University of New Mexico President Garnett S. Stokes announced recently three institutional Grand Challenges that will bring researchers and scholars together in multi-disciplinary teams to collaboratively address some of New Mexico’s most pressing challenges. 

Launched in November 2018, the goal of UNM’s Grand Challenges initiative is to make an impact in New Mexico by addressing problems of global, national and regional significance that require researchers to work together across disciplinary boundaries to develop and implement solutions.

Over 20 other public research institutions have created similar grand challenges programs, in an effort to contribute their research power to benefit the societal and economic health of their communities. UNM’s Grand Challenges were selected from 14 proposals, representing 160 faculty and staff from over 60 departments across the University.

“I was so impressed by the quality and scope of proposals we received,” said UNM President Garnett S. Stokes. "Each one represents a unique opportunity for UNM to serve and impact New Mexico, and all of them strongly reflect a collaborative approach to research and scholarship that spans not only fields of study, but also generations, cultures and perspectives."

UNM’s Grand Challenges include: 

  • Substance Use Disorders
  • Successful Aging
  • Sustainable Water Resources

The Grand Challenges that were selected address problems that, when solved, will have a significant and positive impact on people and society. These challenges are large in scale, ambitious in scope, and multi-disciplinary. They have carefully developed goals that enable multiple paths towards solutions, and that are relevant across varied disciplines and communities.

This Grand Challenge initiative will provide each team funds to seed their projects. These teams will work over the coming weeks with members of the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), HSC Office for Research, and other campus and university offices to further develop their research plans.

UNM Vice President for Research Gabriel López and HSC Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Larson are overseeing the Grand Challenges initiative.

“Our goal is to foster excellent research that will serve the public interest,” said López. “We are laying the foundation for a collaborative research culture by approaching pressing societal problems from multiple disciplines and perspectives.”

“The Grand Challenges is an exciting opportunity for our greatest minds to tackle some of the biggest issues in New Mexico and around the world,” added Larson. “I am particularly excited to see the work that will be done in the areas of Substance Use Disorders and Health Aging. All three projects will allow our faculty to coalesce their expertise around these important issues to improve the health of all New Mexicans.”

The proposals were evaluated by a both professional external reviewers and emeriti faculty reviewers. The steering committee recommended three areas of research for further consideration to President Stokes, who then selected the three Grand Challenges. The conceptual goals for the proposals that were not chosen are showcased on the Grand Challenges website as “Ten More Great Ideas.”

UNM’s Grand Challenges project details...

Substance Use Disorders
Project lead: Brandi Fink, assistant professor, Psychiatry; Katie Witkiewicz, Regents’ Professor, Psychology

The goal of this Challenge is to reduce mortality and substance use disorders including alcohol, opioid and other substance misuse.

“We feel that a coordinated, integrated and interdisciplinary approach is the only way to truly reduce the suffering that arises from opioid dependence, opioid-related deaths, and substance use disorders,” said Fink. “We look forward to collaborating with communities throughout the state to identify and test novel approaches to reverse this problem. We feel that not only will the Grand Challenge provide the opportunity to do this in New Mexico, but that we can serve as a model for how this can be accomplished in other communities throughout the nation."

“New Mexico is worst in the nation on many pressing problems, including high school graduation rates, property crime, and alcohol related mortality,” added Witkiewicz. “These are systemic social problems that are related to high rates of alcohol and other drug misuse in our state. The Grand Challenge will enable and support cooperation among a multidisciplinary team of experienced researchers and practitioners who are all deeply committed to ameliorating suffering related to substance use disorders in the state of NM and beyond.”

Successful Aging
Project lead: Janice Knoefel, professor, Neurology

The goal of this Challenge is to focus on researching and implementing strategies that will improve the quality of life for New Mexico’s senior population, and extending the time that seniors can remain independent.

“The Successful Aging program is trying to imagine how to maintain independence and personal choices in our lives as we develop physical and cognitive challenges,” said Knoefel  “It is exciting to discuss and devise ways to assist older or disabled people to do what they want and live as they would like.

“The aging New Mexico population will have a major impact at all levels of our society, from the individual, to our circle of family and friends, to our need for services and products. Who will deliver, who will pay for, what is needed to maintain independence in our lives as we age? Our Successful Aging program will discover obstacles to independent living and then endeavor to find solutions to these challenges.”

Sustainable Water Resources
Project lead: Kerry Howe, professor, Civil Engineering

The goal of this Challenge focuses on developing the Rio Grande Watershed as a vibrant and resilient trans-boundary watershed that supports a thriving economy, healthy landscapes and aquatic ecosystems, and vibrant communities.

“There is a great team of faculty and staff at UNM working on solving water problems and I think I speak for all of them when I say that we are excited that UNM will be focusing its energy and attention to solving this grand challenge,” said Howe. “Water truly is the lifeblood of New Mexico.  Water scarcity is just going to get worse, but UNM is perfectly positioned to help address the challenges so that all New Mexicans will benefit.”

The project leads will hold workshops during the week of Feb. 18, culminating in an Out-of-the-Box event on Feb. 22 that will be an interactive presentation to the public that will also allow researchers to gather feedback from stakeholders.

For more information about this initiative, visit Grand Challenges.