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UB invests $25 million to address pressing societal problems

By RACHEL STERN

Published May 28, 2015

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UB faculty in the Communities of Excellence will work together across disciplines to address major issues facing our world.

“What is innovative about this initiative is that it’s brought together faculty from many different schools to develop new research programs, new academic programs and new ways to engage the community.”
Provost Charles F. Zukoski

UB is investing $25 million in an initiative that will harness the strengths of faculty from disciplines across the university to confront grand challenges facing humankind.

The university announced today the establishment of three new Communities of Excellence — an innovative and integrated approach to addressing critical societal challenges through impactful interdisciplinary research, education and engagement.

Through Communities of Excellence, teams of faculty will work together to find solutions, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding. Faculty leaders within communities plan to create new educational opportunities that cut across multiple academic disciplines in order to address the focus area of each community.

The three Communities of Excellence, chosen from nearly 100 initial concept proposals submitted by faculty teams, are:

  • Global Health Equity. This community will work to address the challenge of global health inequity by bringing together faculty and students from the health sciences and disciplines that are focused on the social, economic, political and environmental conditions that lead to inequities. This community will tackle problems ranging from a lack of access to sanitation for women and girls in poor countries to high rates of non-communicable diseases due to complex sets of factors, including tobacco use and the environment.
  • Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART). This community will build upon UB’s reputation as a leader in advanced manufacturing and design by developing the next generation of manufacturing technologies, processes and education that enable sustainable, cost-effective production of high-quality, customizable products. SMART will leverage university and regional strength in manufacturing and partner with regional companies to educate future manufacturing leaders and shape national policy.
  • The Genome, the Environment and the Microbiome (GEM). This community will work to advance understanding of areas that will enable development of personalized medicine and empower individuals to have greater control over and understanding of their health, the human genome and the human microbiome — the trillions of microorganisms living in and on the human body. Through collaboration among the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities, GEM will enhance UB’s reputation in genomics to make UB a national model for promoting and increasing genomic literacy.

The university is investing $25 million over the next five years in these Communities of Excellence and RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water), which was launched last year and was UB’s model for the Communities of Excellence.

More than 300 faculty members from across the university are active participants in the Communities of Excellence; the initiative is expected to involve faculty from all UB schools.

The Communities of Excellence initiative emerged from the UB 2020 plan to advance UB’s academic and research strengths in key areas.

“UB is known for interdisciplinary research and scholarship,” President Satish K. Tripathi says. “Several years ago, we shifted our disciplinary research paradigm to a multidisciplinary research paradigm, and with that the faculty identified the university’s strategic strengths in research, civic engagement and creative activities. The next logical stage, therefore, is for our faculty to work together to find solutions to the most pressing challenges of our world through their research, education and engagement with our local and global communities.”

“UB has chosen to harness the expertise and resources of a major public university to address complex societal challenges,” says Charles Zukoski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “What is innovative about this initiative is that it’s brought together faculty from many different schools to develop new research programs, new academic programs and new ways to engage the community.”

The three new Communities of Excellence were selected after a yearlong proposal process involving recommendations from external and internal expert reviews.

“This is an exciting time for UB,” Zukoski says. “I am proud of the outstanding effort our faculty have devoted to the development of the Communities of Excellence concept through the proposal process. Their leadership and creative engagement have benefitted our entire academic community and will have lasting impact within our university and beyond.”

Final proposals were reviewed by a panel chaired by Venu Govindaraju, interim vice president for research and economic development, and including Carl Lund, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Margarita Dubocovich, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology; Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor of English; Joseph Gardella, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry; A. Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs; and Sean Sullivan, vice provost for academic planning, budget and evaluation.

 

Global Health Equity

Leaders of the Global Health Equity team are, from left, Pavani Ram, Korydon Smith, Li Lin and Samina Raja. Photo: Douglas Levere

The Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity will work to reduce disparities in health around the world, says co-leader Pavani Ram.

