“There are many aspects to what I do each day, and some continually evolve and change, but learning has been constant,” she says. “This is one of the reasons being at UNC has been so incredible. I am surrounded by faculty, clinical and research team members, and students who challenge and inspire me to learn and grow.”
Just as she is being inspired by her students, her students are being motivated by her. Students in her epidemiology 711 class, clinical measurement and evaluation, nominated Napravnik for a Gillings School of Global Public Health Teaching Excellence and Innovation Award. The awards are presented annually to a professor in each of Gillings’ departments who possesses subject matter expertise, explains complex topics in an understandable manner and shows genuine interest in students’ lives in and out of the classroom.
Napravnik received the teaching award for the Department of Epidemiology during a ceremony in the Armfield Atrium of the Michael Hooker Research Center on Thursday, March 23. The competition for a teaching award this year was intense with 250 nominations being submitted for 70 faculty. Only eight faculty are chosen to receive an award.
“Being acknowledged by students is an extraordinary honor,” Napravnik says. “It is inspiring to be a teacher at UNC where the students have such a diversity of perspectives, dedication, passion and an infectious energy and drive to make a difference in clinical care and public health.”
The course Napravnik teaches provides a broad-based introduction to the concepts and methods of epidemiology with particular emphasis on their application in clinical research, clinical practice and health care policy. Napravnik’s students’ nomination letters praised her ability to make intimidating subject matter understandable.
“One student wrote that they hoped they would one day be appreciated by students as much as the class appreciates Dr. Napravnik,” says Laura Linnan, ScD, associate dean for academic and student affairs and professor of health behavior. Linnan presided over the awards ceremony.
Receiving a teaching award from the Gillings School of Global Public Health is especially meaningful to Napravnik as she earned her master’s in public health and doctoral degrees in epidemiology from the school.
“It is an honor to be recognized among the many outstanding teachers at UNC, many of whom have taught me,” Napravnik says.
Born in Australia and educated in Canada, Napravnik did not enter university with a career in clinical and epidemiologic research in mind. She majored in philosophy and history at the University of Western Ontario. After graduation, she volunteered at a hospice in Toronto and witnessed the heartbreaking devastation of HIV. The desire to do something to help people living with HIV motivated her to return to college to earn a degree in nursing. Napravnik then participated in a bilateral aid mission to provide clinical infrastructure support to rural areas of Ethiopia. The epidemic then inspired her to apply to Gillings for the school’s dual MPH-PhD program.
“For me, it has always been about HIV and its impact on the people who are infected, their loved ones and their community. The courage, strength and resilience of those who are infected has always inspired me in the work I do,” Napravnik says. “I didn’t follow a traditional path into research. But studying philosophy taught me to think problems through. Clinical research is very similar because you are trying to find the answer to a problem.”
In addition to her roles in the Division of Infectious Diseases within the School of Medicine and the Department of Epidemiology in Gillings, Napravnik is associate director of the UNC Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) Clinical Core. She oversees the UNC CFAR HIV Clinical Cohort study as well as provides assistance with study design, implementation and analysis to translational and clinical investigators. She credits the CFAR’s Clinical Core Director Joe Eron, MD, with mentoring, inspiring and encouraging her both academically and professionally.
“Sonia is an integral member of the HIV research community at UNC and the reason our HIV clinical cohort has been so successful and has provided a platform for many students interested in understanding more about HIV disease and its treatment,” says Eron, professor of medicine and vice chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases. “Sonia brings depth of knowledge, analytical talent, problem-solving skills and a welcoming, inquisitive personality to our research group. I am not surprised that she was recognized by her students as an outstanding teacher.”
Napravnik now finds herself a mentor to many MPH and PhD candidates. Thibaut Davy-Mendez works as a research assistant for Napravnik. She encouraged him to apply for the same dual-degree epidemiology program she completed at Gillings nearly 13 years ago.
“Sonia’s excitement for our work and passion for the fight against HIV inspire me to move forward constantly in the learning process,” says Davy-Mendez, who is about to complete the master’s portion of the dual-degree. “Sonia sets an amazing example of hard work, dedication to others, high ethical and intellectual standards, and collaboration. She measures her success not only by her own degree of achievement, but also significantly by the success and happiness of her mentees and by the impact made on the field of HIV research as a whole.”
When she’s not conducting research, mentoring or teaching, Napravnik can be found spending time with her two children.