Research Areas of Focus and Distinction

Through an interactive campus process that resulted in 82 submissions and included 592 faculty and staff, the Top-Tier Research Commission selected 17 areas of focus and distinction. This includes established areas of excellence and areas of growth and opportunities. More information about the methodology is available in the full report.

Areas of Existing Excellence

Advanced Manufacturing and Metrology

Advanced manufacturing enables the realization of the next generation of products to meet future energy, health care, security and transport needs. The introduction of new, innovative processes — such as additive manufacturing — and the evolution of existing processes — such as high-precision machining — rely on dimensional metrology (measurements) to quantify and evaluate the process output. UNC Charlotte’s unique integrated manufacturing and metrology capabilities are used to first assess the limitations of current manufacturing technologies and then to identify alternative more efficient and improved approaches.

Through university-industry collaborative centers, like the Center for Precision Metrology and the Center for Freeform Optics, teams of faculty tackle diverse topics ranging from measuring millimeter-scale cooling channels on turbine blades, to evaluating meter-scale gears for wind turbines, to polishing optics with nanometer form errors, to machining lightweight components for aircraft, to manufacturing and testing novel ceramic materials for biomedical applications.

Computational Life Sciences and Health Bioinformatics

Using advanced computational and informatics tools, UNC Charlotte researchers from diverse fields collaborate to prevent and combat threats to human health, reduce health disparities and increase ecosystem vitality. Their approach uses computational biology as a centerpiece and recognizes the interdependence of human health, the health of other living species and the environment. Charlotte researchers investigate the underlying processes that drive emergent diseases and define host-microbe interactions, which are central to understanding problems and developing novel solutions.

Emerging threats to human health, such as highly transmissible viruses, and durable problems, including antibiotic resistance and food safety, demand comprehensive and innovative approaches. Particularly through the Bioinformatics Research Center, University researchers apply advanced expertise and knowledge in epidemiology, ecology, bioinformatics, public health, mathematics, computing, geography, engineering and education to study these complex problems, with a focus on building resiliency against threats and guiding practices that increase human and ecosystem health.


Long before the term “cybersecurity” entered the American lexicon, UNC Charlotte was a leader in the field of information security. Established 22 years ago, the University’s program was the first in North Carolina to be recognized by the National Security Agency (NSA) as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Research in 2006. The impact of Charlotte’s cybersecurity research has grown in lockstep with the demand for greater protections in an increasingly digital world.

In a dangerous era of identity theft and international cybercrime, Charlotte’s cybersecurity research fuels innovation to understand and mitigate threats to our systems, information and lives, especially those related to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of digital information. Research in hardware and infrastructure security, privacy and digital citizenship, and security analytics and automation address the secure, private and trustworthy operation of infrastructure in domains such as data and social sciences, energy and manufacturing.

Migration and Diaspora Studies

Migration and diaspora studies at UNC Charlotte take a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to examining a fundamental human experience: the movement from one homeland to another. More people than ever have left their native countries, driven by economics, political violence, social dynamics and climate change. Studies of these migrants, their hosts and the communities they leave behind are complex, transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, and address urgent and current topics, such as immigration policy and governance; race and ethnicity in cultural and artistic expression, violence and conflict; and equity and justice in health, education, environmental sustainability and socioeconomic mobility.

With a particular focus on African, Caribbean and Latin American diasporas, Charlotte faculty and students strive to understand the shared heritage and experience of these scattered populations and the many legacies of displacement and dispersion.

Optics and Optoelectronics

UNC Charlotte’s advanced expertise in optics, the science of light, and optoelectronics, the study and development of electronic devices to detect and control light, addresses critical needs in the areas of national competitiveness and security. Enhanced by the founding of the Center for Optoelectronics and Optical Communications more than 20 years ago, optics is a longtime signature strength for Charlotte. Collaborative teams study and develop electronic devices to detect and control light and to create innovative applications and novel materials for medicine, defense, energy, infrastructure, communications, virtual reality and other fields.

Central to the research are strategic investments in advanced technologies and equipment and the creation of collaborative centers that spur intensive use-inspired research with industry and government partners, particularly the Center for Freeform Optics, the Center for Metamaterials and the Center for Precision Metrology. Collectively, University researchers capitalize upon historic strengths in optics and microelectronics, while pushing forward into new and potentially revolutionary research directions, such as the development of novel materials.

Transformational Energy

Transitioning the domestic and global energy economies to low- or net-zero carbon emissions will have critical impacts in meeting society’s energy needs while promoting a healthy climate.