“The mission of our community is to reduce the sources and effects of inequity, and promote health and well-being among under-resourced populations,” Ram says.

“Because of the different perspectives and strengths of faculty from all over the university — not only in the health sciences, but also in disciplines not routinely engaged in global health concerns but with the capacity for developing transformative solutions — we will have the ability to influence the influencers, the people who can take our solutions and implement them on the ground.”

The community will address challenges such as access to sanitation for women and girls, exposure to air pollution among neonates, getting essential drugs to low-resource communities and access to sufficient quantities of high-quality food.

“The philosophy that underpins our Community of Excellence is very much about community-based and community-led efforts,” says co-leader Samina Raja. “We really think about what the need is on the ground and focus on developing solutions that make sense in that community.”

Co-leaders of the Global Health Equity Community of Excellence are Li Lin, professor of industrial and systems engineering; Raja, associate professor of urban and regional planning; Ram, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health; and Korydon Smith, associate professor of architecture.

Watch a video about Global Health Equity.

 

Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART)

Team leaders for the SMART team are, from left, Kemper Lewis, Omar Khan, Kenneth English and Michael Silver. Photo: Douglas Levere

The SMART community will develop design, manufacturing and construction systems that bring products to market faster, regardless of their size and complexity, while remaining ecologically and economically sustainable.

“As the United States and Western New York re-embrace manufacturing, our community is given the unique opportunity to develop advanced manufacturing processes and technologies that will enable cost-effective design of highly customizable, high-quality products,” says co-leader Kemper Lewis. “This will allow us to overcome the competitive advantages of low-cost, low-skill labor in other places where they have very marginal regulations on environmental impact and sustainability.”

The SMART team will focus on projects such as development of sustainability metrics and models to reduce waste in consumer products; methods for constructing buildings that last longer and are more sustainable; and development of an advanced humanoid robot design for on-site construction to improve efficiency, accuracy and safety.

“The community works across things as small as medical devices and as large as architectural facades and building construction systems,” says co-leader Omar Khan.

The SMART community co-leaders are Khan, associate professor of architecture; Lewis, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Michael Silver, assistant professor of architecture; and Kenneth English, deputy director of the Center for Engineering Design and Applied Simulation (formerly NYSCEDII).

Watch a video about SMART.

 

The Genome, the Environment and the Microbiome (GEM)

Leaders of the GEM team are, from left, Timothy Murphy, Norma Nowak and Jennifer Surtees. Photo: Douglas Levere

The interplay of the human genome, microbiome — the collection of microorganisms that reside in and on the human body — and the environment affect a person’s risk for certain diseases. Knowledge of these interactions will help us personalize treatment for people who are suffering from chronic and non-chronic diseases.

With this in mind, the GEM community will work to advance the science of genomics and the microbiome, and engage colleagues in the arts, humanities and social sciences to promote an exploration of the ethical, legal and social implications of genome and microbiome research, while also developing new interdisciplinary approaches to educating the public about new discoveries and the field in general.

“The overall goal of GEM is to integrate the science of genomics and microbiomics — to advance those disciplines — and also educating our community on the importance of the sciences because they are literally going to change how medicine is practiced in the next decade,” says co-leader Timothy Murphy.

The key to increasing genomic literacy and engaging and empowering the public, the group says, is through interdisciplinary research and creative activities that involve scholars across the university.

Not only will this technique improve scientific inquiry, but it will also help to maximize the impact of the group’s discoveries, says co-leader Jennifer Surtees.

“We are encouraging collaborations at the interfaces of different types of disciplines,” she says. “We want to try and introduce genomic themes to a broad swath of people in a way that engages them. That is where our collaboration with the arts and the humanities will really come into play. We are trying to form a true community that embraces all of the disciplines represented by the university to advance the science, as well as communicate that science to everybody.”

The GEM community is led by Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine; Norma Nowak, professor of biochemistry and executive director of UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences; and Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry.

Watch a video about GEM.