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image_preview-4Eliana Perrin is a natural connector. She’s sees connections between her work and that of others. She sees connections that link friends and colleagues she encounters.

But UNC’s new Associate Vice Chancellor for Research might have missed the most important connection of her academic career if not for the knowledge and professional friendships she gained during her Spring 2012 fellowship in the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ Academic Leadership Program.

“I really credit the Academic Leadership Program for where I am today,” says Perrin, M.D., M.P.H. who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the UNC-Chapel Hill.

“My world before the leadership program was my research team and the School of Medicine,” she says. “I came in not sure I would ever have a formal leadership title. I thought of it as an opportunity to be a leader of scientific research teams.”

Fellows spot opportunity

Perrin’s ALP class included many faculty members who were already campus leaders: Richard Meyers, associate dean for student affairs at UNC School of Law; Victoria Bautch, the first female chair of the biology department; Ashu Handa, former chair of public policy, now in a leadership position at UNICEF; Jim Hirschfield, art department chair; Peter Mucha, chair of applied physical sciences; Amy Herring, associate chair of biostatistics; and Abigail Panter, now senior associate dean for undergraduate education.

The ALP Fellowship included a week at the Center for Creative Leadership followed by weekly seminar sessions on leadership skills and discussions of leadership issues led by Kim Strom-Gottfried, ALP associate director, and Rob Kramer, senior leadership consultant. Two ALP retreats provided key bonding experiences for the group. After the fellowship semester ended, the group continued to meet monthly to discuss issues and keep their supportive connection.

“Fast forward to last spring and a blast e-mail comes out to the entire campus advertising this position for associate vice chancellor for research,” Perrin says. “I, along with many others on campus, I’m sure, promptly deleted it. But two people from my leadership group emailed me that night to say, ‘This one has your name written all over it.’ I looked at it again and decided to apply.”

New role focuses on interdisciplinary scholarship

Perrin began work in January as one of five associate vice chancellors for research. Her role is to oversee the Office of Research Development, for which she also serves as director, and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, which has its own director. She is focused on expanding interdisciplinary research on campus by identifying research opportunities and engaging faculty from diverse disciplines to collaborate and pursue them. Put more simply, she’ll be making connections.

“So many of the world’s problems these days are complex and nuanced and are not going to be tackled by one discipline, one department or even one school, even on a campus as great as Carolina’s,” Perrin says. “I’m trying to build interdisciplinary bridges throughout campus, combining units that haven’t traditionally worked together to create a one-plus-one-equals-three environment across the university. We’re also going to try to build out our program and foster more alliances with other universities and partnerships with industry that make sense for our research mission.”

Making connections is key

Perrin brings extensive personal experience to that work. She and her husband, sociologist Andrew Perrin, also an IAH Fellow, lead a National Institutes of Health-funded research project team that includes faculty members from art history, health policy, journalism and mass communications, psychology, psychiatry, public health and sociology.

The NIH grant requires recipients to form transdisciplinary research teams and pursue collaborative research. The group is focused first on a two-year study, “Pass the Popcorn,” that explores children’s reactions to unhealthy eating and stigmatizing messages about obesity that they receive from popular movies.

“It’s a grant to the Odum Institute from the NIH but my husband and I both felt it was important to have someone who understood visual culture for the project. So many of the messages we were going to be looking for in the movies were directorial choices of how to shoot the scene or how to present the image,” Perrin says. “We just didn’t understand that element of cultural art history, so we invited Cary Levine from the art department to join us.”

The notion of an art scholar working on a School of Medicine research project was, of course, so foreign that the Art Department thought there might have been a mistake.

“I told them, it’s no mistake. We really want Cary’s perspective for this grant,” Perrin says. “One of the things I’m hoping to do in this position is to bring worlds together that have not worked together before and let it be thought of as wonderful and innovative, not as a mistake.”

Fellowship offers knowledge, peer support

While Perrin brings her scholarship and natural ability for making connections to the post, the IAH provided her with a solid grounding in leadership knowledge and skills and a supportive interdisciplinary peer group. IAH also submitted a letter of support for her grant project and now provides refreshments and space for her research team to meet – a fitting setting for interdisciplinary work, Perrin says.

“I simply wouldn’t be the leader I am today without the Academic Leadership Program,” says Perrin. “It equipped me with tools and support. My leadership group helped me during the interview process for this job, coached me and inspired me to do it. And throughout the experience, they gave me the support to believe in myself, to know this is possible. The IAH is a wonderful home. My husband and I are both very indebted.”

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