A pioneer and leader in energy research and education, UNC Charlotte makes significant multidisciplinary contributions to the field through six areas: (1) scientific discovery and technology development, (2) fast-paced applied research, (3) technology integration through multi-institutional projects, (4) technical and laboratory services, (5) workforce development and (6) public/private partnerships.

Led by Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC), the University’s transformational energy research engages local, regional, state and federal agencies with key business and industry stakeholders to further accelerate the country’s transition to clean energy.

Areas of Emerging Impact

Smart and Sustainable Cities

As the world continues to urbanize, cities must address the impacts of growth on infrastructure, the environment and public health. With nearly 70% of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2050, UNC Charlotte research that contributes to strategic, sustainable growth and safe, healthy urban environments is crucial. Teams of University researchers tackle the challenges of an urbanizing world in diverse ways. Some harness vast amounts of data or advances in artificial intelligence to guide sustainable urbanization or address complex challenges in public safety and transportation, while others create cost-effective technologies that reduce building energy-use and produce clean power.

The University’s multidisciplinary teams include engineers, architects, inventors and experts in transportation, public safety, land use, urban design, city management and housing. Existing campus assets include extensive experience in urban data curation, expertise in geoanalytics and collaborative partnerships with local and regional community-based organizations, agencies and industries.

Socioeconomic Mobility

Lack of socioeconomic mobility and income disparities profoundly shape access to health, education, housing, employment and other key aspects of life and well-being. UNC Charlotte researchers from psychology, sociology, social work, public policy, public health, geography, and anthropology study the complex factors that affect children’s and families’ prospects for upward mobility. Factors such as education opportunities, financial stability and health care access often intersect to facilitate or hinder socioeconomic mobility. University researchers partner with external organizations and agencies to identify these factors and to map policy and systems approaches intended to facilitate socioeconomic mobility.

Data-driven expertise partnered with community expertise results in a shared commitment to address problems such as early childcare and education, college and career readiness, child and family stability and inequities. In one targeted approach, the Social Aspects of Health Initiative focuses on social, institutional and environmental contexts to identify and address health inequities in urban regions.

Transportation and Advanced Mobility

Transportation and mobility issues are among the most critical to social mobility, and related infrastructure can represent expensive public and private assets. As vehicles continue to evolve into autonomous, smart and connected machines, UNC Charlotte faculty are harnessing sensors, data analytics, artificial intelligence and predictive modeling to transform mobility systems for people, materials and products.

The University’s interdisciplinary teams are generating innovative ways to improve, operate and maintain critical physical infrastructure, while addressing societal needs, optimizing the use of constrained resources, and maintaining safety and privacy.

Existing expertise includes data analytics in transportation, airport/aviation infrastructure and materials research; smart and efficient multimodal transportation systems; connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs); transportation operations; and technology readiness and security. Life-cycle management experts use advanced techniques to assess impacts on economies, regional connectivity, workforce development and land use.

Urban Health

Research suggests one’s residential address has as dramatic an effect on health as genetic code. UNC Charlotte experts work in North Carolina’s largest city and beyond on the social determinants of health to solve real-world challenges. With populations expanding rapidly in metropolitan areas, University researchers study how urban environments affect the health of residents.

Issues unique to urban communities, such as traffic patterns, school districting, affordable housing, wage policies, pollution and access to healthy food are among the many underlying causes of health inequities. Interdisciplinary teams from public health, data science, biostatistics, psychology, anthropology and social work use a variety of research methods, including action research, community-based participatory research and clinical research, to identify practical health promotion solutions, implement community-based chronic disease prevention and management programs, advance health policy reform, promote racial equity, improve health outcomes and minimize health disparities.

Areas of Unique Distinction

Educational Measurement and Evaluation

Data drives positive change, and UNC Charlotte’s Center for Educational Measurement and Evaluation (CEME) provides the evaluation and measurement expertise for meaningful analysis of preK-12 teachers and students nationwide to ensure student success. University researchers work with community partners to better serve learners and offer expertise in the social sciences and STEM fields and in early childhood and special education.

CEME directs novel studies examining the reliability, cultural sensitivity and fairness of ratings given to North Carolina teachers by their principals and evaluators. Extensive development and validation research is conducted on Teaching Strategies GOLD, an annual publication used to assess more than two million children nationally, as well as validation and implementation fidelity research on the N.C. Kindergarten Entry Assessment measure used by more than 5,000 teachers each year to assess all incoming kindergarten children.

Inclusive Leadership and Diversity

UNC Charlotte researchers are using conventional approaches and cutting-edge data science to redefine leadership, with an interdisciplinary focus on the emerging area of leadership diversity and inclusion. For more than 50 years, UNC Charlotte has been developing business leaders through nationally ranked graduate programs for working professionals and corporate leaders.

