Current Issue

Mar. 2, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 8

Notebook

Grand Challenges, high hopes

Taking on global issues, a program pairs faculty and students in real-world research

By Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97
Published in the March 2, 2011, issue


 Supported by Grand Challenges funding, Ming Lu ’12, left, and Molly O’Connor ’11 collect soil samples for laboratory analysis in Botswana.
Courtesy Ming Lu ’12
Supported by Grand Challenges funding, Ming Lu ’12, left, and Molly O’Connor ’11 collect soil samples for laboratory analysis in Botswana.


Danny Growald ’11 mixes biochar into the soil on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.
Courtesy Danny Growald ’11
Danny Growald ’11 mixes biochar into the soil on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.

Building an environmentally sustainable high school in urban Ghana. Researching ways to reduce the energy demands of technological data centers. Studying the effectiveness of mosquito nets in reducing malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are among the dozens of research projects funded by the Grand Challenges Initiative, an interdisciplinary program that brings Princeton’s formidable resources to bear on an array of problems facing the world. Begun in 2007, the program funds faculty members and students in collaborative research projects aimed at solving global challenges and training young people in the skills they need to be leaders in these fields.

More than $5 million has been allocated thus far by Grand Challenges, which has just published a three-year progress report. Of the 32 projects funded, 29 are “seed projects.” Program leaders hope that initial funding will enable progress that could attract money from government or industry sources.  

“The problems that confront humanity are interdisciplinary, difficult to solve, and require experiential education,” said Stephen W. Pacala, the director of the Princeton Environmental Institute and a leading force behind the creation of Grand Challenges.

And by allowing students to take part in faculty study, Pacala said, the program seeks to bridge the gap between education and basic research.

“Through Grand Challenges, we’ve been able to get students involved in faculty research projects as real partners,” said Dean Christina H. Paxson of the Woodrow Wilson School.  

Grand Challenges is focused on three areas of research: exploring climate problems and new energy sources; confronting poverty and nurturing biodiversity in Africa; and searching for remedies to global health problems, especially infectious diseases. The program is co-sponsored by the Princeton Environmental Institute, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Woodrow Wilson School.  

Most faculty researchers have received two-year grants of $100,000. Among the projects funded thus far:  

• Researching cost-effective materials for converting solar energy into electricity and fuels. Early progress has led to $531,000 in funding from the federal Department of Energy and two grants totaling more than $2 million from the Air Force.

• Designing ceramic water ­filters for a group of 58 Nigerian households, virtually eliminating diarrhea.  

• Investigating pathogenic strains in bacteria. The discovery of a novel antibiotic compound that inhibits cell division helped attract a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

• Studying the impact of atmospheric aerosols on air quality in China.

• Introducing sustainable grazing and conservation practices among farmers raising livestock in Kenya.

• Studying biological and chemical changes in the Southern Ocean and their impact on the climate system.  

Students may design a four-year program, independent of their major, built around summer internships and independent research projects sponsored by Grand Challenges. They can choose from a list of existing courses to aid them in their studies. Throughout, they are mentored by faculty who help them design projects.

Molly O’Connor ’11 spent the summer after her sophomore year in Botswana conducting research on soil samples.

“It was a very valuable mentoring experience that gave me a sense of how research is done,” O’Connor said. With additional funding from Grand Challenges, O’Connor went to Kenya to conduct research for her senior thesis in civil and environmental engineering.

Danny Growald ’11, an ecology and evolutionary biology major, received funding from Grand Challenges to travel to Costa Rica last summer to conduct research for his senior thesis. He found that adding charcoal to degraded soils improved the growth of jatropha, a crop used for the production of biofuel.  

“It’s been a great program to enable me to do this kind of research, which I think has some pretty significant real-world importance,” Growald said.

Thanks in part to his research, Gro­wald has been offered a job by International Development Enterprises, which seeks to reduce poverty worldwide. After graduating he will work on a social enterprise selling clean water in India.

Mung Chiang, an associate professor of electrical engineering, said Grand Challenges has had “an extremely pivotal and healthy effect” on Princeton’s research community. Chiang and three members of the Department of Computer Science investigated ways to reduce energy demand at large data centers. After receiving initial support from Grand Challenges, the team won a $100,000 grant from Google.  

Grand Challenges has been funded for the first five years by the High Meadows Foundation, co-founded by Carl Ferenbach ’64 and his wife, Judy, and the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation. (The Princeton Environmental Institute also has contributed significant funding.) The program’s leaders are hopeful that they will receive additional support to continue the program beyond 2012.

Grand Challenges “puts Princeton on the map of solving societal problems,” Chiang said. “It balances the inaccurate perception of an ivory tower as detached from what people are thinking about on a day-to-day basis.”  

Grand Challenges: By the numbers (2007–10)

32 interdisciplinary projects
53 Princeton faculty
116 undergraduates
64 graduate students
30 new courses
18 academic disciplines
Research in 35 countries
218 undergraduate internships
70 senior thesis projects

Source: Grand Challenges 2007-2010 Progress Report

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CURRENT ISSUE: Mar. 2, 2011