Five Questions with Nora Franceschini

Nora Franceschini loves scientific puzzles… and jazz.


Nora and her family rode horses through the rain forest during a summer vacation to Costa Rica. (Contributed photo)

Nora and her family rode horses through the rain forest during a summer vacation to Costa Rica. (Contributed photo)

Name: Nora Franceschini
Position: Research associate professor, Department of Epidemiology
Years at Gillings: Eight (in my current role, but I also earned a Master of Public Health degree from the School)


What I do at Gillings (and why I love it): I work to find genes that are related to cardiovascular or kidney disease. I conduct research mostly among minority populations that experience higher rates of these diseases, so I try to identify the “risky” genes that may be affecting them. I also have a medical degree, and it’s fascinating to compare the ways doctors and epidemiologists approach diseases. Having both points of view, I can see that what is best for a single person is not always what’s best for a population, and vice versa.

It’s exciting to be creative and use a lot of different resources to solve these genetic puzzles. Also, I work in a rapidly evolving field and I have to learn new things constantly to stay up with it. Because it is a puzzle, the more I learn, the more pieces I have to understand the big picture.


Something most people don’t know about me is: I volunteer at Jordan High School in Durham, where my son just started as a student. I’m on the Parent Teacher Association with the committee for teacher development. We look for resources in the community, things like special events the students can attend or experts who are willing to go into the classrooms and present. It’s basically outreach to bring the richness of local arts and academics into the high school. It’s been exciting to meet all kinds of people through this work, and making these small connections can feel like such a big accomplishment when the students get to have a new experience.


The most interesting day I’ve had at work was: It’s less about one day, and more a process I’ve been involved with. I’m working on an exciting project now that examines kidney function across populations in several countries. Over time, we’ve moved from pure statistics to epidemiology to creating a model that can identify the risky genes. We encountered one promising gene that hasn’t been studied before, and one of the people on our team is working with lab animals to confirm whether the gene is related to kidney disease. That kind of collaboration, to me, is so exciting. Everyone brings their own set of skills to an equal partnership, and together we find real-world answers.


If I could wake up with one new ability, it would be: I’d know how to play an instrument! When I was younger, my mother forced my siblings and I to play piano. I didn’t want to learn – which was totally stupid – and I quit as soon as I could, at 18. Now I love listening to music. Memorial Hall at UNC hosts great performances, and there’s a jazz club in Durham called Sharp 9 that is really laid-back and family-friendly.


My favorite place on earth is: I have two! For a fun vacation, I have to pick going home to Brazil. When I go back, it’s all about family and friends showing us the best attractions. We try to visit at least every other year. Locally, I’d pick the North Carolina mountains. My family has a place we visit in Black Mountain that’s just so relaxing and peaceful.