Research Grand Challenges Revealed at Second Annual Future Fest

Research Grand Challenges Revealed at Second Annual Future Fest

October 18, 2022

Place-based inequities. How democracy relates to misinformation, policing, and disaster response. Cultural wellbeing in the workplace. These are a few of the pressing societal issues being addressed by the round one Research Grand Challenges awardees, as outlined in CU Denver’s strategic goal of becoming internationally known for research and creative activities. At Future Fest on Oct. 13, the CU Denver community heard from five Grand Challenges teams who will receive 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.  

Chancellor Marks kicks off the 2022 Future Fest.

The annual state-of-the-campus-style event drew hundreds of campus community members to the Lola and Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center Courtyard on a sunny fall afternoon for a celebration of CU Denver’s golden anniversary, updates from campus leaders, a panel on the university’s Ninth Street Historic Park revitalization initiative, and TED-Talk style Lynx Lectures. The festive environment featured food trucks, CU Denver swag, activities, and a shared pride of the Lynx community.  

“As our faculty, staff, students, supporters, and community members continue to lift us higher, push us further, and allow us to think and dream big, we will continue to be the changemakers that higher education and the world need,” Chancellor Michelle Marks said to the crowd. Some of those changemakers were featured as this year’s Lynx Lecturers.  

Grand Challenges Awardees Deliver TED-Talk Style Presentations as Lynx Lecturers 

Lynx Lecturers, including some of the round one Grand Challenges awardees.

The Grand Challenges awardees were revealed after a months-long process asking faculty and staff from across campus to bring their ideas and pitches forward; to collaborate across schools, colleges, and departments; and to land on research topics. In a video, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research & Creative Activities Phillip De Leon explained the process and congratulated the round one winners. 

Sarah Buller, Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Future Fest emcee, introduced the following five Grand Challenges teams as Lynx Lecturers. After each presentation, Buller led the crowd in a chant: “We support you.” 

Collaborative for Building Democratic Communities  

Chris Weible

“We are going to be working on and working with faculty to help push forward various initiatives on this campus—democracy related to climate change, democracy related to policing, democracy related to disasters and resilience, democracy related to misinformation….We are working on transforming the educational experience of every student to somehow incorporate aspects of building democratic communities.” —Project Lead Chris Weible, Professor, Public Policy, Democracy, and Environmental Policy, School of Public Affairs 

The Building Democratic Communities (BDC) collaborative facilitates interdisciplinary activities among faculty and students by working with local and global partners to address some of society’s most significant challenges facing democracy. With nearly 40 faculty members across 14 academic units, the collaborative will focus on interdisciplinary research and teaching, serving communities near and far, and engaging students and the public in critical discussions about democracy.  

Collaborative Program for Epigenetics 

Xiaojun Ren

Our center will fuse the multidiscipline of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and computation….We will use stem cells, animal models, and data science to understand brain tumors, mental disorders, and developmental disorders.” —Project Lead Xiaojun Ren, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences  

Ren has broad expertise in chemistry, single-molecule physics, genetics, epigenetics (how behaviors and the environment can affect the way genes work), cancer cell biology, and stem cell biology. Joined by a cohort of faculty from across departments and colleges, his Collaborative Program for Epigenetics aims to tackle some of the most complex problems in the epigenetic field, with the goal of bettering human health.  

Community Collaboration and Research Center 

Jeremy Németh

What is clear from decades of research is that place matters, and when it comes to predicting lifetime earnings, social mobility, physical and mental health, and life expectancy, your zip code is a more powerful predictor than your genetic code.” —Project Lead Jeremy Németh, Professor, Urban and Regional Planning, College of Architecture and Planning 

Németh’s research explores how urban planners, designers, and the general public can help create more socially and environmentally just places. His team of 20 faculty members across 10 departments will use critical research methods and community-based research to address long-standing environmental injustices and support sustainable partnerships with marginalized communities suffering from climate impacts.   

Imaginator Academy 

Theo Edmonds

The average American will spend more of their waking life at work than any other place. But we are not just workers, we are fully formed humans having the experience of work. And we don’t leave who we are behind when coming to work—we bring culture with us.” —Project Lead Theo Edmonds, Directing Co-founder of the Imaginator Academy, Research Associate Professor, Master of Humanities/Master of Social Science Program, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences    

Centered around a radical focus on the science of creativity, belonging and collaboration, CU Denver’s Imaginator Academy has its sights set on becoming an influential culture analytics, strategy, and inclusive innovation hub for the future of work. In the spring of 2023, the Imaginator Academy team will use its breakthrough quantitative data framework to guide creativity and science innovation residencies in some of Colorado’s most well-known companies with one singular goal—for Denver to become America’s talent base camp for companies of Courageous Imagination and for the city to be home to the future of work that works for all. 

Infrastructure Informatics: Predictive, Preventive, and Prescriptive Design, Maintenance and Management of Civil Infrastructures using AI/Data Science 

Farnoush Banaei-Kashani

We intend to unleash the power of AI to predict and optimize performance of bridges in our transportation network; to make our city a giant photovoltaic array while protecting it from the heat island effect; to optimize multi-modal commute and paratransit services; to characterize the interactions between urban infrastructures and the regional environment; and to protect America’s infrastructure from cyberattacks; and many more.” —Farnoush Banaei-Kashani, Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, College of Engineering, Design and Computing   

Farnoush’s lab, the Big Data Management and Mining Lab (BDLab), focuses on Data Science research and applications. The BDLab has introduced numerous novel intelligent data-driven decision-making systems in various areas, such as intelligent transportation, smart infrastructures, health informatics, personalized medicine, and geospatial and urban analytics. His interdisciplinary team of two dozen faculty from five different schools and colleges at CU Denver will work to materialize the impact of AI and data science in effective design, maintenance, and management of civil infrastructures. 

*Grand Challenges descriptions are based off researchers’ self-submitted bios.   

The Lynx Lecturers portion closed with personal stories from two of CU Denver’s community members. Since 2015, Jamie Hodgkins, associate professor of anthropology, has co-led teams of international researchers and students in uncovering 10,000-year-old remains of a two-month-old girl in Europe. Her findings give insight to the humanity of the past and lessons for present and future generations. Darcy Varney Kitching, an adult learner who is working toward her PhD in geography, planning, and design, studies transportation planning to support healthy communities for people of all ages and abilities. Kitching turned 50 years old this year and spoke about her powerful ties to CU Denver, where her mother also went to school. “Who knows, I may never leave,” she said of her journey at the university. 

Dr. Monique Snowden Closes Event with Powerful Speech on CU Denver’s Growth 

Monique Snowden, PhD

Future Fest concluded with Monique Snowden, PhD, Senior Vice Chancellor for Strategic Enrollment and Student Success, who delivered a powerful speech on the university’s commitment to enrollment growth. Her candid remarks addressed the reality of the history of higher education: “The problem is education was not designed for students to succeed,” she said.  

In order to get to CU Denver’s enrollment goal of 25,000 students by 2030, the university must be intentional, make smart choices, and embrace community in all its forms, including the CU Denver community and its history, the communities students come from, and the communities they will join after graduation.  

Growth is not CU Denver’s goal, Snowden said, but rather the outcome of making education work for all. “When we say we want to grow to be 25,000, what we’re saying is that we want to open up access and close gaps—that is the attainment gap, the unmet need gaps, all the gaps that keep students from getting where they need to be,” Snowden said. “We want to activate and advance equity, and we want to redress the history of higher education.” 

A video recording of the event will be available soon.