UMBC’s GRIT-X talks return for Homecoming 2021, highlighting research with a public impact

A hush fell over the excited audience in UMBC’s Proscenium Theatre last weekend, as Baltimore City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa ‘03, biological sciences, stepped into the spotlight to present the first GRIT-X talk after a year hiatus for the event. Her topic particularly resonated in this moment: how data analysis is essential to addressing healthcare inequities.

Dzirasa was one of eight UMBC community members, including faculty and alumni, who spoke about their work, providing online and in-person audiences a glimpse of UMBC’s local, national, and global impact.

“We have such a diverse set of expertise within our UMBC community, with direct relevance to some of the most pressing issues within today’s society, including the impact of climate change on the environment, UMBC’s contribution to understanding and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of interpersonal human-to human interactions,” explains Karl V. Steiner, vice president for research at UMBC.

“We were especially thrilled to bring this showcase back to campus as part of this year’s homecoming activities, since last year the pandemic forced us to cancel the event,” Steiner shared. “It was great to be in the Performing Arts and Humanities Building.”

Watch the GRIT-X talks

More than a dashboard: The heightened role of data in driving equity

Dzirasa’s talk emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of her work, and how statistics and biological sciences play an important role in answering public health questions. She also described how data inform her work as a public health leader guiding Baltimore through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nature needs culture: Conservation in the age of humans

Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems, discussed how human activity has transformed the world, and how the active human management of ecosystems is a defining feature of the past 12,000 years, not just the present. His talk dove into research he published earlier this year, with an international team, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article and his talk emphasized the importance of empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous and local communities globally.

Fleximers: Bending over backwards for a cure

Kathie Seley-Radtke, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been studying coronaviruses since the early 2010s. Her GRIT-X presentation focused on her work to develop fleximers—distinctive compounds that interfere with virus replication, and whose flexible structure allows them to adjust shape and remain effective as viral variants evolve over time.

Stressing connections: Designing for affective awareness

Andrea Kleinsmith, associate professor of information systems, discussed her work to develop systems that support stress awareness and reflection, including with emergency responders. She shared a personal experience to illustrate the importance of addressing the effects and emotional impact of high stress situations. 

Start small but start: The story behind a unique climate-observing site in Maryland

Belay Demoz, professor of physics, talked about an observation station in Beltsville, Maryland that conducts climate-related research. Demoz is known for his leadership in cultivating a diverse generation of climate scientists and prioritizing a culture of mentorship. He explained that who collects the data can impact research findings, which highlights the importance of collaboration among diverse researchers.

The math that explains the pandemic

Zoë McLaren, associate professor of public policy, is a health economist who uses statistical data analysis to inform health and economic policy, particularly related to combating infectious disease epidemics. In her GRIT-X talk, McLaren discussed “exponential growth” and “flattening the curve”—two concepts unfamiliar to much of the public prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but which are now commonly used terms. These two concepts highlight the important role that mathematics and statistics play in understanding policies related to the pandemic. 

Parenting: Looking for answers within and across cultural borders

Charissa Cheah, professor of psychology, presented her work understanding how parents around the world care for their children and teach them about culture. Culture is both big and abstract, as well as small and personal, Cheah explained, and parents have an important role in helping their children develop cultural competencies. Cheah is known for her research on how Chinese American parents and children have witnessed, experienced, and coped with discrimination due to COVID-19.

Saving our environment from the past: A story of chemicals and fish

Upal Ghosh, professor of chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering, talked about his work understanding toxic pollutants and how they impact the environment. Even though some of the pollutants were banned from use 50 years ago, these contaminants can still be found in fish and wildlife today. Ghosh’s work also includes creative approaches to removing dangerous pollutants from waterways so they can’t cause further harm.


Learn more about past and future GRIT-X talks through UMBC’s Research and Creative Achievement site.

Banner image: Letitia Dzirasa presenting at GRIT-X. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan.