You would be hard-pressed to find a label that perfectly fits Barbara Entwisle, Ph.D. She is a numbers-person and a people-person, a renowned researcher and a high-ranking administrator. As a social demographer, Entwisle has spent the last 25 years studying how individuals are affected by the contexts in which they live. In her recent appointment as vice chancellor for research, she is now working to create an environment that will foster the growth of the research program at UNC-Chapel Hill and maximize its impact.
When Entwisle went to Swarthmore College in the 1970’s, the developing countries of the world were experiencing unprecedented population growth. Fascinated by this population crisis and wanting to know more about its causes and possible solutions, Entwisle signed up for a course on demography. The class exposed her to an unfamiliar field and opened her eyes to an entirely new career path.
“I think everyone understands what a biologist is, or a doctor, or a lawyer, but there are certain professions that you don’t find out about until later in life,” said Entwisle, now a Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UNC. “Demography typically draws on people with strong mathematical backgrounds who are also interested in social science applications. That describes me.”
High fertility was the first social science issue to pique her interest. Entwisle began looking into the effects of people’s social and administrative policy environments – such as the state of the economy, the availability of contraception and the policy of the national government in terms of family planning -- on the number of children they ended up having. She was a coauthor of one of the seminal pieces in a statistical area known as multilevel statistical modeling now used by researchers across the social, behavioral and health sciences.
Over time, Entwisle expanded her view to include not just social influences but also aspects of the natural and physical environment. For example, in 2008 she co-chaired a national advisory group, the Human Impacts of Climate Change Advisory Committee, for the Environmental Protection Agency. She also has looked at other demographic factors besides fertility, such as migration and, most recently, child health issues.
As the principal investigator of the North Carolina segment of the National Children’s Study, Entwisle is helping to oversee a large longitudinal study of how social, behavior, community and environmental factors affect human health and development. The study aims to recruit at least 100,000 pregnant women, follow them through the birth of their children and then monitor their children until they are 21.
“There are two big areas in child health outcomes – one that looks at chemical exposures like toxins and the other looks at social factors like poverty. I think it is critical that those literatures be joined, and that is what this study is trying to do,” said Entwisle. “Because otherwise we could be operating on the wrong lever, thinking pollution is the culprit when its partly poverty, or blaming poverty when it actually involves some type of exposure.”
The National Children’s Study is one of three huge projects Entwisle and her colleagues landed during her time at the helm of the Carolina Population Center, which she directed from 2002 to 2010. Those projects helped to double the research budget for the CPC, which is second only to UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in terms of grant monies. Entwisle’s time at the CPC was the perfect training ground for her role as vice chancellor, a post she officially filled last March. She sees herself doing many of the same things as she did before -- diversifying the research funding base, giving administrative support to faculty researchers and creating an interdisciplinary culture -- only on a larger scale.
“UNC ranks number nine nationally among public and private universities in terms of NIH funding – a statistic I am very proud of -- but we still need to diversify and broaden out, tapping into other sources like the National Science Foundation, industry and the Department of Defense,” said Entwisle.
“I also think it is important to support the faculty research enterprise by improving the quality of the infrastructure we offer. NC TraCS [the NC Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute] is a real asset to the university. I am so pleased to have one of these CTSAs [NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards]. In my role as vice chancellor I am trying to do everything I can to support it and to try and help lead it to the next level.”
NC TraCS is one of 60 medical research institutions working together as a national consortium to improve the way biomedical research is conducted across the country. To Entwisle, collaboration within and outside the university is a key component of a successful research enterprise.
She is particularly interested in leveraging interdisciplinary research. Entwisle is currently looking at ways to build on UNC’s strong track record of interdisciplinary collaboration, by creating new conversations and putting different groups of researchers together in different ways.
“Most of the new funding opportunities are in large interdisciplinary team science, so we need to be even more inventive and imaginative in how we put our teams together,” said Entwisle. “Everyone is so busy and people are working so hard, they tend to work with groups of people they already know. My job is to try to create these new conversations, and when I hear of efforts that are along these lines is to get right behind them and support them as best I can.”
In the future, Entwisle would like to see UNC’s research program and research impact ranked in the top five public universities, a list that now contains the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington-Seattle, Berkeley and UCLA. She still remembers former Chancellor Moeser aspiring for UNC to be the public university, and she shares that sentiment.
“That really resonated with me,” said Entwisle. “I would like to be the public university, and I think in order for that to be true, the research piece needs to be there.”