UNC Map the System Winner Finals

Mapping social impact solutions


Student team wins UNC Map the System competition by investigating disparities in tobacco control and health outcomes, advances to international final hosted by Oxford University

Story by Shellie Edge

Why Innovators Care

Systems mappng is a tool problem solvers use to find out how problems can be solved by understanding knowledge gaps, points where interventions can be made and insights gained by look at a problem systemically. 


Participating universities


Student teams at Carolina registered to participate


UNC finalists teams of student innovators

While smoking in the United States is declining overall, stark disparities still exist across segments of the population. Many subgroups, including low-income and racial/ethnic minority populations, continue to shoulder most of the disease burden. That nuance might not be apparent for the average person, but it became clear for a team of students at UNC-Chapel Hill who recently won a social innovation competition by exploring ethnic and socioeconomic health disparities in smoking – and what it may take to address the root causes.


The team of graduate students is from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health who won UNC-Chapel Hill’s first Map the System Competition, which held its campus finale in early May. A global competition organized by Oxford University’s Said Business School, Map the System challenges students to use systems thinking to understand complex social or environmental challenges. More than 40 student teams at Carolina registered to participate this semester, and five finalist teams were selected to present in the final round of competition. The public health team’s project – called “Using Systems Science to Advance Health Equity in Tobacco Control” – took the top spot among an impressive set of finalists that explored a wide range of issues: hog farming, food insecurity, colorectal cancer and the effect of sand extraction on marine ecosystems.  


The team will move on to compete in the virtual global event hosted by Oxford University in early June, when one team from each of the nearly 50 participating institutions from around the world will see whose idea comes out on top. For the top three teams, cash prizes are up for grabs. The first place winner will take home £4,000, which is just shy of $5,000 in U.S. currency.


“What’s special about the Map the System Competition is that it focuses on learning first, so that people get the chance to understand and build upon existing efforts before starting something new,” says Melissa Carrier, director of the UNC Office of Social Innovation who worked to bring the competition to the University for the first time. “Each of our five final UNC teams did an outstanding job using a mapping approach to investigate problems that matter to them – and bringing to the surface insights that can help spark positive systemic changes in public health, the environment and other areas of social concern.”

Presented by the UNC Office of Social Innovation and Carolina Honors, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Map the System campus competition is open to all Carolina students and asks participants to create systems maps. The maps give students tools for exploring complex problems, uncovering knowledge gaps, identifying intervention points and presenting insights that can shape systemic environmental and social impact. In addition, teams in the competition must be comprised of at least one student or recent graduate and have a maximum of five active team members. 


“By integrating an equity prioritization lens with systems science, this competition provided the opportunity to apply two skills that I learned during my graduate program and hope to bring with me into my public health career,” says Paige Logan, a public health graduate student who worked as part of the health equity and tobacco control team. “It also demonstrates the considerations and implications that academics and practitioners need to discuss and work on together in order to promote systems change.”

Logan’s team discovered that prior conceptual models of smoking that offer high-risk and population-level approaches to tobacco control don’t address root causes of disparate smoking rates and the resulting inequitable health outcomes. The team jumped on the opportunity to address this gap by developing an updated conceptual model for priority populations that takes the root causes into account.


Members of the “Using Systems Science to Advance Health Equity in Tobacco Control” team include Logan, Meghan O’Leary, Shelley Golden, Kristen Hassmiller Lich and Sarah Mills. The team is comprised of three faculty members at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, along with two graduate students.


“Through this competition, our team had a space to apply systems science methods, such as causal loop diagramming, to the tobacco control field,” says O’Leary, a recently graduated third-year doctoral student in the school’s health policy and management department. “By developing a model of tobacco use that reflects a systems perspective, our work can help to design policies and interventions focused on ensuring equitable outcomes.”

“By integrating an equity prioritization lens with systems science, this competition provided the opportunity to apply two skills that I learned during my graduate program and hope to bring with me into my public health career,”

Paige Logan

Environmental and public health effects of hog farms

Coming in as a very close runner-up in the competition was the team called “Gone Hog Wild: Examining the Effects of the Hog Industry on NC Communities.” This undergraduate student team presented its system map on the complexities of North Carolina’s hog industry and the impact hog farms have on local communities. The team explored environmental and public health effects, social inequity and policy pitfalls.

“The Map the System competition allowed us to gain experience with systems mapping in the context of an issue we all care about, something that you probably wouldn’t be able to do in a class,” says Cynthia Dong, who is majoring in computer science and minoring in chemistry. “It also taught us more about how many different factors affect the hog industry, and more broadly, how issues can’t be studied from a polarized or isolated viewpoint.”

As the team investigated the interactions between the hog industry, the environment and the communities involved, a complex system emerged – one that includes everything from the South’s long history with race to emerging diseases to international conglomerates.

“This competition emphasized intersectionality in a way that is rarely found in traditional case competitions. None of the issues any of the teams discussed could be effectively tackled or viewed through tunnel vision, and this competition encouraged people of different majors, backgrounds, and passions to raise as many perspectives as possible, rather than just unifying behind one,” says team member Austin Snyder, who is majoring in environmental science, computer science and physics.


Along with Dong and Snyder, team member Ideliya Khismatova, an environmental science statistics and analytics major, valued the chance to hone problem-solving skills.

“System mapping really shows how a topic can have so many parts that interact with it, and shows how one problem can have many underlying concepts that prevent one simple solution from being the answer. I was able to develop my critical thinking skills and discovered the abundance of factors that affect the hog industry in NC,” says Khismatova. “We hope to educate a bigger audience on North Carolina’s hog industry to spread the word about the numerous effects it has on so many people.”


“The Map the System competition allowed us to gain experience with systems mapping in the context of an issue we all care about, something that you probably wouldn't be able to do in a class,”

Cynthia Dong

Other top finalist teams in the competition included:

Colorectal Cancer Mortality in the United States
. Personally motivated by the untimely death of Travis Johnson, an associate professor within the Gillings School of Global Public Health who died earlier this year at age 43 from colon cancer, this team hopes to help reduce premature, preventable cancer deaths. It wants to make an impact on a regional, national and global stage. Comprised completely of undergraduate public health students, the team includes Andrew Se (health policy and management) Arya Pontula (biostatistics and biomedical engineering), and Tori McFarlane (nutrition).

Systems Analysis of Food Insecurity in Greensboro, NC.
After learning Greensboro has been ranked as the least food secure region in the nation, this team researched and examined the problem of food insecurity in the area as well as existing and potential solutions. The team includes Andrew Bradford, a master’s in public health graduate from UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and Jake Neal, master’s in public health graduate from UNC Greensboro.

Turbid Waters: The Clear and Opaque of Sand Mining in South East Asia.
With sand being the second most extracted resource on Earth after water, this team examined the increasing demand for sand and how that demand affects marine ecosystems. The team includes UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates Maria Silva, who is majoring in economics and business administration; and Wali Khan, a political science and computer science major. Two students at Jacobs University in Germany and a student at Universidad de Lima in Peru also joined the team.

Beyond the final teams’ virtual presentations, they were evaluated on the application of a systems thinking approach, understanding the challenge and solutions landscape, identifying gaps and levers of change, and providing key insights and lessons learned.

Judges for the competition included:

Jes Averhart, entrepreneur and creator of the Reinvention Roadmap

Ted Zoller, T.W. Lewis Clinical Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School

Chris Hoover, partner in Ernst and Young’s financial services organization and its U.S. agile transformation lead

Lindsey Lassiter, manager of customer experience and innovation at the Redwoods Group

Leah Frerichs, assistant professor in the health policy and management department at the Gillings School of Global Public Health

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