Research grants plant seeds of success

By Beth Hatcher

Four UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media faculty members were awarded a total of $20,000 in seed grants supporting promising projects in visual communication, documentary production, investigative journalism and crisis communication.

Associate Professor Spencer Barnes, Professor Pat Davison, Assistant Professor Erin Siegal McIntyre and Assistant Professor Eva Zhao are the 2021 recipients of the $5,000  school-sponsored grants to help faculty conduct formative, exploratory or innovative research projects that match with the funding priorities of external funding agencies and programs.

“These seed grants reward and incentivize faculty research and creative activity that can attract additional funding,” said Dean Susan King, who created the seed grant program in 2012. “We’re a school that wants to make an impact, and outside funding maximizes the reach of our work.”

Spencer Barnes

Associate Professor Spencer Barnes’ seed grant will boost research probing how the public responds to visual explanations — animations that explain topics too micro, macro or dangerous to directly observe. Think a cell dividing or a predator attacking prey. The grant will help Barnes purchase cloud rendering services, which create virtual machine-produced renderings. “What would have taken me 20 hours will now take me 20 minutes,” Barnes said. The renderings will then create eight 360-degree videos that contain visual explanations on topics ranging from dust devils to Atlantic blue marlins. Barnes will use the videos to tee up a National Science Foundation grant proposal. “It feels great to have the school support my endeavors with a seed grant.”

Pat Davison

Professor Pat Davison will complete work on “A Hello Story,” a documentary film about his family— including three American-born daughters — connecting to Japanese culture as they care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted Japanese father-in-law. “I’m really hoping this grant will be what pushes the project forward,” said Davison, who will hire a producer with the seed grant to help with fundraising and distribution for the film, which he’d like to market to film festivals and streaming services, both in American and Japanese markets. “Documentaries connect to people’s hearts because they allow issues to be viewed through personal narratives,” Davison said. “The seed grant is a great vote of confidence by the school that what I’m doing is important and worthy of investment.”

Erin Siegal McIntyre

Assistant Professor Erin Siegal McIntyre is working on a book-length investigation into the institutional culture of the U.S. Border Patrol. Siegal McIntyre worked as a freelance investigative journalist and photographer in Mexico before joining UNC Hussman in 2020. Her first book “Finding Fernanda” (Beacon Press 2012) exposed criminal trafficking networks, jurisdictional gaps and fraudulent practices in international adoption between Guatemala and the United States. “As an investigative journalist, I’m always interested in exploring systemic corruption,” she said.

Xinyan (Eva) Zhao

Assistant Professor Xinyan (Eva) Zhao will conduct a national experiment on how people respond to crisis messages across multiple platforms and sources during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’ll then use the results to seek an external grant from the National Science Foundation and advance discussion around crisis and pandemic communication. “Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes and wildfires have widespread influence and severe consequences,” Zhao said. “This highlights the need to understand the complex information environment, how people react to a converging flow of risk information across platforms, and the roles of information overload and information verification in crisis communication.”

“These grants reflect UNC Hussman’s commitment to helping faculty develop and launch their research and creative activity projects,” said Rhonda Gibson, James H. Shumaker Term professor and chair of the seed grant committee. “The grants are an investment in our faculty’s potential.”