11 projects funded through Grand Challenges competition

Grand Challenges

Ashley Washburn, August 28, 2023

11 projects funded through Grand Challenges competition

High-impact research projects that will use quantum approaches to address climate resilience and sustainable energy; scale up educational programs for at-risk children in Nebraska and support the early childhood workforce; and make food plastics safer for consumers have been funded through the second Grand Challenges Catalyst Competition.

Chancellor Rodney Bennett and Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development, announced 11 new Grand Challenges projects Aug. 28. Projects include three catalyst awards and eight planning grants, for an investment of $10 million in the program’s second year. A total of $20 million has been granted so far through the four-year, $40 million initiative, a commitment by the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of Research and Economic Development to strategically invest funds earmarked for research.

“The Grand Challenges are an opportunity to elevate high-priority research areas for the benefit of society and especially our communities, which is our responsibility as a land-grant institution,” Bennett said. “I commend the faculty for their ingenuity and ambitious ideas. Addressing today’s complex issues requires a willingness to try new approaches, consider multiple perspectives and work across disciplines.”

Teams earning catalyst awards are led by Christian Binek, Charles Bessey Professor of physics and director of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, and Susan Hermiller, Willa Cather Professor of mathematics; Lisa Knoche, co-director of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools and research associate professor; and Yusong Li, associate dean for faculty and inclusion in the College of Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The full list of funded projects and teams is available on the Grand Challenges website.

Catalyst awards

Quantum Approaches Addressing Global Threats

The world is facing daunting changes in the coming decades – and quantum science and engineering can offer solutions for helping humans adapt. Physicist Christian Binek and mathematician Susan Hermiller will lead a highly interdisciplinary team of 22 faculty that will leverage the rapidly growing field to address major global threats. The team has four focus areas: solutions to address the growing energy needs for communication and information processing; sustainable agriculture; achieving climate resilience; and quantum literacy and workforce development.

The project builds on Nebraska’s internationally recognized discoveries in materials, nanoscience, and emergent quantum materials and technologies. While the basis of the project is using quantum science to model, plan, predict and engineer solutions to solve global problems, the team is incorporating diverse perspectives and unconventional problem-solving strategies to fully understand the challenges and opportunities. Faculty experts from mathematics, physics and astronomy, public relations, mechanical and materials engineering, electrical and computer engineering, computer science, chemistry, emerging media arts and music have been fully integrated into the project, which received a five-year, $4.17 million award from the Grand Challenges initiative.

Inspiring Outcomes for Children through Equitable Early Childhood Education Experiences (E4)
Nearly 28 million children in the U.S. experience major childhood adversity. Events such as neglect, parental substance abuse, mental illness, racism and bias introduce significant stress to children’s developing brains, putting them at risk for academic difficulties and health and behavioral issues – all of which have consequences into adulthood.

Lisa Knoche will lead a large-scale program to deliver proven, evidence-based interventions in early childhood settings using a multi-pronged approach. The interventions aim to boost children’s social and emotional skills, which offer protective factors that improve resilience and reduce the risk of future problems. The team also will promote skills in family engagement and deliver mental wellness programs with the goal of preparing educators to address at-risk children’s needs while reducing professional burnout. The project also supports development of an innovative, equitable method for measuring children’s social-emotional skills. The project team includes 19 faculty, plus university, state and community partners. Several Nebraska communities will be involved in this program. A five-year, $3.44 million Grand Challenges initiative award supports the project.

Release of Micro- and Nanoplastics from Plastic Food Containers–Characterization, Risk Assessment, Socioeconomic and Health Impacts

Research shows that plastic food containers used for food preparation, storage and handling can leak micro- and nanoplastics directly into food – with potentially harmful health effects, especially for children and vulnerable populations. Husker engineer Yusong Li leads a team that will establish an interdisciplinary center for conducting cutting-edge scientific research on which plastics and use conditions are most likely to release toxic micro- and nanoparticles. Findings will help develop practical solutions for manufacturers and consumers and promote informed decision making.

The aim is to produce evidence-based research that leads to healthier, more sustainable plastic food containers, plus recommendations for safe use of plastics. In addition to Li, the project involves six Nebraska faculty members, a University of Nebraska Medical Center collaborator and a three-member advisory panel. Efforts are funded with a three-year, $1.36 million award from the Grand Challenges initiative.

Catalyst award projects are bold and catalytic, representing significant new research, scholarly and creative activity that have potential to solve grand challenges critical to Nebraska and the world. A two-step external peer review process informed catalyst award project selection.

Planning Grant awards

  • Mohammad Ghashami, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, “Quantum Solutions for Energy Challenges: A Collaborative Leap towards Sustainability.”
  • Mohammad Hasan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, “Building Community Connections for Improved Climate Resilience and Food Security: A Tribal Non-Tribal Partnership Investigating the Role of Artificial Intelligence in Affecting Behavior Change.”
  • Michelle Hughes, professor of special education and communication disorders, “Improving Healthcare Access for Underserved Populations.”
  • Clint Rowe, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences, “Community Climate Resilience on the Great Plains.”
  • Julie Tippens, associate professor of child, youth and family studies, “Developing an Interdisciplinary Global Forced Migration and Health Collaborative.”
  • Ashley Votruba, assistant professor of psychology, “Equitable Access to Civil Justice: Uniting an Interdisciplinary Team to Develop an Open-Access Knowledge Hub.”
  • Bryan Wang, associate professor of advertising, “Media and Information Literacy (MIL) in the Age of Algorithms.”
  • Qiuming Yao, assistant professor of computing, “TrustGenViz: An Initiative to Advance Trust and Visualization for Generative Language Models of Biological Sequences.”

Planning grants were selected through an internal review process. Review panels were composed of volunteers that included current and emeriti faculty and staff.

“I’m especially excited about this group of funded projects because they represent many of our university’s research strengths. I believe the Grand Challenges have inspired the faculty to make new connections and see their work differently, ensuring that Nebraska research is used to benefit the state, nation and world in meaningful ways,” said Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development.

The Grand Challenges initiative aligns with the university’s N2025 aim to increase the impact of research and creative activity and to foster interdisciplinary endeavors. A request for proposals for the 2024 Grand Challenges grant cycle will be released Oct. 1. Details will be announced on the Grand Challenges website.

Grand Challenges