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LSEN Liaison Greer Arthur Sees ‘A New Sense of Urgency’ in Research Funding For Real-World Problems

Woman w/ bangs and red blazer
Greer Arthur; Photo Credit Greer Arthur.

If you ask molecular biologist and LSEN Liaison Greer Arthur, Ph.D. about her experience getting a Ph.D. in respiratory medicine, she won’t just tell you what you want to hear.

For the British scientist with a childhood interest in biology, everything in life – including an undergraduate degree in biomedical science – seemingly culminated in a windowless room in Leicester full of mucus cell samples.

“I was miserable … There were a lot of tears,” says Arthur. “I don’t know that anyone goes into a Ph.D. feeling excited about mucus."

Years later, however, Arthur doesn’t regret the twists and turns that landed her at “the coolest job in the country,” she says.

As research director of the North Carolina Collaboratory, she builds partnerships between scientists and state and local agencies to ensure that taxpayer dollars fund solutions to real-world problems. The Collaboratory, based at the University of North Carolina, was established in 2016 by the state’s legislature to disperse research dollars.

“Every piece of research we fund must benefit the people of North Carolina in some way,” says Arthur. “It’s not academic research to inform other academics.”

Appointed to her role in 2022, Arthur is, above all, a communicator and connector of people.

It’s a pursuit she’ll continue as a member of the AAAS Local Science Engagement Network’s inaugural class of LSEN Liaisons, charged with building networks to mobilize scientists and engineers interested in engagement and policy.

The opportunity in LSEN converges with Greer’s current professional work in a way that has so much potential for Arthur. Most research relationships, Arthur says, hinge on one-off funding, whereby an award is granted, a research project is completed, and the group disperses. Networks, on the other hand, are more long-term engagements between community leaders, scientists and grassroots advocates.

For example, in 2018 the Collaboratory established the North Carolina Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Testing Network through a $5 million state allocation. North Carolina has one of the highest concentrations of PFAS in the United States. These synthetic “forever chemicals,” found in household products, don’t degrade naturally.

The group collects and analyzes water samples throughout the state, in addition to researching potential links between PFAS exposure and health problems including thyroid cancer. They share that information with the state agency and potential solutions that come from the researchers themselves.

Most recently, Arthur worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to design a funding opportunity to address the impact of COVID-19 on learning, with a goal of helping teachers and students recover from educational disruption.

As federal COVID relief funding dissipates, the state agency needs to make policy changes to address which pandemic-era programs worked and didn’t work. In her role, Arthur helped craft the research requirements to probe these questions, connecting the government with relevant experts.

Those scientists, in turn, will work directly with education institutions. Some awardees include projects examining the effectiveness of special education during school closures and the utility of software used to monitor student internet behavior during the pandemic.

“The way COVID shut down the world was a massive event,” says Arthur. “Although I respect the academic pursuit of knowledge, there’s a new sense of urgency here. The world has changed, and we need to be more deliberate about this.”

For Arthur, this yearning for deeper purpose in science originates in – of all places – her much-despised Ph.D. work. During those years, her mentor, also a clinician, guided her around a hospital ward full of patients hoping for cures and treatments.

“I recognized the weight of responsibility that sat on his shoulders, and I understood why this research was important,” she adds. “He’s the one who sits across from someone and has to deliver extremely bad news.”

After her Ph.D., Arthur came to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at North Carolina State University.

“I thought, ‘let me try science in another country,’” she says. “Within a week, I knew I hated it.”

Instead of prioritizing long hours in the lab, Arthur spent time gaining skills to make a career switch. She did freelance and volunteer communications and graphic design for on-campus entities.

She held several science-related administrative roles at NC State before finding her current position – a rare combination of her many passions.

Outside of work, she finds time to be – as she describes it – intentionally unproductive, creating art in any medium she can get her hands on: charcoal, graphite, ink and watercolors.

A self-proclaimed “cold, wet rainy umbrella and coat person,” Arthur misses her homeland and the British countryside. She’s recently found peace in birdwatching, a hobby that helps her feel grounded and connected to the environment.

“If you want to have an impact, you have to take a step back …” she says.  “I’m part of this world. What is my responsibility?”

 

The North Carolina - Research Triangle Region LSEN will be opening to scientists and engineers located in the area in 2024. To stay tuned for updates, join the Western North Carolina LSEN to see what others in the state are working on. 

 

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Lauren Boyer

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