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Washington State University
CAS Connect January 2016

Grand challenges, great opportunities

Collaboration is something the College of Arts and Sciences does well—especially when ignited by the spark of creative thinking.

Two years ago, CAS Connect featured Michelle McGuire and Courtney Meehan, whose introduction by a colleague started them on the path to a first-of-its-kind international project and a $950,000 National Science Foundation grant. A biologist and an anthropologist respectively, McGuire and Meehan both study infant health and lactation and had been working on the same campus for six years before discovering the intersections of their research.

Michelle McGuire, left, and Courtney Meehan lead an international study to help babies thrive,
Michelle McGuire and Courtney Meehan lead an international study to help babies thrive.

“Even though Pullman is a small community, it can seem large at times, and it’s hard to keep up with all of the exciting research going on around campus,” said Brian Kemp, an associate professor with dual appointment in anthropology and biology and the person who brought Meehan and McGuire together. “I thought, ‘What if Courtney could transport milk back from the field?’ If you could compare the microbe composition of milk from a woman living halfway around the world in vastly different conditions than here on the Palouse, then you have something.”

Today, the collection of milk samples and anthropological data from nine countries is almost complete, and the research team will present preliminary data at a conference in South Africa this spring.

The WSU Grand Challenges developed by the Office of Research are designed to facilitate connections like McGuire and Meehan’s, but on an institutional scale.

Creating Opportunity

The Grand Challenges consist of five inspirational research themes encompassing broad elements of investigation, education, and service to society—and the strategic goal of encouraging collaboration and multi-disciplinary work across the University.


Focusing innovation and creativity in these thematic areas increases the University’s potential to have a greater positive effect on society. Multidisciplinary teams of researchers, scholars, and creative individuals often can address complex problems beyond the scope of a single discipline

“The process of identifying the research themes gave WSU faculty and academic leaders the opportunity to think beyond ‘what are we strong in?’ and encouraged us to ask, ‘what problems do we want to solve?’ and ‘who can I partner with, internally or externally, that could help my work have more impact?’” said CAS senior associate dean Paul Whitney, coauthor of the Office of Research 120-Day Study final report which served as the first step in defining the Grand Challenges.

Identification of the University’s strategic research themes also provides an important communications tool. University stakeholders, from students and their families to government officials and state taxpayers, are invested and interested. The Grand Challenges provide a platform to showcase how WSU research and education can address the real-world issues we all face every day.

Equally important, uniting institutional strengths will enhance the University’s and the college’s ability to successfully compete for external funding. Significant grant opportunities from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Gates Foundation, and Bullitt Foundation increasingly favor research teams that cross disciplinary boundaries and seek to address issues of major societal importance.

How does CAS fit in?

The disciplinary scope of the College of Arts and Sciences provides many avenues for engaging in the Grand Challenges.

For example, the Opportunity and Equity theme outlines how examining inequities in politics, media, and healthcare, as well as access to communication technology and the global marketplace, can help in reducing barriers that limit personal growth and squander human capital. Developing and supporting equality can involve a wide range of processes and products—everything from fundamental medical research to workforce training to advanced modeling strategies.

“It’s important to remember not all participants need to be involved with applied research or translating research into products. Several of the recently released white papers describing the Grand Challenges specifically include foundational research as an essential component,” Whitney said.

In addition to advancing and guiding overall investment in the WSU research mission, the Grand Challenges support WSU’s educational mission. To be successful, students must develop the ability to translate disciplinary skills and relate to people and problems from multiple perspectives. As collaborative activity grows, faculty will continue to incorporate research, scholarly, and creative activities into the classroom, and opportunities will expand for students to work on cutting-edge multidisciplinary projects with scholars and mentors.

While actively engaged with the Grand Challenges, the college will continue to pursue discipline-specific strengths that contribute to the fundamental academic core of the University.

Thompson Hall in winterWhat’s next?

The Strategic Reallocation process initiated by the Office of the Provost will provide initial funding for Grand Challenge initiatives. The two requests for proposals (RFPs) issued on January 14 outline the selection criteria and the multistage submission process led by the college deans.

Key dates include:

  • February 15 Letters of Intent due
  • April 1 Final proposals due
  • April 8 Review process begins
  • June 15 Award announcements
  • July 1 Funding and budget allocation begins

Resources available:

An RFP for additional faculty seed grants for smaller initiatives based on the Grand Challenge key areas has also been issued by the Office of the Provost.

If you have questions or ideas to contribute, please contact Paul Whitney in the CAS Office of the Dean.

Read more about the College of Arts and Sciences role in defining the Grand Challenges.

WSU Grand Challenges

Sustaining Health: an uncompromising pursuit of healthier people and communities.

Research and innovations continue to expand our understanding of the bases of health, wellness, and disease, and contribute to developing the right mix of medical, social, and physical assets for communities of all shapes and sizes.

Sustainable Resources: supplying food, energy, and water for future generations.

From fundamental genetics to policies and perspectives, the discoveries and innovations of WSU scientists will help growing communities in Washington and around the world live more sustainably.

Opportunity and Equity: promoting an informed society, expanding opportunity, and advancing social justice.

Working across disciplines, WSU scholars examine inequities in many areas— politics and media, healthcare, access to communication technology, and the fragmented political landscape—and explore ways to reduce barriers that limit personal growth and squander priceless human capital.

Smart Systems: harnessing technology to improve quality of life.

When it comes to using information to improve quality of life, the possibilities are endless. New approaches in data science, data analytics, and social adaptation are needed to translate terabytes of information from a wide range of sensors into actionable materials and products and to drive adaptation and implementation.

National Security: fundamental research to protect America.

Research by WSU scholars addresses a range of national security issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, strengthening critical infrastructure, reducing hunger, preventing biological threats, and advancing development around the world.