Grand Challenges Champions: Collaboration Key to Solving Daunting Issues

A passion for connecting people and tackling the world’s wicked problems unites the UC Davis Grand Challenges Champions.

Beth Rose Middleton Manning, Isabel Montañez, Christine Kreuder Johnson, and Justin Siegel spoke about their roles as challenge champions during a UC Davis Plugged In virtual event Sept. 28. Champions are people who have partnered with Grand Challenges to facilitate campus groups pursuing transdisciplinary activities on one of the initiative’s initial focus areas: Climate Solutions, Emerging Health Threats, Sustainable Food Systems, and Reimagining the Land-Grant University.

“I think the opportunity for transdisciplinary engagement, research, communication, teaching, and training has never been better, and that is incredibly exciting to me,” Emerging Health Threats Champion Christine Kreuder Johnson said.

Sustainable Food Systems Champion Justin Siegel highlighted his desire to be involved with the initiative by recalling a conversation he had with Howard-Yana Shapiro, Senior Fellow in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department and Co-Chair of the Grand Challenges Board of Advisors. Shapiro noted that, while Siegel’s prior work on celiac disease was noble and important, the innovations impacted a relatively small percentage of the world population, inspiring Siegel to pursue additional world-changing work.

“Don’t you want to effect 50 or 100 percent of the world? Don’t you really want to do things that touch everybody’s lives,” Siegel recalled Shapiro saying. “And it just sat with me, and I was like, ‘The answer is, yes, I definitely do.’”

The scale of global problems can feel overwhelming at times, but the UC Davis campus community is making great contributions to solving these problems. The goal of the Grand Challenges initiative is to escalate our impacts by harnessing the power of the breadth and depth of expertise on our campus, along with our connected global networks, to make even more significant and immediate improvements in the lives of billions of people.

Climate Crisis Champion Isabel Montañez discussed not being daunted in the face of seemingly immense obstacles when it comes to global problems like climate change.

“It’s the innovative and purposeful research, such as what is being carried out here at UC Davis, that has a very high potential to turn around these impacts of climate change, and in our not-so-distant future,” Montañez said.

Reckoning with how UC Davis was founded, the heinous ramifications for Indigenous peoples, and creating a more just university will be a key component of Reimagining the Land-Grant University, said Champion Beth Rose Middleton Manning, noting the importance of community when it comes to devising real solutions.

“We’re going beyond the land acknowledgment to build relationships, partnerships, collaborations, and projects that are mutually beneficial,” Middleton Manning said. “We’re further realizing the promise of democratizing education by investing in diversity and inclusion.”

How each of the initial focus areas overlap and influence one another was a frequent point of discussion during the virtual event. UC Davis’ unique potential to address such a broad range of intertwined issues was also highlighted.

“We’ve all been saying these are wicked, tricky questions and the problems are deeply interconnected, and there’s not a one-word answer to any of these,” Siegel said.

Vice Provost for Grand Challenges Jonna Mazet, who moderated the panel, discussed the importance of developing comprehensive solutions, as well as including people and disciplines who have not been previously represented.

“We are now intentionally and aggressively accelerating our work on some of the world’s most daunting challenges,” Mazet said. “And, importantly, expanding the role and visibility of voices in the social sciences and arts and other disciplines to help society connect with and implement effective solutions.”

And, all agreed, those solutions have never been more needed than right now.

“This is a defining moment in so many ways and Davis is incredibly well-placed to meet the moment,” Kreuder Johnson added.

Grand Challenges is growing and additional opportunities to be involved are happening soon. To get involved, please contact us at [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter: @GC_UCDavis.