GLY), which are used in all e-cigarettes.

We have developed an experimental system to investigate how lung cells respond to e-cigarette generated aerosols. For this project, airway epithelial cells were exposed to a single vaping session consisting of 20 puffs of PG and GLY from an e-cigarette. Our results demonstrate increased markers of cellular stress and damage. Additionally, when airway epithelial cells from non-smokers and smokers were exposed to vaped PG and GLY, only airway epithelial cells from smokers had increased levels of pro-inflammatory proteins.

These experiments indicate that vaped PG and GLY can damage airway cells but that these responses differ in cells from non-smokers and smokers. These data further support the notion that many different components of e-cigarettes can contribute to lung injury, including compounds that were previously considered harmless, such as PG and GLY. These observations will help inform consumers, policymakers and manufacturers regarding the toxicity of e-cigarette formulation and devices.”


Jody Field
Dr. Jody Feld

Jody Feld, allied health doctoral student in human movement science, earned a Horizon Award. Here’s how she describes her work:

“North Carolina has a 23% higher rate of stroke than the national rate. Identifying stroke survivors at risk of falls and physical inactivity early after stroke is an important priority to customize delivery of services to minimize these risks, thereby reducing disability, preventing secondary health conditions and lowering the massive economic burden of stroke.

My research involved 47 adults who were discharged home from the hospital after a stroke. Prior to discharge, we examined their ability to successfully walk over an obstacle and to walk while simultaneously performing a verbal task (dual-tasking). These walking tasks are more complex than traditional clinical walking tests. Our goal was to determine if these more difficult tasks could predict fall risk and daily walking activity, respectively, in the first three months after hospital discharge. Our results showed that adults with stroke who failed to successfully step over an obstacle in their path before going home were 10 times more likely to fall in the first three months after discharge than those who could successfully step over the obstacle. In addition, we found evidence that people whose walking speed was slower when walking-while-talking were more likely to be physically inactive.

These findings may improve clinical decision-making by allowing us to provide more personalized rehabilitation to prevent falls and physical inactivity early after hospital discharge. This is a critical time for rehabilitation, because stroke survivors are still adapting to life at home with a disability. Ultimately, we hope to reduce disability and poor health outcomes that result from falls and inactivity after stroke.”


Hanna Trzeciakiewicz
Hanna Trzeciakiewicz

Hanna Trzeciakiewicz, a doctoral student in biochemistry and biophysics, earned a Horizon Award. Here’s how she describes her work:

“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of neurodegeneration and the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in the United States without any known treatment, prevention or cure. More than 170,000 North Carolinians are currently living with Alzheimer’s, and as the aging population rapidly grows, the incidence in North Carolina is projected to increase 23.5% within the next few years. The initial cascading events occur within the brain, unbeknownst, more than 20 years before symptoms are observed. Consequently, there is a lack of early diagnostic tools and the only definitive diagnosis is by a postmortem autopsy, examining the brain for deposits of plaques and tangles.

Although both plaques and tangles spread throughout the brain during the disease’s progression, it is the presence and accumulation of the tau tangles that correlate with cognitive decline and neurodegeneration. For that reason, the goal of my research is to determine how the tau protein is ultimately causative in Alzheimer’s. I investigated how tau undergoes the pathological transformation by utilizing purified protein, cell culture, generation of a novel mouse model and human brain tissue.

Results may provide an innovative framework for identifying novel Alzheimer’s therapies, diagnostic tools and genetic risk factors to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Impact Awards, made possible through the generous support of the Graduate Education Advancement Board, recognize discoveries of direct benefit to the state. Horizon Awards recognize research likely to make a significant longer-term contribution to North Carolina.

“The 17 awardees represent an impressive 14 master’s and doctoral programs, and this demonstrates the depth and breadth of UNC-Chapel Hill research that is benefiting North Carolina,” said Jennifer Gerz-Escandón, associate dean for interdisciplinary education and fellowship programs within the Graduate School. “The majority of our award recipients for 2020 are specializing in research toward improved health and environmental outcomes. Throughout the years, these awards have recognized the importance of graduate student research in helping North Carolina’s people and communities.”

More information on all winners is available here.