UF launches bold initiative to tackle society’s biggest problems

October 4, 2018
UF News

The University of Florida is committing more than $17 million to an ambitious new initiative aimed at solving some of society’s most urgent problems while redefining the role of a land-grant university for the 21st century.

From restoring trust in the media and technology to putting Americans back on track toward living longer and healthier lives, the overarching goal is to improve life today on multiple fronts, said Joe Glover, UF provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

"This project is really a collection of ‘moonshots’ -- really hard problems and grand challenges that rely on collaboration among colleagues from all areas of the university," Glover said.  "It takes a comprehensive research university to do these things -- where the voyage and the discoveries along the way are perhaps even more important than the final goal."

The initial timeframe for the initiative is four years. That doesn’t mean the problems will necessarily be solved in that time, Glover said, but the colleges working toward the goals these projects hope to achieve will be required to document their progress each semester.

David Norton, UF’s vice president for research, said faculty are ready to take on the challenge.

“We have some of the most talented researchers in the world right here at the University of Florida, and we’re harnessing those talents to tackle specific challenges that need answers now,” Norton said. “This initiative will enlist the UF faculty to pursue breakthroughs in areas important to the state, nation and the world.” 

The research projects are as follows:

iCoast: a 21st Century Coastal Monitoring Network for Action– The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience will pilot a project that could serve as a model for collecting data on coastlines globally and Florida’s own 1,350 miles of coastline in particular. Using advanced sensors, including new technology in development at UF, a multidisciplinary team will collect data and develop a database never before available that provides a picture of the health of coastal infrastructure – bridges and piers – and biological systems, from mangroves to aquatic creatures. The sensors will detect early signs of infrastructure failure, contaminant release, and environmental and physiological change, and the data generated will allow real-time management of threats to the natural and built environments of the coasts. The pilot will take place at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, a UF research and teaching facility, situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway on Florida’s east coast in St. Augustine.

Cancer Engineering – 3D Brain Tumors for Cancer Research – The mortality rate of glioblastomas, sarcomas and hematological malignancies has remained largely unchanged over the last 50 years. One major roadblock to cancer research is the ability to test multiple therapies and drugs quickly in the laboratory, without relying on time-consuming human clinical trials or mouse models. A UF team of engineers and doctors has made progress in the last three years in manufacturing 3D soft-tissue systems, aimed at producing cancer cells and tumors in bulk, to be used as a laboratory model for cancer treatments. Using this patented technology and new equipment to allow for microscopic studies of these tumors, the team hopes to identify the critical steps and mechanisms at work in tumor growth and treatment.

Scientist in Every Florida School – About 2.6 million K-12 schoolchildren could benefit from the world-class science and research at UF with a program to put a scientist in every Florida school. Teachers and their students from three counties – Alachua, Lee and Palm Beach – will be part of a pilot study that will leverage digital and in-person access to UF researchers. The pilot will deliver content via virtual classroom visits and web-based learning, and foster scientist-teacher networking, creating an online community of practice. Scientists also will travel to schools that have limited digital access. The STEM content will focus on earth systems science – air, water, land and life. Strategic impacts will result in better-trained teachers, improved student achievement, and enhanced knowledge about STEM careers and 21st-century skills.

Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology – At a time when many surveys are finding a crisis of trust, especially in the United States, UF is uniquely positioned to bring together scholars from journalism and communications, engineering and liberal arts and sciences, to address the potential positive and negative impact of emerging technologies and platforms; develop trust-building technologies and monitoring systems; and evaluate the abilities of humans and machines to tell stories that cultivate trust.

Migration Redefined: Arts, Diaspora and Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century – Florida’s large, entrepreneurial immigrant population and economically important arts and culture sector offers a unique opportunity for UF to connect artists and creatives with experts in innovation, entrepreneurship, economics, policy, science and technology, social justice and more through a new Center for Diaspora Arts and Entrepreneurship. UF will draw on the resources and expertise of faculty in the College of the Arts, including the Digital Worlds Institute and the Center for Arts in Medicine, and affiliated scholars in the centers for Latin American Studies and African Studies, and in engineering and liberal arts and sciences.

A to Z of Early Childhood: Communicating the Science of Early Childhood Development and Learning to Those Who Need It Most from a Trusted Source – The Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies will leverage strong partnerships with faculty and students across campus and networks of leaders, practitioners and policymakers at local, state, national and international levels to develop an innovative, multifaceted communications hub to help guide early childhood practice and policy. This initiative will strengthen UF’s visibility as the trusted source for expertise on early childhood studies and support the broader vision of UF as a leader in efforts to ensure every child enters kindergarten healthy, socially competent and ready to learn.

Leading the Nation in Digital Literacy and Precision Learning – UF aspires to be the most digitally literate and responsible public university in the nation by developing and applying tools like virtual reality, the Internet of Things and big data to education and research endeavors. UF’s iClassroom will enable education and engineering faculty to collaborate on new instructional technologies that provide precision, optimized learning experiences for learners of all ages, from early childhood through older adulthood. Faculty in the social sciences, communications and law will address how society deals with issues like privacy, security, bias and accessibility.

Creating the Healthiest Generation: For the first time in two centuries, today’s generation of American children may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. To reverse this trend, UF Health will bridge basic discovery science with clinical and translational research to develop studies across the human lifespan in which Florida’s diverse communities can participate. The moonshot will focus on two themes: using precision health and data science to understand, treat and prevent disease and disparities; and advancing new therapies to enhance brain, neuromuscular and mental health for future generations. Initiatives span common and rare diseases and seek to develop novel approaches that target unmet medical needs related to brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, addiction, drug-resistant organisms, and resilience in aging, as well as the arts’ effect on health, among other areas.

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