August 09, 2018

Aug. 22 Grand Challenge workshop will set parameters for new university initiative

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What are the biggest problems that define us as Alabamians, Americans and world citizens? The challenges that — if they are solved — will transform lives and resolve some of the hardest questions in our natural- and human-made world?

The University of Alabama at Birmingham launched the new Grand Challenge initiative earlier this year, seeking the most ambitious multidisciplinary research projects and student-participation innovation efforts to solve our most perilous trials. More than 75 ideas were submitted to Grand Challenge program manager Lee Moradi, Ph.D., and UAB Vice President for Research Chris Brown, Ph.D., by May 1. Now, the concept paper authors and others will gather for a two-day workshop on Aug. 22-23 at The Club to refine their ideas before submitting planning grant proposals later in the fall.

lee moradi 2018Lee Moradi, Ph.D.Concept paper authors and teams, community members, and other UAB faculty, staff, students and administrators are encouraged to attend the workshop. There is no cost to attend, but space is limited so registration is required

“UAB decided to embark upon a Grand Challenge initiative as a university to rally our research communities to contribute to solve a major societal challenge, attract new investment and resources, and demonstrate the value of university research,” said Brown. “A Grand Challenge is large in scope, results from complex causes and its solution requires a convergent combination of innovative approaches, technologies, and policies.”

“The projects that teams undertake should have the potential to achieve ambitious goals, capture the public’s imagination, increase support for policies and investments that foster innovation, and serve as compelling ‘moon shots’ — if you will — for cross sector and multi-disciplinary collaboration,” Moradi added.

The new Grand Challenge initiative arises from Forging the Future, the UAB Strategic Plan announced in November 2017. The nature of a Grand Challenge is a problem that, when solved, will positively impact a great number of people and society in general.

The UAB Grand Challenge will be selected in a competition open to the entire university. Planning proposal are due in the fall and full proposals in January 2019. A final decision and announcement of the inaugural UAB Grand Challenge will be made by late Spring  2019.

Grand Challenge concepts are taking hold at institutions across the country, with nearly 20 North American universities engaging in similar programs. The National Academy of Engineering has laid out 14 grand challenges for the profession in the 21st century, including preventing nuclear terror. At UCLA, faculty, staff and students are developing technologies, strategies and policies to make Los Angeles County 100 percent sustainable by 2050. A grand challenge at UAB might aim to make Birmingham the healthiest city in America, or tackle the complex of problems surrounding an aging society. But these are only examples, Brown is quick to note.

“We’re looking for a problem that unites UAB expertise — including research, scholarship, teaching, commercialization, patient care and community service — around a large-scale issue,” Brown said. “It must be something that can be uniquely addressed by UAB, with stakeholders involved in the implementation from in and outside UAB, and a commitment to success at all levels.”

Chris Brown 2018Chris Brown, Ph.D.The Grand Challenge is not intended to replace or hinder individual or departmental activities, Brown notes. Instead, it offers a framework to help those activities expand, with substantial support provided by the UAB Strategic Investment Fund for three to five years; the expectation is that external support will provide long-term sustainability for the project.

Finding solutions

Moradi is the UAB Grand Challenge project manager, meaning he will work with Brown to oversee the selection process and implementation of the idea selected as the UAB Grand Challenge winner. A UAB graduate — he earned his doctorate in civil engineering in 2007 — Moradi says UAB is just the place to bring something large-scale like a Grand Challenge idea to life.

“Humanity faces many overwhelming challenges. Health disparities, global warming, lack of food and nutrition, crime, war and a host of other problems inflict countries and communities,” Moradi said. “The Grand Challenge provides the means for the best minds in research institutions and related companies to investigate and find solutions to these problems. UAB is one of the finest institutions in the nation. The Grand Challenge shows that UAB is poised to make a difference and that UAB takes its vision and mission very seriously. It shows that UAB cares.”

The Grand Challenge enables UAB to show the world all of which it is capable, and Moradi said it also will give campus units the chance to collaborate and provide opportunities to student researchers and others.

“A Grand Challenge has multidimensional benefits,” he said. “It creates convergence between schools within an institution, creates new multi-disciplinary research opportunities, involves students at all levels in research, increases publications and improves life for the local community, city, state, country and world.

“The Grand Challenge will enable UAB to grow, and it will create an eco-system for spinoff companies, ultimately helping the economy. The project forges the future and significantly benefits humanity as a whole.”

Learn more about the Grand Challenge, including an overview presentation, at uab.edu/plan/grand-challenge.