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The Graduate School has named Juanita Limas as the 2021 recipient of the Boka W. Hadzija Award for Distinguished University Service, one of the Chancellor’s Awards at UNC-Chapel Hill. The award recognizes a graduate or professional student with outstanding character, scholarship, leadership, and service to UNC-CH.

Juanita Limas
Juanita Limas

Limas, a PhD candidate in the Department of Pharmacology at the UNC School of Medicine, taught at the community college level in Iowa before coming to Carolina to pursue her PhD. A returned Peace Corps volunteer, Limas said her time living and working in Nicaragua, and her passion for service, guided her path to pursue higher education.

“It’s the core of who I am as a person,” Limas said. “I profoundly changed when I was overseas.”

During her time teaching at the community college, Limas spearheaded a program to recruit underrepresented minorities to pursue professions in STEM.

“It really got me thinking about what I want my legacy to be,” Limas said. “I needed a PhD to do more.”

While pursuing her PhD, a fellow PhD student at another institution took their life.

Limas described her friend’s laboratory environment as being toxic, and Limas felt unsure how to respond and what she could do at Carolina.

“I didn’t say anything to my PI and lab for a couple of weeks,” Limas said. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m fed up;’ we need to start talking about mental health issues we face as graduate students.”

Limas, with support from her department, formed a mental health task force, which includes mental health trainings for graduate advisors. Her work has also extended to anti-racism efforts, and forming a student committee to bring diverse faculty and students to the department.

As a first-generation student, Limas continued to find opportunities for service at UNC-CH, including as a senator for Graduate and Professional Student Government.

“There is value and merit into being able to recreate yourself here,” Limas said.

Limas said her nontraditional path to pursue her PhD has benefitted her in many ways.

“I became a great scientist, and I learned a lot about my field,” Limas said. “But I think my PhD is most valuable in the leadership and the connections I’ve been able to make and support others who are coming up behind me.”

Following graduation, Limas hopes to work in drug discovery or in clinical trials, primarily to address populations that get overlooked.

“If you just think about yourself, you don’t win.” Limas said. “That’s not the Carolina way.”

One student per year receives the award; it is named after a former professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy and was established in 2000.

“The award really isn’t about me,” Limas said. “This is for everyone else I get to support.”

The Graduate School, founded in 1903, supports more than 160 degree-offering programs in a variety of disciplines. Suzanne Barbour, PhD, serves as dean of The Graduate School and is a professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

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