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Grand Challenges Round Two Symposium Showcases Interdisciplinary Research, Offers Forum for Feedback

January 31, 2023

Reframing gender equality as an economic performance multiplier. Studying the science of consciousness and psychedelics. Building climate-resilient cities. Using technology to better assist aging adults. These are a few of the ideas that came out of the Grand Challenges Round Two Research Symposium on Friday, Jan. 27. More than a dozen researchers from across CU Denver’s seven schools and colleges convened in a classroom in the Student Commons to deliver TED-talk style, five-minute pitches on how their research could help solve some of society’s most pressing issues. 

The symposium marks another step toward achieving goal three of CU Denver’s 2030 Strategic Plan, to elevate and invest in collaborative research and become internationally known for research and creative work. Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Chief Research Officer Phillip De Leon, PhD, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities Michael Jenson, PhD, and Director of Strategic Plan Implementation Mitch Morecraft welcomed faculty and shared more about the Grand Challenges process and purpose. This year’s symposium centered on convergence research, which calls for integration across disciplines and focuses on deep scientific questions or pressing societal needs. 

“The research symposium is a great to time to put a pause on our busy lives and hear what our colleagues are working on and creating,” De Leon said. “With a true collaborative ethos, CU Denver will build an enterprise of interdisciplinary teams that are well-funded externally and well-supported internally.”  

The symposium was the second for CU Denver but the first for De Leon, who joined as the AVC in August 2022. “It was right here in Colorado where I learned how to do research,” said De Leon, who received his master’s degree and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the CU Boulder. “I’m really delighted to be back here in Colorado….People in this state had a great impact on my professional career.” 

In last year’s inaugural round of the Research Grand Challenges, seven teams—five of which were revealed at Future Fest—received funding for their projects, which will result in research-focused centers, new campus initiatives, cross-university collaboration, and impact that extends far beyond CU Denver. The central goal of the Grand Challenges is not to support single investigator research projects—which are supported by other university seed grant programs—but to provide resources that can be utilized for the planning and the creation of collaborative research networks with the interdisciplinary expertise and capacity to tackle large-scale societal issues. Campus leaders expect this year’s symposium to be the start of a similar yet more refined process. “This year, we had panelists [at the symposium] to encourage dialogue and feedback,” Jenson said. “I think we are moving into a much more sustainable model.” 

During the three-hour session, each faculty member took five minutes to present their research and ideas for the grand challenge, followed by five minutes for a Q&A with a panel of interdisciplinary representatives from across campus, as well as attendees. In all, researchers presented 14 projects on topics spanning health and wellbeing, climate change and sustainability, and gentrification and urban history. 

Business School Professor Blair Gifford, PhD, showcased a “village-based model to improve income, health, and empowerment” among the poorest communities across the globe. “Today, 1.2 billion people living in 111 developing nations live in acute poverty,” Gifford said. He proposes using the NGO (nongovernmental organization) he leads named “Global Health Connections,” with a team of CU Denver alumni and students, to study the impact of microfinance and health service organizations on holistic health, starting with communities in Kenya.  

Research teams must submit their final proposals by March 17 to be considered for one of two types of awards. Jenson hopes that by following the feedback offered in the symposium, researchers will connect with one another and collaborate on proposals that address large-scale, pressing societal issues. “The Grand Challenges must be highly specific and highly focused,” Jenson said. “These are targeted research efforts.”  

Coming Up 

  • Letter of Intent (LOI) Due Date:  Monday, Feb. 13, 5 p.m. 
  • Full Proposal Due Date: Friday, Mar. 17, 5 p.m.  
  • Announcement of Awards and Negotiation of Terms: Monday, May 15 
  • Anticipated Start Date: Thursday, June 1