$30M in Grand Challenges Grants Awarded

Unprecedented UMD Research Program Targets Climate, Racial Justice, Energy and More

Surging temperatures and rising seas. Droughts, famines and poverty. Intractable social inequities.

The world’s toughest problems can prompt despair—or spur people and institutions to redefine themselves, strive for solutions and rise to the grand challenges of our time.

That outlook of hope, girded by a belief in the power of science and scholarship, is behind an unprecedented $30 million investment the University of Maryland made earlier this year in 50 research projects spanning every college and school and a host of disciplines.

The university’s Grand Challenges Grants program is led by three projects that will each receive $3 million Institutional Grants over three years to increase literacy, explore the nexus of food, water and energy systems, and protect Marylanders from the effects of climate change.

“Since day one of my presidency, I have charged our campus to tackle the grand challenges of our time by taking advantage of the brilliant work being done by our faculty and researchers across disciplines,” says UMD President Darryll J. Pines.

In addition, six Impact Award winners—other finalists in the institutional category—were each awarded up to $500,000 over two years; and 16 Team Project Grants and 25 Individual Project Grants winners will receive three-year totals of $1.5 million and $150,000, respectively.

The UMD faculty energetically answered the call for proposals; about 135 poured in from across campus, says Vice President for Research Gregory F. Ball.

“In total, they cover a kaleidoscopic array of pressing topics and societal priorities, and we can’t wait to see what our world-class researchers accomplish in the months and years ahead,” he says.

The full list of funded projects spans subjects as diverse as preparing for future pandemics, fighting racism, developing human-centered artificial intelligence, better understanding the processes of our body’s microbial communities and strengthening democracy.

Institutional Grants in particular, which require cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional work, have the potential to spark profound changes, says Senior Vice President and Provost Jennifer King Rice.

“This collaborative approach allows us to realize novel insights and never-before-explored connections, which supports our overarching goal of creating meaningful solutions that advance the public good for our state and around the globe,” she says.

The researchers leading the Institutional Grants explain the soaring ambitions of their projects:


Led by Ellen Williams, Distinguished University Professor of physics and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, the initiative brings together leaders from departments around campus focused on Earth system science. This discipline encompasses all the connections of climate change—from how the oceans store carbon to atmospheric reactions near the boundary of outer space to human impacts on ecosystems. The project is designed as a step toward creating a new school for translating Earth science and climate science research into action for the region, nation and world.

“We want to build a transdisciplinary collaborative bigger than the sum of its parts so we can most effectively address challenges posed by climate change—starting in the state of Maryland,” including helping farmers with climate-related crop management and warning of extreme weather, says Professor Tatiana Loboda, chair of the Department of Geographical Sciences.


ice in ocean

Worldwide, 1.3 billion people are food-insecure, 770 million lack adequate access to energy sources, and 2 billion lack access to safe drinking water. Climate change magnifies these challenges, and communities of color often bear the heaviest burdens. The Global FEWture Alliance, led by Amy Sapkota—MPower Professor of environmental health in the School of Public Health, and director of the CONSERVE Center of Excellence—acknowledges that our vital resources are inextricably linked.

“Instead of addressing food, energy or water challenges individually, we must work across disciplines to develop holistic technology-based and policy solutions that focus on all three areas,” working with partners in Israel, Nepal and Tanzania on experiential learning and capacity-building, Sapkota says.


young boy reading

The COVID-19 pandemic produced the greatest decrease in literacy scores in more than 30 years. But for adults and children living in marginalized communities, “access to literacy achievement is not something that was ‘lost’—full literacy has always come with barriers,” says Donald “DJ” Bolger, associate professor of human development and quantitative methodology, and leader of the initiative.

The project aims to close opportunity gaps that have contributed to longstanding societal inequities. A bedrock goal is to better connect literacy research to U.S. teacher preparation and professional development, sharing evidence-based practices with schools, communities and policymakers. Team members also intend to change how literacy studies are done to reap more relevant knowledge about those—multilingual learners, underserved communities of color—who stand to benefit the most from the research, he says.

Read about all the Grand Challenges Grants awardees at research.umd.edu/gc.


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