Awards recognize outstanding postdoctoral researchers, mentors at Gillings School

September 28, 2017

One postdoctoral scholar and two postdoctoral faculty mentors from the Gillings School of Global Public Health have received awards from the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Ciara O'Flanagan

Dr. Ciara O’Flanagan

Ciara O’Flanagan, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition. The 2017 Postdoctoral Scholar Award for Research Excellence recognizes her outstanding work investigating how cancer cells adapt to their changing environment, which can help researchers predict how progressive cancers will respond to therapies.

“I have always been fascinated with how clever cancer cells are,” O’Flanagan said. “They’re able to adapt, change and even become resistant to harsh treatments such as chemotherapy. My research in Dr. Stephen Hursting’s lab has focused on how cancer cells rewire their metabolism – altering their fuel sources, recycling macromolecules and digesting their own contents – to facilitate their growth and to evade stress.”

O’Flanagan, who originally is from Dublin, Ireland, and joined Hursting’s lab in 2015, was honored for her achievements during a National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week luncheon held at UNC’s FedEx Global Education Center on Friday, Sept. 22. She was presented with a plaque and a monetary award of $1,000.

“I have really enjoyed my time at UNC,” she added. “I’ve learned so much and grown as a researcher. I will miss the collaborative spirit of the University and the many friends I’ve made here, but I look forward to pursuing a career in cancer research following a move to Canada.”

Two postdoctoral faculty mentors from the Gillings School also were celebrated at the National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week luncheon, where they each received a plaque in recognition of being named a 2017 Outstanding Mentor. Steven Meshnick, MD, PhD, professor, and Brian Wells Pence, PhD, associate professor, both work in the Department of Epidemiology.

Dr. Steve Meshnick

Dr. Steven Meshnick

“I’ve mentored eight postdocs since I came to UNC in 2001,” said Meshnick. “My current postdoc, Andi Waltmann, is studying how the administration of an antimalarial drug improves birth outcomes in Malawi. One piece of advice that I have shared with Andi and my other postdocs is to think strategically about their future careers. How can they be positioned to be at the forefront of their field? What type of career do they want?”

“I truly was delighted to win this award,” Meshnick added. “Good mentoring is really how any scientist can make a meaningful impact in their field.”

The outstanding mentor award recognizes exactly that – faculty members who have engaged in exceptional mentoring of postdoctoral scholars through advocacy, open communication, creating a supportive research environment, and providing networking opportunities and career guidance.

Dr. Brian Pence

Dr. Brian Pence

“I work with Angie Bengtson, who recently completed her postdoc in epidemiology at UNC and is now in a faculty position at Brown University, as well as with Jon Mills, who is in the second year of his postdoc here at UNC,” said Pence, demonstrating that the mentoring relationship does not end when the postdoc placement does. “Like me, Angie and Jon are interested in the intersection of mental health with HIV care outcomes.”

“I would advise anyone starting out in their career to follow their passion and energy,” Pence shared. “Find the work that excites you and pursue that. Perhaps even more importantly, find the people with whom you enjoy working and cultivate those relationships. As a postdoc, you’re in a phase of increasing independence, so definitely step out of your comfort zone and take advantage of unique opportunities that come your way.”


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or