January 10, 2024

The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health announces the recipients of the first Gillings Research Excellence Awards. Eight faculty members were awarded $500 to help each support their research, scholarship and professional development.  

 The purpose of the chair-nominated Gillings Research Excellence Awards is to recognize one early- to mid-career faculty member from each department and program who has demonstrated excellence, innovation and impact in their research pursuits during the 2024 school year. 

 The awardees are Zunaid Ahsan, PhD, assistant professor in the Public Health Leadership Program; Leah Frerichs, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management; Melissa Gilkey, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior; Juan Hincapie-Castillo, PharmD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology; Quefeng Li, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics; Angela Parcesepe, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health; Julia Rager, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering; and Heather Wasser, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition. 

Dr. Karar Zunaid Ahsan

Dr. Zunaid Ahsan

Zunaid Ahsan 

Ahsan has worked in the fields of monitoring, evaluation and research in the health sector for more than 15 years. He recently received his doctoral degree from the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the Gillings School. Ahsan worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the UNC Center for Health Equity Research before joining the Public Health Leadership Program. 

“I am deeply humbled and grateful to receive this award because this moment is not only a personal milestone, but a reminder of the support and guidance I’ve received along my journey at UNC Gillings,” says Ahsan. “I aim to use this award to support student-led research, as I believe in paying it forward.”

Dr. Leah Frerichs

Dr. Leah Frerichs

Leah Frerichs 

Frerichs’ research is at the intersection of community-based participatory research and systems science to address health disparities, with a specific focus on chronic disease prevention. She has experience working with diverse communities, including American Indian, Latino and African Americans, to develop, implement and evaluate community-based interventions and policies. 

“I am truly honored to receive this award,” says Frerichs. “I share the recognition with gratitude for the invaluable contributions of my many research collaborators, especially non-academic community partners whose insights and dedication are what makes meaningful impact.”

Melissa Gilkey

Dr. Melissa Gilkey

 Melissa Gilkey 

Gilkey studies individual, interpersonal and organizational approaches to improving the delivery of adolescent vaccines, including the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Her work includes survey research to understand barriers to vaccination, such as provider and parental hesitancy, as well as intervention research aimed at improving vaccine delivery systems. 

I am excited to receive the Gillings Research Excellence Award,” says Gilkey. “This funding will allow me to offer new professional development opportunities for the graduate students and study staff who make the research possible.”

Dr. Juan Hincapie-Castillo

Dr. Juan Hincapie-Castillo

 Juan Hincapie-Castillo 

Hincapie-Castillo focuses his research at the intersection of legal epidemiology and pharmacoepidemiology by leveraging large real-world data to evaluate and promote evidence-based policymaking. His primary focus is on improving prescribing policies and the provision of equitable pain management and safe psychotropic medication use. 

“I am deeply honored to be a recipient of the Gillings Research Excellence Award,” says Hincapie-Castillo. “I am grateful for this recognition and eager to continue contributing to public health research through my work. I look forward to using the funds to attend the meeting for the U.S. Association of the Study of Pain in April, where I was recently selected to present in a symposium focused on advocacy efforts in national pain policy.”

Dr. Quefeng Li

Dr. Quefeng Li

 Quefeng Li 

Li’s research is focused on developing new statistical tools for analyzing complex data that arise in biomedical science studies. He has developed new methodology for the classification, variable selection and robust estimation of high dimensional data. 

 “I am sincerely honored and thrilled to receive the Gillings Research Excellence Award for the recognition of my research,” says Li. “With this award and the support of the biostatistics department, I am poised to persist in the development of novel analytic tools, addressing the fresh challenges arising from the rapid emergence of big biomedical data.”

Dr. Angela Parcesepe

Dr. Angela Parcesepe

Angela Parcesepe 

Parcesepe is trained in epidemiology and social work and focuses her research at the intersection of violence, mental and substance use disorders, as well as HIV prevention and treatment across global settings. Her current work examines the impact of mental and substance abuse disorders on HIV treatment outcomes in the context of universal test and treat strategies in low-resource settings. Parcesepe currently serves as chair of the Mental Health Working Group for the International Epidemiology Databases to Evaluate AIDS (IeDEA) Consortium. 

 “I’m honored to be recognized with the Gillings Research Excellence Award,” says Parcesepe. “Carolina has been a collaborative and inspiring space to advance public health research to improve the mental health and well-being of communities throughout the U.S. and beyond.”

Julia Rager 

Rager’s overarching goal of her team’s research is to unravel relationships between environmental exposures and health outcomes, with a focus on complex mixtures at growing prevalence in the environment. By better understanding relationships between exposures to substances and resulting health consequences, her research team aims to identify strategies to alleviate the global burden of environmentally influenced disease. 

 “It means a lot to me that the leadership and research community at Gillings expresses such strong support of my career and growing research team,” says Rager. “I am excited to use these funds in support of our expanding research interests aimed at incorporating data science methods into public health. One area we plan to expand on is wildfire smoke toxicity testing, particularly around improved understanding of the presence and role of PFAS in complex smoke emissions, and indoor air quality changes occurring during wildfire events. These research areas represent topics that are growing in interest alongside global climate change and can be uniquely addressed within the Gillings School of Global Public Health.”

Dr. Heather Wasser

Dr. Heather Wasser

Heather Wasser 

Wasser is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition. Her work focuses on the development of behavioral interventions to promote optimal infant feeding practices, dietary intake, growth and child development. Wasser is particularly interested in the bidirectional influences between infant behavior and the feeding practices of mothers and other caregivers, namely fathers and grandmothers. Her research seeks to advance behavioral interventions during the first 1,000 days of life through the application of complex theories of social support and cutting-edge design methodologies. 

“I am so honored to receive this award,” Wasser says. “My personal passion is to help parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers find credible information on what and how to best feed their child and to meet their personal feeding goals. These funds will help me establish and convene a diverse and inclusive advisory board of parents and key community stakeholders to inform my research.” 

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