Five Teams Selected in Round 2 of the Research Grand Challenges Initiative

Funding will help fuel the development of technology for the aging and disabled, work to defend democracies, and new ways to generate forests consumed by wildfires, among other solutions

June 26, 2023

As part of CU Denver’s goal to become internationally known for research and creative activities, five teams were recently awarded $800,000 as part of the university’s Research Grand Challenges initiative. 

The program was established in 2021 to identify areas of research that set CU Denver apart, to help guide investment in collaborative research, and to attain national and international prominence as outlined in the 2030 Strategic Plan

The program was designed to help bring together researchers from across disciplines who together will solve some of the most complex problems facing our local and global communities. A committee of outside experts reviewed researchers’ proposals—a method that is similar to the way proposals are reviewed at the National Science Foundation—and final decisions were made by an internal group composed of deans and research administrators. Two kinds of awards were made this year: development and planning. Development awards were aimed at advancing research with larger teams, scaling collaborations, and developing large grant proposals. Planning awards were focused on providing teams initial funds to organize, plan research, and begin proposal development efforts. 

During Round 1 of the initiative, 10 teams submitted proposals, and seven were selected in 2022. Those teams, which represent almost 100 faculty members’ expertise, have been organizing and planning research, collaborating on new ideas for research, and developing grant proposals. This year, as part of Round 2 of the initiative, five teams were awarded. Three teams that received planning grants last year were selected for full development awards. Two new teams will launch their work later this summer. 

The projects address many challenges, from developing technology to helping people as they age and lose mobility to testing biodegradable pods that will stimulate the growth of forests that have been decimated by wildfires.  

“Many excellent proposals were submitted, and we were thrilled to see so many researchers involved,” said Phillip De Leon, associate vice chancellor for research and chief research officer. “The type of work our faculty are pioneering holds much promise. We are happy to see increased participation and more proposals than were submitted for Round 1 of the Grand Challenges initiative.” 

Below is information about the awardees from their proposals. 

Development Awards (up to $200,000) 

Cathy Bodine

Title: Advancing Research and Innovation for Aging and Disability (ARIAD) 
Lead: Cathy Bodine, Associate Professor, College of Engineering, Design, and Computing | Department of Bioengineering, Executive Director of Technology Partners based at CU Anschutz  
Team members: Farnoush Banaei-Kashani, Ashis Biswas, Mazen Al Borno 
Click here for a complete list 
Description: Develop a collaborative network of academic experts, community stakeholders, and local, national, and international industry advisors to explore, develop, and deploy safe, productive, and efficient technologies that support the needs of those living with, or aging with, disabilities. 

Xiaojun Ren

Title: Engineering Better Medicine by Disruptive Technologies and Conceptual Revolution; a Collaborative Program for Epigenetics 
Lead: Xiaojun Ren, Associate Chemistry Professor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences | Department of Chemistry 
Team members: Masoud Asadi-Zeydabadi, Farnoush Banaei-kashani, Benjamin Greenwood
Click here for a complete list 
Description: Establish a Center for Applied Genome and Epigenome Science (AGES). Identified several collaborative projects (neuroepigenetics, cancer epigenetics, metabolic epigenetics, architectural epigenetics, signaling epigenetics, adaptive epigenetics, and developmental epigenetics) that integrate molecular methods and computational data and generate the preliminary data necessary for external funding proposals. Seek out publication in journals based on preliminary data to help secure more federal funding. This is the second time this team has been awarded Grand Challenges funding.   

The sequencing of the human genome in 2003 was a significant milestone in our understanding of human inheritance and genetic diseases. However, in the 20 years since then, research shows that many aspects of human health and disease are not directly controlled by the DNA sequence in the human genome, but instead via epigenetic control mechanisms…. Unlike genetic mutations, epigenetic modifications are reversible and can be targeted with specificity. As such, it is possible to use them as prognostic and diagnostic markers and to utilize them as targets for therapy.

Associate Chemistry Professor Xiaojun Ren, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Christopher Weible

Title: Building Democratic Communities (BDC) Collaborative  
Lead: Christopher Weible, Professor, School of Public Affairs | Center for Policy and Democracy 
Team members: Chris Agree, Masoud Asadi-Zeydabadi, Hamilton Bean, Jody Beck, Michael Berry 
Click here for the full list  
Description: Round 2 funding will support ongoing development and submission of proposals to external funders, writing and submitting interdisciplinary publications, making large-scale asks for donor gifts, and generating a greater sense of belonging among people working at CU Denver. This is the second time this team has been awarded Grand Challenges funding.   

Given the ongoing challenges facing our democracy, it is imperative for CU Denver to play a role in helping improve how we as a society govern, respond to problems, and resolve our conflicts.

– Professor Christopher Weible, School of Public Affairs 

Planning Awards (up to $100,000) 

Traci Sitzmann

Title: Equality as an Economic Performance Multiplier 
Lead: Traci Sitzmann, Professor, Business School | Department of Management 
Team members: Beth Ahmad, Laura Argys, Cindy Baroway, Gisella Bassani, Ersin Dincelli, Shane Hoon, and Kelly See 
Description: The data-driven approach of this project quantifies the effects of wage and demographic equality on labor productivity to provide empirical support for the positive effects of equality on employers’ bottom line. The group seeks to show that equity is an employer issue that impacts the bottom line and not just a challenge or area of concern for underrepresented groups. 

I was inspired to get involved with research in DEI when I realized that, despite the growing literature on DEI and inclusive management practices, progress is slow or nonexistent….I seek to conduct meaningful research with real-world implications to close the scientist-practitioner divide and improve working conditions for underrepresented and marginalized workers.

—Professor of Management Traci Sitzmann, Business School 

Marc Swackhamer

Title: Biodegradable Landscape Infrastructure Pods (BLIP) 
Lead: Marc Swackhamer, Chair and Professor, College of Architecture and Planning | Department of Architecture 
Team Members: Sara Branco, Brian Buma, and Assia Crawford   
Description: Aims to increase the success rate of forest regeneration and improve soil stability on burn scar sites by developing 3-D printed biodegradable pods that act like dead trees and distribute resources to new tree saplings. The pods decay over time to nurse sapling trees through the first few critical years of life. 

We’ve been interested, for some time, in what biology can teach us about architecture. Architects traditionally design buildings to stand up forever, when in reality, that approach is rarely warranted. So, learning from biology, we grew interested in construction systems that might purposefully decay over time, and in doing so, serve as the nutrition for the growth of renewable materials that can then be applied to the construction of new buildings. BLIP starts from this premise, that we might incorporate our disciplinary expertise in architecture to produce a human-made construct that is temporary and that facilitates the successful growth of a natural resource in an unhospitable environment.

Professor of Architecture and Planning Marc Swackhamer