May 4, 2015

Training scientists at Institut Pasteur

As an undergraduate in Montreal, Mireille Gillings, PhD, became intrigued by the benefits of international scientific collaboration and data sharing. This interest increased during her time as a graduate student in the Netherlands and as a postdoctoral researcher in Bordeaux, France, and San Diego, California.

“Dynamic scientific collaboration across cultures and continents is vital in driving advances in public health,” Dr. Gillings says. “Future public health leaders will rely on this collaboration, along with skills in setting strategy, identifying measurable targets and managing budgets. Our goal is to produce leaders who can navigate the complexity of partnering money and medicine and steer society through threats of pandemics, toward more healthy behaviors and healthy aging.”

These concepts were front and center as the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Global Public Health Fellowships were established. By advancing the next generation of public health leaders, the fellowships will help the UNC Gillings School achieve its mission to improve public health, promote individual well-being and eliminate health disparities across North Carolina and around the world. The fellowships are a collaboration between UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Pasteur Foundation, the U.S. affiliate of Institut Pasteur.

The recipients of the inaugural fellowships, Patsy Polston and Maya Nadimpalli, doctoral students in environmental sciences and engineering at UNC, were announced on Nov. 7, 2014, during a ceremony at the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion, in Raleigh, N.C.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 9.17.44 AM

In her professional life, Dr. Gillings is founder, president, chief executive officer and executive chair of HUYA Bioscience International, a privately-held global leader in accelerating development of biopharma innovation originating in China. Building on her commitment to international collaboration, Dr. Gillings’ company is a pioneer in establishing extensive collaborations with Chinese academic institutions and commercial organizations to create value in worldwide markets for China-sourced biopharma compounds.

In addition to encouraging international exchanges of scientific ideas, Dr. Gillings’ personal passions include promoting an increased role for women entrepreneurs in health care.

Dr. Mireille Gillings holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in neuroscience from Radboud University, in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In addition to her role as founder and chief executive officer at HUYA, she was the first woman to be appointed to the board of Quintiles since the company’s initial public offering (IPO), is co-founder and vice-chair of GHO Capital, and is a member of the U.S. Pasteur Foundation board.

Dr. Dennis Gillings, CBE, holds a Doctor of Philosophy in mathematics from the University of Exeter. For more than 15 years, he was professor of biostatistics at UNC’s public health school. In 1982, he founded Quintiles, a pioneering contract research organization and Fortune 500 company, and now serves as Quintiles’ executive chair. Among his many honors are being awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004 and his appointment by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014 as World Dementia Envoy, a position that reflects his and Mireille Gillings’ continuing dedication to healthy aging for all. Dr. Gillings’ generosity toward UNC efforts in public health is longstanding. In 2008, he and Joan Gillings gave a $50 million gift that led to the naming of UNC’s public health school.

Institut Pasteur, founded by Louis Pasteur in 1887 and based in Paris, is one of the world’s leading private nonprofit centers for scientific research including immunology, molecular biology and neurosciences. The Institut’s international network, established in 1891, comprises a multinational team of scientists and includes 32 research institutes on five continents.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 9.23.06 AM

2015 Institut Pasteur Fellow Patsy Polston

Polston, who will earn her doctorate in 2015 in environmental sciences and engineering, with a minor in health behavior, is interested in environmental exposures, human health, vulnerable populations and preventing illness. She is confident, she says, that her time at the Institut will help refine her career trajectory.

“I want to be open to all the possibilities and enjoy the process,” she says.

Polston will study with Drs. Arnaud Fontanet and Francis Delpeyroux to identify sources of environmental contamination and routes of virus transmission to children. Some developing countries have experienced recurring outbreaks associated with polio, encephalitis virus and other enteroviruses that cause illness and death in children younger than five. Polston’s research will examine whether children’s exposure to wastewater and sewage contributes to the transmission and spread of these viruses.

“When I think of the Institut Pasteur,” she says, “I think of two words — discovery and change. Those are the very concepts that made me want to train and work there. I want to discover something that will help people and change their lives by improving their health and quality of life. It’s that simple — that’s my purpose!”

With the experience, knowledge and skills she gained at the UNC Gillings School, she says, she will continue to grow as a public health professional and achieve that purpose.

“I don’t know if donors realize the impact they have on students’ lives when they give to scholarship and fellowship programs,” Polston says. “It opens doors that otherwise would be closed due to financial constraints and gives students the chance to excel and experience new places. This gift will change my life. Because of it, I’ll be able to help many people as a result of my training, paying forward the gift I received.”

Biosolids are generated from the treatment of human waste. The primary way of managing and disposing biosolids is applying them to agricultural fields after they have been properly treated, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Polston’s research investigates the environmental impact of this process. She has developed and validated novel biosolid indicators that can be used to track potential microbial contaminants in the environment back to the original sources of pollution.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 9.23.12 AM

2015 Institut Pasteur Fellow Maya Nadimpalli

Nadimpalli knows and appreciates the value of generous donors. As a Royster Society fellow, she was awarded five years of doctoral study at UNC, along with mentoring, professional development and peer exchange opportunities.

“Fellowship support has allowed me freedom to explore my interests, to meet passionate people and to develop national and international collaborations,” she says. “The Gillingses and donors like them are able to see the ‘big picture’ and recognize the ripple effects their investment will have in the world.”

Nadimpalli will study with Dr. Didier Guillemot at the Institut Pasteur, conducting research in a pharmacoepidemiology and disease lab that examines antibiotic-resistant infections in children in lower-income countries.

“The focus of the Institut, like that of the Gillings School, is not only to master the foundations of basic science but to translate scientific findings for the broader public,” she says. “The work at the Institut will help us gain insight into many important public health questions, such as the impact of black-market antibiotics on resistant infections and the social drivers related to antibiotic misuse.”

Her postdoctoral project closely resembles the focus of her dissertation. Nadimpalli conducted research in the microbiology lab of Jill Stewart, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School. There, she examined antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus found in the nasal passages of workers in high-density hog operations in North Carolina and studied whether the bacteria are disseminated into the workers’ household environments.

Nadimpalli will leave for the Institut Pasteur in October.

“This type of international experience is essential to the kind of work I want to do,” she says. “I’m looking forward to building a personal network of global collaborators while experiencing all the opportunities available at one of the world’s leading centers for scientific research.”

Nadimpalli, an honors undergraduate alumna of the McGill University School of the Environment, is author of four published articles, several co-written with her doctoral advisers, Dr. Jill Stewart and UNC Gillings School alumnus Christopher Heaney, PhD, now at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her primary research interest is the impact of human activities on the emergence and dissemination of disease.

Return to Table of Contents

Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit