Ingenuity and innovation

The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is building a future that is safer, healthier, greener and more equitable for all people.

In 1940, the School of Public Health, now the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health (renamed in 2008), became a school. It was the fourth school of public health in the United States, and the first public, befitting the oldest public university in the country. North Carolinians suffered from particularly poor health during this period. The state ranked 39th in infant mortality, and more young men were rejected from military service than from any other state. Investing in improved public health was essential to lift the health and well-being of North Carolinians and overcome health and other inequities.

Throughout the years, and today, the Gillings School has been David to the Goliath private schools among whose ranks we stand proudly. The School has a long history of turning ingenuity into efficient innovations.  As one example, faculty from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School created one of the first smog chambers in the United States, and they did it at a fraction of the cost other institutions paid. They were determined to put a smog chamber on a Carolina campus rooftop so they could study the impact of chemicals and materials on air quality and human health. They improvised materials, did much of the work in our onsite maker space, and now conduct path-breaking research with these facilities. Smog chamber research also illustrates another Gillings and Carolina strength—collaboration across schools. By working with School of Medicine collaborators, our faculty members not only examine impacts of chemicals on air but also on human lung tissue obtained with permission from surgical sites. Faculty members bring together humans and the environment to assess individual and synergistic effects of exposure. That’s the kind of work we do across the school—whether studying the environment, obesity or child health. We study the complex chain of causation, because that’s the way to get answers that, ultimately, improve health and the environment.

The scrappiness and can-do attitude shown by the smog chamber example is inherent in the school’s DNA. In recent years, we have focused more intentionally on encouraging innovation with Gillings Innovation Labs (innovation accelerators), guidance from our executive in residence, support for student and faculty inventions and for- and non-profit companies and more.

The Gillings School was among the best schools from the beginning and has become stronger with age, thanks, in part, to a very generous gift from Dennis Gillings and Joan Gillings that enabled an even greater flowering of innovation. For example, according to the CDC’s Fast Facts on Water and Sanitation,  780 million people worldwide do not have access to an improved water source. More than 35 percent of the world’s population lacks access to improved sanitation. In response, and with investment from the Gillings gift, grants and other support, Gillings faculty and students are developing new ways to provide safe water to communities and build the evidence for international policies. They created one of the world’s go-to annual conferences on water. Gillings faculty and students have invented, and helped bring to scale, waterless toilets, new kinds of water filters, portable water quality tests and more. Just this year, with special funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, our faculty have partnered with others on campus and other North Carolina universities to assess how chemicals such as GenX find their way into the state’s water resources and determine how great a risk they are to North Carolinians.

More broadly, we’re working across disciplines and using tools from genetics and genomics to understand diseases and tailor prevention and treatment strategies to individuals. We’re exploring the potential of cell phones and drones to deliver health messages and devices more effectively and efficiently. We’re creating new methods in health policy, epidemiology and biostatistics and using cutting edge methods, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to improve health.

In the same way that we are using the latest tools to uncover the causes of diseases and to deploy solutions, we’re also remaking our signature master of public health degree to meet the needs of 21st century students and employers. Our world increasingly requires health professionals who are culturally competent, capable communicators, skilled in teamwork and collaboration and business savvy and who have the ability to effect policy. The Gillings MPH provides our students with 12 new concentrations – built for the future – and an integrated set of core courses that give students real-world problem-solving and leadership experiences.

As we move forward, we will continue to imagine, and then create, a future that is safer, healthier, greener and more equitable for all people. From powerful new biostatistics and epidemiologic methods that aim to speed clinical trials and get medicines to people faster, to programs that help communities achieve better health, to research that seeks to end preventable deaths of mothers and babies around the world, and work that aims to prevent future epidemics, Gillings people are committed to improve health and the environment for North Carolinians and people around the world. We are of and for North Carolina, making the Gillings School special among the top schools of public health. But we also are global citizens who recognize that what happens in one part of the world affects the health of people thousands of miles away. In today’s world of emerging infections and permeable borders, we must be, as we teach our students, globaland local. That might be expected of people who take on, with impressive fearlessness, some of the world’s most challenging health threats and problems.