Four highly promising Carolina faculty members in diverse fields have been awarded the Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prizes for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement by Young Faculty.
The recipients, who will be recognized at the Faculty Council meeting on Sept. 25, are:
- Gabriel S. Dichter, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and investigator in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disability;
- Wizdom Powell, associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior in the Gillings School of Global Public Health;
- David A. Nicewicz, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and
- Jason D. Surratt, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
The award, which includes a $5,000 stipend, was established in 1986 by the late Phillip Hettleman — a New York investment banker and member of the class of 1921 — to recognize the achievements of outstanding junior tenure-track faculty or recently tenured faculty. A stipulation of the award is that the recipients will deliver a lecture during the academic year.
As a student at Carolina, Hettleman was business manager of The Daily Tar Heel when Thomas Wolfe was editor. In 1946, Hettleman bought a portrait of the then-famous author, and for years it hung in his office in New York City. One of his earliest gifts to the University, the portrait hangs in the Wolfe Room of the N.C. Collection in Wilson Library. Hettleman died in 1986.
Dichter’s groundbreaking work examined whether brain reward circuits are implicated in autism, as they are in other behavior disorders such as addiction, schizophrenia and depression.
This research, which differed from the established approach focused on brain regions that process social information, revealed children with autism may not be motivated to seek social interactions or derive pleasure from them.
His findings have led to novel interventions, including a recent multidisciplinary study at Carolina to investigate the effects of intranasal oxytocin on brain circuits that support social motivation in children with autism.
“This project exemplifies the translational nature of Gabriel’s work and his ability to move a mechanistic finding to the context of a neuroimaging experimental therapeutics trial to evaluate a promising novel autism treatment,” said David R. Rubinow, chair of the Department of Psychiatry.
Dichter earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Haverford College and both his master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology from Vanderbilt University. He spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities before joining the faculty at Carolina’s Department of Psychiatry in 2006.
Powell is recognized nationally for the impact of her work in the emerging field of research, public health and health policy as it relates to gender and race. She has made significant breakthroughs in the understanding of health at the intersection of gender and race as it applies to men of color, and in adoption of research-based approaches to health disparities and mental health policy.
Her work addresses the “gender paradox” that men, despite having more social power than women, are more likely to experience premature death than women. Her early scholarly contributions explored how social constructions of masculinity contributed to healthcare utilization. Her initial research demonstrated that African American men’s definitions of masculinity not only differed conceptually from those espoused by non-Hispanic white males, but were constructed in response to structural barriers to socioeconomic mobility, such as racial discrimination.
Giselle Corbie-Smith, director of the Center for Health Equity Research, described Powell as a gifted scholar who deftly moves between abstract theory, pragmatic implementation and translation to policy and practice.
“Her impressive and groundbreaking body of scholarship has already had a major impact on the health of the most vulnerable men, both domestically and internationally,” Corbie-Smith said.
Powell earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 2005 before joining the Carolina faculty in 2007.
Nicewicz created a groundbreaking set of advances in the formation of small molecule building blocks
by the artful marriage of low-energy light and suitably chosen organic dyes. This combination activates common organic structures in unique ways and enables novel transformations that had eluded the research community before.
Nicewicz, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from Carolina in 2006, conducted postdoctoral training at Princeton, where he discovered and began developing the utility of photoredox catalysis in stereoselective organic synthesis.
Stereoselective synthesis permits chemists to assemble small molecule building blocks with the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen functional groups displayed in a defined three-dimensional orientation. This feature is critical to the bioactivity of organic molecules.
He returned to Carolina in 2009 to join the faculty at the chemistry department and continue this trailblazing work.
“It is clear that Dave is an international leader, and his research advances are playing a key role in shaping the future of organic chemistry and drug discovery,” said Valerie Ashby, former chair of the chemistry department.
Surratt’s research in the field of atmospheric chemistry establishes a critical link between human health and the health of the planet. Within this broad area, he has helped advance the understanding of how fine particles (aerosols) are formed in the atmosphere by investigating how volatile organic compounds emitted by trees and other vegetation interact with man-made pollutants to form secondary organic aerosols.
Barbara K. Rimer, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said Surratt, while at the beginning of his career, has already made significant breakthroughs in an area that is fundamental to public health. He has produced 81 peer-reviewed publications, 53 of them since coming to Carolina four years ago.
This body of research is significant because fine particulate matter is both the leading cause of illness and death associated with air pollution worldwide and is increasingly recognized as having an impact on climate, she added.
“A fearless researcher, he has not hesitated to take the risks necessary to tackle controversial, difficult-to-study areas,” Rimer said.
Surratt earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from N.C. State University in 2003 and his doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology.
Published September 10, 2015.