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$30M in Grand Challenges Grants Awarded

Funded Projects Pursue Global Good, Targeting Climate, Racial Justice, Energy and More

By Chris Carroll

collage of green plant, the Earth, and a hand writing the alphabet

A unprecedented UMD grants program aims to tackle society’s most pressing problems with $30 million to support research into topics including pandemics, racism, threats to democracy and literacy deficits.

Photos by iStock and NASA

Surging temperatures and rising seas. Droughts, famines and poverty. Intractable social inequities.

The world’s toughest problems can drive us to despair—or they can spur people and institutions to redefine themselves, strive for solutions and rise to the grand challenges of our time.

That outlook of hope, girded by a belief in the power of science and scholarship, is behind an unprecedented $30 million investment the University of Maryland is making to fund research in 50 projects spanning every college and school and a host of disciplines.

The university today announced the award recipients in the Grand Challenges Grants program, led by three projects that will each receive $3 million Institutional Grants over three years to increase literacy, explore the nexus of food, water and energy systems, and protect Marylanders from the effects of climate change.

“Since day one of my presidency, I have charged our campus to tackle the grand challenges of our time by taking advantage of the brilliant work being done by our faculty and researchers across disciplines,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “This historic investment gives Terrapins great hope and inspiration that while the challenges we face are grand, they are not impossible.”

In addition, the six Impact Award winners—other finalists in the institutional category—were each awarded up to $500,000 over two years; and 16 Team Project Grants and 25 Individual Project Grants winners will receive three-year totals of $1.5 million and $150,000, respectively.

The UMD faculty energetically answered the call for proposals; about 135 poured in from across campus, said Vice President for Research Gregory F. Ball.

“Our expectations for project proposals were dramatically exceeded by the submissions coming in from all across campus—including some with partners beyond UMD,” he said. “In total, they cover a kaleidoscopic array of pressing topics and societal priorities, and we can’t wait to see what our world-class researchers accomplish in the months and years ahead.”

The full list of funded projects spans subjects as diverse as preparing for future pandemics, fighting racism, developing human-centered artificial intelligence, better understanding the processes of our body’s microbial communities and strengthening democracy.

Institutional Grants in particular, which require cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional work, have the potential to spark profound changes on campus and beyond, said Senior Vice President and Provost Jennifer King Rice.

“A fundamental goal of this grants program is to promote interdisciplinary work that addresses the complex problems facing humanity,” she said. “This collaborative approach allows us to realize novel insights and never-before-explored connections, which supports our overarching goal of creating meaningful solutions that advance the public good for our state and around the globe.”

Keep scrolling below the video for information on the Grand Challenges projects. 


Addressing Climate Change for a Sustainable Earth
Led by Ellen Williams, Distinguished University Professor of physics and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, the initiative brings together leaders from departments around campus focused on Earth system science. This discipline encompasses all the connections of climate change—from how the oceans store carbon to atmospheric reactions near the boundary of outer space to human impacts on ecosystems. The project is designed as a step toward the creation of a new school for translating Earth science and climate science research into action for the region, nation and world.

“We want to build a transdisciplinary collaborative bigger than the sum of its parts so we can most effectively address challenges posed by climate change—starting in the state of Maryland,” said team member Professor Tatiana Loboda, chair of Geographical Sciences.

State-level activities will include assistance to farmers with climate-related crop management, work to warn state residents of oncoming extreme weather, and air- and water-quality assessments, she said. The initiative also will prioritize students’ experiential learning, with mentors from related UMD departments guiding them in internships to address aspects of climate change in the state.

Initial partners include NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Maryland State Climatologist’s Office, and the team plans to expand the scope of research nationally and around the world in coming years.

Other team members: Timothy Canty, associate professor, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and director, Marine Estuarine Environmental Sciences; James Farquhar, Distinguished University Professor and chair, Geology; Sumant Nigam, chair, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and director of Maryland Mesonet.

Global FEWture Alliance: Food-Energy-Water Solutions for a Changing Climate
Worldwide, 1.3 billion people are food-insecure, 770 million lack adequate access to energy sources, and 2 billion lack access to safe drinking water. Climate change magnifies these challenges, and communities of color often bear the heaviest burdens. The Global FEWture Alliance, led by Amy Sapkota—MPower Professor of environmental health in the School of Public Health, and director of the CONSERVE Center of Excellence—acknowledges that our vital resources of food, energy and water are inextricably linked.

“When each of these systems are managed in isolation, it can unintentionally lead to the collapse of the others,” she said. Huge power subsidies in Gujarat, India, for instance, led to the extensive use of electricity to pump groundwater, resulting in a bonanza of irrigated food crops—until aquifers ran dry.

“Instead of addressing food, energy or water challenges individually, we must work across disciplines to develop holistic technology-based and policy solutions that focus on all three areas of what we call the ‘food-energy-water nexus,’” Sapkota said.

