Four new Gillings Innovation Labs address pressing public health needs

March 23, 2009
The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has announced funding for four new Gillings Innovation Laboratories, on topics as diverse as water and the environment, drug safety, statistical genomics, and 21st century public health teaching. All of these research projects have potential to benefit people across North Carolina and around the world.

The projects bring to 14 the number of innovation laboratories that have been funded since the program was established in 2007.

The latest awards are among 31 proposals submitted last fall. Proposals were reviewed by more than 100 subject-matter experts from around the country. Final decisions were made by the School’s senior leadership, including the dean, associate deans and department chairs. Funding is for up to two years.
The innovation laboratories are funded through a generous gift to the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health by Dennis and Joan Gillings. Their gift provides the School with critical resources to accelerate delivery of real-world solutions for some of humankind’s most challenging public health problems. Each innovation lab will engage in one or more of these areas: high-impact research, demonstration projects and teaching practices which anticipate future public health challenges and accelerate sustainable solutions.

The four new innovation laboratories address some of public health’s greatest challenges.

Treating hog waste for energy recovery while meeting environmental goals
An Integrated System for Energy Production and Nitrogen Removal from Swine Waste

North Carolina is the second-largest hog-producing state in the country. Collectively, swine farms produce far more waste than current systems can manage and dispose of effectively. Ammonia contained in the waste is released to the atmosphere and causes or exacerbates respiratory illnesses, and applying even treated liquid waste to agricultural fields impairs ground and surface water. The result is a serious, measurable impact on water quality and human health. It has been estimated that a 50% reduction in ammonia emissions from N.C. hog farms would lead to $189 million per year in health benefits.

Dr. Michael Aitken

Dr. Michael Aitken

This innovation laboratory, led by Michael Aitken, PhD, professor and chair of the School’s department of environmental sciences and engineering, will attempt to maximize the amount of organic matter available for conversion to methane as an energy source, substantially remove ammonia, and reduce the concentration of nitrogen remaining in the waste when applied to an agricultural field.

The project will be conducted on a swine farm in Harnett County, N.C.


Developing new methods and open source software for genetic research
Statistical Genomics

Recent advances in the study of human genetic variation and its relationship with disease represent some of the most important findings in the history of medicine and public health. The development and application of appropriate statistical methods is key to these advances.

Dr. Danyu Lin

Dr. Danyu Lin
Dr. Fred Wright

Dr. Fred Wright

The goal of this innovation laboratory, led by Danyu Lin, PhD, Dennis Gillings Distinguished Professor of Biostatistics, and Fred Wright, PhD, professor of biostatistics, is to develop new statistical methods to study the associations between genetic variants and complex diseases.

An important aspect of this work will be development of user-friendly open source software. This innovation laboratory will help researchers throughout the world better understand genetic risks and better interpret the biological complexity of genetic association. The project will rely on the renowned strength of the School’s biostatistics department and also will collaborate with other public health and medical experts.

Determining benefit and harms drugs pose for older adults
Population-Based Evaluation of Drug Benefits and Harms in Older U.S. Adults

Clinical trials that measure the efficacy of medicines before they are approved for wider use usually do not provide sufficient evidence on the benefit to harm ratio that will be found when the new medicine is used on a broader scale in the general population.

In particular, clinical trials rarely expose older patients or those taking other medications, often for different conditions in the same person. In addition, there never will be enough resources to conduct all the clinical trials that would be needed to answer important questions.

Dr. Til Stürmer

Dr. Til Stürmer

This innovation laboratory, led by Til Stürmer, MD, PhD, associate professor and director of the UNC-GSK Center of Excellence in Pharmacoepidemiology and Public Health, will use national data available through Medicare Part D drug claims (introduced in 2006) to identify linkages between drug use and the benefits and harms to older adults using innovative pharmacoepidemiological methodologies.

Anticipated benefits include safer and more effective treatments for people around the world.

Global seamless classroom
Teaching and Training in Public Health for the 21st Century

Technological advances have made it possible for students to share a class without sharing the room in which it is held.

Dr. William Zelman

Dr. William Zelman

This innovation laboratory, led by William Zelman, PhD, professor of health policy and management, will design and pilot a prototype of a “global seamless classroom” that will integrate distance and classroom-based education to meet the needs of students in the 21st century.

Zelman and his team will seek to harness existing and emerging technologies and build on the experience and research in distance education that exists across the School and beyond. A major goal is to identify and begin integrating the approaches and opportunities presented by global, distance and classroom-based teaching.

For more information on the Gillings Innovation Labs, please see


UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or