Map the System competition challenges Tar Heels to hone innovative research skills

As graduate students, Hiba Fatima and Sharita R. Thomas have always been interested in maternal health research and the alarming trends showing increasing maternal deaths among minorities in North Carolina.

But they didn’t just want to report statistics. They wanted to paint a comprehensive picture that drew on social factors, history and trends to find ways to address the pressing issue. So when the two PhD students discovered systems thinking in a course taught by Kristen Hassmiller Lich of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, they found a way to do it.

“Systems mapping is a method informed by systems thinking,” Fatima said. “It uses several tools to visually map a system – all of the interacting forces and individual events, how people think about things and trends over time – and brings them all together to give a holistic view of the system. systems thinking is particularly well suited to this problem because there are so many different things that interact to make this problem happen.

A competition hosted by Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s core team for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic development, gave students the opportunity to use the innovative approach to solving the problem qu ‘they saw.

The competition, called Map the System, is organized locally by Carolina as part of a global competition organized by the University of Oxford. It challenges students to use systems thinking to understand complex social or environmental concerns and to articulate their findings in ways that people can understand and learn from. Throughout the process, students uncover knowledge gaps, identify levers for change, and present ideas that can shape solutions.

“This competition is a great way for students and faculty to use problem mapping and systems thinking to uncover often surprising new ideas about pressing social issues,” said Melissa Carrier, Director of the Office of Innovation. social from UNC, who worked to bring the contest. at the University in 2020. “In doing so, we can identify opportunities to think and act differently to make critical changes in our approach to public health, the environment, social justice and other areas of global interest.”

The competition was a perfect fit for Fatima and Thomas, as they were motivated to research maternal health in new ways and are naturally competitive people. They quickly formed a team that also included another Carolina PhD student, Doyoung Kim, and two NC State PhD students, Sana Behnam Asl and Raunak Mahtani.

The five students spent the next few months conducting interviews and organizing their research to produce an article and presentation for the competition. Over the course of the project, Fatima said the team – called Maternal Mortality – looked at the root causes of maternal mortality and health equity and looked at current interventions already in place in Carolina. North.

Map the System has given them the platform to advance interventions like doulas and lead the way to new solutions.

“What’s exciting about the systems thinking approach is that it’s not new, but it’s a new way of putting everything together so you can see things from a different perspective,” said said Thomas.

Learn more about the research project at

The team’s work ultimately earned them first place in the Carolina Map the System competition and qualified them to compete in the global competition at the University of Oxford last June with financial support from Innovate Carolina.

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done, especially since we were passionate about it, found meaning in what we were doing, and saw how it could be useful within the state,” Thomas said. “But we were really surprised to win and touched by it.”

Fatima and Thomas were the only members able to attend the contest in London, but the two Tar Heels took the opportunity to continue learning about systems thinking while showcasing their work overseas. The trip was also an opportunity to network and hear about the research being conducted by more students from around the world.

“It was an overloaded schedule while we were there,” Fatima said. “There are networking sessions. They had workshops for us. They had a conference.

Kimi Yingling, student engagement and events manager for Innovate Carolina who traveled to London with Fatima and Thomas, said the immersive experience offered on the trip to Oxford was more than a chance to compete. It was also a chance for students to learn and expand their horizons.

“During the weekend in London, our students took full advantage of the many opportunities to meet and learn from other students, professors, business and political leaders, and changemakers from all parts of the world,” said said Yingling. “Students bring their own ideas and research to the competition, and then through all the amazing sessions and interactions they have, they discover new problems and perspectives and come away inspired to use systems thinking in ways they never thought possible. had not yet considered.”

Although the competition is over, the work of the team is not. They are still planning to refine their research for publication. Looking back on the past year, Thomas said she is grateful for additional encouragement from the Map the System competition to conduct research that has the potential to impact the citizens of our state.

“I would say 100% it was worth it,” she said. “It was 100% worth the time and effort. Not just because of the outcome, but because there are so many other ways to learn outside of your classroom activities and homework and being able to apply it to the real world.

Registration for Map the System opened on November 1 and will close in January. The winning team from the local final will represent UNC-Chapel Hill in the final at Oxford University in June. Innovate Carolina will fund a travel stipend.

A competition briefing will be held January 25 at 4 p.m. at the Graham Memorial

Learn more about registering at

Paul N. Strickland