Supported by federal agencies and corporations, collaborative teams of faculty seek to help redefine leadership and develop effective human resource management and team development practices and policies. Using science-based solutions, these initiatives address many of the biggest issues facing global and regional organizations, including reducing and eliminating the barriers experienced by women and people of color as they rise to and hold leadership positions.

Special and Exceptional Education

UNC Charlotte’s special education experts develop and implement evidence-based approaches and practices that support the establishment of K-12 classroom environments in which every learner can thrive.

Using practices that engage a range of community partners in mutually beneficial approaches and match regional and national economic, civic and cultural priorities, University researchers develop innovative programs that translate research into practice and provide students with disabilities access to services that offer opportunities for positive life outcomes after graduation.

Establishing conditions and environments that meet the needs of all learners and foster a culture of inclusivity for students with disabilities is a priority, with a particular emphasis on educating students with extensive support needs and helping students transition effectively into adult life. The success of these efforts is exemplified by the largest grant in UNC Charlotte’s history, an award of more than $20 million from the U.S. Department of Education to support the university-led National Technical Assistance Center on Transition: The Collaborative.

Areas of Future Opportunity

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) enables machines to perform difficult tasks, interface and collaborate with humans and augment human capabilities. AI impacts almost every area of our lives, from finance to medicine to consumer electronics, and the associated innovations are expected to transform how the world does business, translating into a global market that exceeds $700 billion by 2027.

UNC Charlotte faculty expertise touches on a range of emerging AI-focus areas, including machine learning and data mining methods; robotics and autonomous systems; human-assistive AI; high-performance AI; and ethical, explainable and trustworthy AI.

University researchers develop foundational techniques and apply them to address problems across a broad range of interests, including computing infrastructure and cybersecurity, energy, climate change, health care, scientific discovery, smart cities, personalized education and defense. The work is advanced through a network of collaborative national partnerships with private industry and government agencies.

Climate Change and Resilience

Climate change affects every aspect of life on Earth. Understanding, communicating, and addressing its complex consequences requires a concerted, integrated effort by teams of faculty researchers with diverse perspectives, tools and methodologies. At UNC Charlotte, researchers from fields ranging from geology to genetics, to arts and architecture, employ comprehensive, multidisciplinary approaches to study past, ongoing, and future impacts of climate and pursue innovative solutions for mitigation, adaptation and resilience. University researchers study how climate change affects natural systems and phenomena, such as paleo-climate and -fires, rock landslides, water chemistry and microbial genomics, and storms and atmospheric heating. They also study and communicate — through arts, humanities, and community engagement — climate change interactions with human systems, including natural hazard impacts, food supply robustness and fragility, energy and transportation and socio-spatial economic and health disparities.

Bridging the natural, social and behavioral sciences, engineering, arts, humanities, and policy studies, these collaborations and research thrusts have gained local and national attention and inform the work of policymakers and practitioners charged with advancing and implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies and solutions.

Nanoscale Science and Materials

Science and engineering conducted at the nanoscale — a scale that is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — is driving a revolution in the creation of new solutions to worldwide problems, particularly in energy, health and medicine and the environment.

UNC Charlotte nanoscale researchers work toward the development of novel materials, devices and structures to address these problems and challenges. University researchers are developing RNA nanoparticles for immunotherapies and vaccines that target antibiotic-resistant pathogens and cancers, and developing nanosensors for the clinical diagnosis of COVID-19. They investigate novel organic molecular dyes and polymers for use in solar energy conversion, generate inorganic nanomaterials to build efficient energy storage devices and develop sustainable methods to decontaminate water.

Others on campus are applying a wide variety of interdisciplinary experimental approaches to gain molecular-level insights into biological systems, with significance for cancer research, immune responses, neurodegenerative diseases and other important areas of research.

Online Misinformation and Deception

Online misinformation, disinformation and deception spread by humans or bots are designed to mislead users, organizations and societies, serving to promote dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas through fake news, conspiracy theories, rumors, fake consumer reviews and spam blogs. UNC Charlotte researchers from multiple disciplines investigate online deception; build systems that automatically identify, weed out and minimize the ways these schemes and systems spread lies online; and analyze how misinformation and online deception compromise the ability of individuals to make informed decisions.

To restore confidence in the online information environment and promote trusted, fact-based information sources, University faculty use novel tools and design and develop innovative, interactive visual interfaces that enable the automatic detection of misinformation, facilitate the systematic investigation of misinformation sources and prevent the propagation and dissemination of fake news.