In addition to developing these solutions both in Maryland and with partners in Israel, Nepal and Tanzania, the Global FEWture Alliance will focus on capacity-building and experiential education, Sapkota said. This involves collaborating with universities, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, helping to ensure that solutions are sustainable and create positive, long-term impacts on the environment and global public health. 

Team: Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein, assistant professor, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH); Rianna Murray, assistant research professor and graduate director, MIAEH; Amir Sapkota, chair, Epidemiology and Biostatistics; Leena Malayil, assistant research professor, MIAEH; Dina Borzekowski, research professor, Behavioral and Community Health and director, Global Health Initiative; Shirley Micallef, associate professor, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture and Center for Food Safety and Security Systems; Stephanie Lansing, professor, Environmental Science and Technology; Gili Marbach-Ad, director, CMNS Teaching and Learning Center, research professor; Xin-Zhong Liang, professor, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science; Jennifer Cotting, director, Environmental Finance Center; Allen Davis, professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

International partners: Tomer Malchi, executive director and co-founder, CultivAid, Israel; Yael Mishael, associate professor and director, Center for Sustainability, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Clive Lipchin, director, Center for Transboundary Water Management, Arava Institute, Israel; Biraj Karmacharya, director, Public Health/Community Programs/Global Engagement, Kathmandu University, Dhulikhel Hospital, Nepal; Shree Krishna Dhital, executive director, Sanskriti Farms and Research Center, Israel; Thurka Sangaramoorthy, professor, American University and Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

Maryland Initiative for Literacy and Equity (MILE)
The COVID- 19 pandemic produced the greatest decrease in literacy scores in more than 30 years. But for adults and children living in marginalized communities, “access to literacy achievement is not something that was ‘lost’—full literacy it has always come with barriers,” said Donald “DJ” Bolger, associate professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, and leader of the MILE initiative to strongly boost U.S. literacy. “Illiteracy in adulthood impacts one’s health and life expectancy, a person’s likelihood of being unemployed, living in poverty and participation in their community—even access to voting.”

The project aims to close opportunity gaps that have contributed to longstanding societal inequities even as they threaten to create new ones. Literacy is an unequally allocated resource, Bolger said, and the need to transform literacy is particularly apparent in Maryland. The state once boasted strong reading scores, but has now been surpassed by states including Mississippi, which struggled in last place nationally until it made a concerted literacy push in recent years.

One of the initiative’s bedrock goals is to better connect literacy research to U.S. teacher preparation and professional development. This means sharing evidence-based best practices in libraries and community organizations and with policymakers, allowing those practices to reach students and families, Bolger said. Team members of MILE are also determined to bring together educators, speech pathologists, linguists and librarians with policymakers to change how literacy studies are envisioned and conducted to reap more relevant knowledge from beyond affluent neighborhoods where they typically happen. The socioeconomically narrow focus leaves out people and groups—multilingual learners, underserved communities of color—who stand to benefit the most from the research, he said,

“Our work in MILE is about acknowledging the value of literacy as a lifelong tool for membership and participation in society, and about building access to this vital resource, so that every person can have the opportunity to thrive,” he said. “It is truly the grand challenge of our time, and one MILE will work to address.”

Team: Simone Gibson, associate professor, School of Education and Urban Studies, Morgan State University; Colin Phillips, professor, Linguistics, Language Science Center director and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher; Juan Uriagereka, professor, Linguistics and director, School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; Jade Wexler, associate professor, Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education; Ebony Terrell Shockley, associate clinical professor, executive director of educator preparation; Rochelle Newman, chair, Hearing and Speech Sciences; Jennifer Turner, associate professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; José Ortiz, clinical assistant professor, Hearing and Speech Sciences; Maggie Peterson, assistant clinical professor and director of the University of Maryland Writing Project, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; Elizabeth Bonsignore, assistant research scientist, College of Information Studies; Kira Gor, professor, School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures; Jennifer Littlefield, lecturer, director of undergraduate studies, School of Public Policy; Shanna Pearson, professor and associate dean of faculty affairs, School of Public Policy; Brandi Slaughter, associate clinical professor, School of Public Policy; Melinda Martin-Beltran, associate professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; Rachel Romeo, assistant professor, Human Development and Quantitative Methodology; Drew Fagan, associate clinical professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; Ayanna Baccus, associate clinical professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; Nan Bernstein Ratner, professor, Hearing and Speech Sciences and director of Graduate Studies, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Program; Christy Tirrell-Corbin, clinical professor, Human Development and Quantitative Methodology; Susan De La Paz, professor, Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education; Jason Chow, associate professor, Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education; Jeff MacSwan, professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership; Kellie Rolstad, associate professor, Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership



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