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Wyoming’s Grand Challenges

September 10, 2021
two people with a spotting scope
Recipients of a Grand Challenges grant, Assistant Professor Jacob Hochard and undergraduate research assistant Gary Gassaway use spotting scopes, digital technology and social media-driven crowd-sourced conservation fundraising to provide live-streamed access to Wyoming’s remote wildlife.

Interdisciplinary work promises better solutions to the state’s most pressing issues. 

By Micaela Myers 

The world’s—and Wyoming’s—biggest issues can’t be solved by one viewpoint or one discipline alone. They require multiple perspectives, approaches and ideas. This belief inspired the University of Wyoming’s Grand Challenges initiative in 2019, which tied into new President Ed Seidel’s interdisciplinary pillar—one of his four strategic planning pillars for UW, the other three addressing inclusivity and being more digital and entrepreneurial.

“We face tremendous issues. None of them will be solved without the dedicated work of researchers, teachers and people who care about their communities working on them,” says Scott Henkel, director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, the Wyoming Excellence Chair in the Humanities, and associate professor in the departments of English and African American and diaspora studies.

Henkel is one of four co-chairs of the Grand Challenges initiative as well as co-chair of the strategic planning interdisciplinary pillar team with former Vice President for Research and Economic Development Ed Synakowski.

“Any one discipline will have a set of tools that will be useful,” Henkel says of the grand challenges we face. “Individual disciplines won’t be able to see the entire picture. Multiple disciplines together looking at problems from different perspectives stand a far greater chance of actually solving these problems.”

Fittingly, both the Grand Challenges team and interdisciplinary pillar team are made up of people from across campus. Aside from Henkel, Grand Challenges co-chairs are Danny Dale, College of Arts and Sciences associate dean; Isadora Helfgott, vice provost of global engagement; and John Kaszuba, professor of geology and geophysics. The interdisciplinary pillar team includes about 30 members of faculty, staff, students and administrators from various colleges, departments and centers. Recommendations from the pillar teams will help guide UW’s strategic plan.

Beginning in 2019, the Grand Challenges team conducted dozens of listening sessions with faculty and community members as well as reviewed survey data and statistics to come up with five grand challenges to focus on initially: biodiversity and earth system change; energy transition and economic diversification; rural health issues; public trust in research and information; and quality of democracy and equality. Each issue has human and technical components.

To kick off research in these areas, the team invited interdisciplinary research proposals in spring 2021, choosing five to fund with seed grants up to $20,000. Major funding organizations are focusing on interdisciplinary work as part of their research agendas, helping UW be competitive in external funding.

The Grand Challenges initiative fits perfectly with the interdisciplinary pillar, which aims to transcend traditional boundaries of knowledge through collaboration and exploration, to leverage expertise across fields to address complex problems, and to produce interdisciplinary thinkers and problem-solvers via training and education.

In addition to providing sustainable support for interdisciplinary research through the Grand Challenges initiative, the interdisciplinary pillar aims to train students in diverse ways of knowing and problem-solving and to create a workforce prepared to support Wyoming’s complex biology, wildlife and water systems.

As a land-grant university, it’s our responsibility to help the state and its citizens, Henkel says. These initiatives aim to do just that.

Seidel says, “It’s the idea of bringing expertise from across the university together with communities to work together on difficult problems facing Wyoming, such as diversifying the economy or rural health care.”

The concept of interdisciplinary work and partnerships inspired this issue of UWyo Magazine. On the following pages, you’ll find a sampling of the many exciting projects taking place across the state and university.

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