First-ever Grand Challenge Symposium focuses on value of interdisciplinary collaboration

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) hosted its inaugural symposium in February, featuring lightning talks by faculty who described their research in relation to the program’s 14 global challenge topics in just two minutes. The program highlights the need to combine different perspectives and expertise to solve the world’s most intractable problems, and faculty from all three UMBC colleges reflected on the range of disciplines that play a role in their work.

Collaboration across disciplines is a core lesson for students in the GCSP, now closing in on the end of its first year. Scholars are increasingly appreciating, in a very tangible way, how essential it is to have diverse perspectives around the table to tackle a shared challenge, says Marie desJardins, COEIT associate dean and professor of computer science, and director of UMBC’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program.

“UMBC’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program is open to undergraduate students across all colleges and departments on campus, but sometimes knowing how various disciplines can contribute to the challenges can be difficult to imagine,” explains desJardins. The faculty presentations, combined with the students’ own teamwork throughout the semester, offered scholars a clearer understanding of how interdisciplinary project-based work actually functions.

Nilanjan Banerjee, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering (CSEE), spoke  about his research on developing sustainable homes powered by solar energy. He explained how he hopes to increase demand for solar energy by developing a simple, affordable sensor system for homes that changes human behavior related to energy use. Also relating to energy, Carlos Romero-Talamas, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, shared how his lab is working to create renewable energy from fusion in response to the high global consumption of electricity from sources that pollute the environment. His research, using rotating mirrors, requires collaboration with physicists and other scientists.

Lee Blaney, assistant professor of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering (CBEE), discussed water quality issues around the world, and how the UMBC chapter of Engineers Without Borders has helped develop infrastructure to ensure clean water is accessible. He also discussed his own water safety research, which focuses on contaminants of emerging concern, including pharmaceuticals and other health and beauty products.

Two other faculty focused on environmental issues interconnected with public policy discussions. David Lansing, associate professor of geography and environmental systems (GES), shared his soil research, which encourages farmers to create buffer zones to prevent excess nitrogen from running off the land and into waterways. This work is made more complex by local variations in soil and water protection guidelines. Maggie Holland, assistant professor of GES, works to protect Latin American forests by asking how local and national policies and practices encourage or prevent deforestation. Advancing this work, Holland says requires policymakers, social scientists, engineers, and conservation biologists to closely collaborate.

Attendees at the Grand Challenge Scholars Program Symposium.
Attendees at the Grand Challenge Scholars Program Symposium.

Several faculty focused on medical research, including Erin Lavik, professor of CBEE, who shared her work developing targeted treatments for traumatic brain injuries. Helena Mentis, assistant professor of information systems, described how physicians and surgeons in the operating room can use wearable telemedicine devices to interact with remote colleagues while ensuring a safe, sterile operating environment. Tim Oates, professor of CSEE, explained how his work enables him to learn about the building blocks of the brain through reverse engineering. Gymama Slaughter, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, spoke about developing novel technologies to monitor blood glucose internally without using batteries that require replacement.

Seung-Jun Kim, assistant professor of CSEE explained how urban power grids could be improved through machine learning, and how new sensors and large-scale analysis of power grid data could help detect threats and prevent cyberattacks. Nagmeh Karimi, assistant professor of CSEE, discussed how circuits in computers age just as people do, and that using trusted hardware and protecting hardware as it ages are important ways to protect technology from malicious threats and attacks.

Simon Stacey, interim vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, discussed nuclear weapons and three core factors that protect against nuclear proliferation: controlling the weapons themselves, controlling the materials needed to create nuclear weapons, and controlling transport of the weapons. Work in this arena requires people with a broad range of expertise across science, engineering, public policy, and international relations fields.

From the arts and humanities, Lee Boot, research associate professor of visual arts and director of the Imaging Research Center, spoke about using virtual reality technologies as research tools, and Omar Ka, associate professor of modern languages, linguistics and intercultural communication, discussed the complexity of studying language, how the mind processes it, and its role in society, and how the mind process studies language as an element of society and as a complex structure. He said that collaboration in this area is important to understand how the mind works and processes language.

desJardins urged the students in the audience to encourage their friends, no matter what major they’re in, to get involved with the program. “We really want broad diversity, to bring in people with different backgrounds,” she said. “If you’re not sure if you belong in this program, trust me, you belong in this program, because it is created by the students who are in it.”   

Photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC. The Grand Challenge Scholars Program Symposium presentations are available on YouTube.