Faculty experts tackle the world’s grand challenges

By Daniel Park | November 8, 2022

November 8, 2022—As the world continues to face obstacles, faculty experts at UC Davis are harnessing the power of collaboration across multiple disciplines to advance tangible change.

They are accelerating their work to tackle the world’s most daunting challenges and expanding the role and visibility of voices in social science, arts and other areas of study to help society implement effective solutions.

The following Q&A is adapted from the discussions, part of an ongoing virtual event series called Plugged in where UC Davis leaders address the most pressing issues of our time. Vice Provost of Grand Challenges Jonna Mazet D.V.M. ’90 M.P.V.M. ’92 Ph.D. ’96, spoke with leaders in climate crisis, epidemiology, Native American studies, and sustainable food systems about their impactful work.

Is it too late to mitigate climate change?

Isabel Montañez Ph.D., director, Institute of the Environment; distinguished professor, earth and planetary sciences: 

The answer is a resounding no. The actions and decisions we make now will determine what climate change looks like in the future. Innovative and purposeful research is being carried out right now at UC Davis and has a very high potential to turn around the impacts of climate change in the not-so-distant future. 

One example is the salmon ecosystem–rice project where researchers at the Center for Watershed Sciences in the Institute of the Environment are working to restore endangered salmon populations while also developing best management practices for rice growers. Rearing juvenile salmon in the rice fields mitigates climate change by reducing emissions of powerful greenhouse gas.

What is UC Davis doing to solve global health problems?

Christine K. Johnson V.M.D., M.P.V.M. ’01, Ph.D. ’03, director, EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics; associate director, One Health Institute; professor, epidemiology and ecosystem health:

Starting in the 1950s, world population growth really started to take off. This accelerated global change and accompanying growing demands brought environmental degradation. In addition, disease outbreaks in animal populations started to spill over to the human population. For example, the Zika virus circulated in monkey populations for decades until it was transmitted to humans. 

There are still unrecognized health effects in people that warrant additional attention. UC Davis is poised to investigate these problems. We hope to capture what triggers these emerging health threats with early detection and new technologies. We also are working to understand how these threats impact both humans and animals, and how we can inform community engagement and environmental stewardship.

What is a land-grant university and what are the challenges that come with it?

Beth Rose Middleton Manning Ph.D., professor and designated emphasis chair, Native American studies:

The land-grant university emerged from the Moral Act of 1862, signed by former President Abraham Lincoln, when native nation homelands were either seized directly or sold by the federal government. As a result, more than 245 tribes were impacted and more than 10 million acres of land was transferred from the government to universities. With this history and context in mind, UC Davis is facing the impacts of the development of the university head-on. 

UC Davis is building meaningful and lasting community partnerships, particularly with Native nations and Native community organizations. Constituents are realizing the promise of democratizing education by investing in diversity and inclusion. Experts are also conducting research that has broad public benefit.

How is UC Davis helping to solve the biggest issues in our food system today?

Justin Siegel Ph.D., faculty director, Innovation Institute for Food and Health; assistant professor, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular medicine:

With the decline of funding for advances in the food systems, chronic health issues that’s detrimental to human and planetary health is becoming more common. The estimated true cost of food in the U.S. is three times the current national expenditure on food because of the costs on human health, the environment and biodiversity.

Fortunately, UC Davis is developing new products and personalized devices that can guide consumption decisions. For example, these products can help you find the right balance between what you love and what your body responds to. There’s also new technology to produce rare ingredients like components of breast milk or a whole range of sweeteners that are all natural. These technological advances allow people to enjoy and embrace cultural foods, all while keeping the planet and humans healthy.

Watch the full Plugged in event