Grand Challenges To Fight Cancer in Rural Va., Support Youth Mental Health, Democracy

June 1, 2023 By Jerilyn Teahan, jaf7h@Virginia.edu Jerilyn Teahan, jaf7h@Virginia.edu

The University of Virginia announced Thursday its latest round of Grand Challenges funding, amounting to $100 million to help reduce cancer in rural communities, improve youth mental health and keep artificial intelligence algorithms fair and democratic online, among other efforts. Executive Vice President and Provost Ian Baucom shared details with the Board of Visitors during its Academic and Student Life Committee meeting.

The funding also provides follow-through money to launch the previously announced Paul and Diane Manning Institute of Biotechnology.

About $50 million will go toward initiatives in precision medicine and precision health, while the other half will go toward digital technology and society.

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“UVA’s 2030 Strategic Plan identified a set of five important fields of research that require collaboration across disciplines and schools, and where UVA can be an international leader,” University President Jim Ryan said. “Our Grand Challenges investments focus on specific topics within those areas, and I’m grateful that this latest round of funding enables us to bring UVA’s leadership and expertise to bear on improving health in rural areas, answering complex questions about youth development in a digital world, and strengthening democracy amid the threats and opportunities posed by AI.

Portrait of Ian Baucom

Executive Vice President and Provost Ian Baucom said the Grand Challenges “address issues that matter to society.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“My thanks to the faculty members and researchers who submitted proposals and to those who will be leading this important work.”

Baucom said, “All the Grand Challenges initiatives address issues that matter to society, and they will harness expertise here at UVA to make a difference.”

Reaching Out Before Disease

Under its new Precision Health for Populations initiative, UVA will soon be able to extend its ability to help prevent and treat disease in rural Virginia. That includes the southwestern portion of the state, where cancer and chronic illness are statistically more prevalent.

Precision medicine focuses on analyzing an individual’s biological and medical data to create personalized medical treatments. Precision health extends this approach by combining this data with information about behaviors and the environment to suggest personalized interventions.

But UVA’s effort will also look beyond individuals to communities. By combining medical information with population-level data on the environment and other determinants of health, researchers will be able to detect communitywide patterns and develop targeted interventions, both for individuals and for entire populations.

New understandings could lead to improved strategies to promote community health, and researchers will have the data and evidence to advocate for policies that will lead to healthier communities.

The Precision Health for Populations steering committee recommended an initial focus on groups experiencing the greatest effects of health impairments such as poverty, environmental toxins and economic hardship, according to Karen Ingersoll, steering committee chair.

Portrait of Melur K. "Ram"

Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, UVA’s vice president for research, said the latest Grand Challenge investments have an especially strong synergistic nature. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“We decided to begin with a focus on rural populations, since they are traditionally underserved,” Ingersoll said. “And cancer as a main focus was a natural choice for UVA, given our Comprehensive Cancer Center and its extensive history of community engagement.”

Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian, UVA’s vice president for research, also observed how well the effort will join areas in which UVA excels. 

“This combined approach brings together the best in traditional precision medicine research, an area where the Comprehensive Cancer Center already excels, with the cross-Grounds expertise in health disparities, behavioral health, environmental health and wearable sensors to create a truly holistic approach to the prevention and treatment of cancer in rural Virginia.”

Over time, the initiative will expand to include other populations and diseases to advance discoveries that improve health across Virginia.

Harnessing Tech’s Power To Combat the Youth Mental Health Crisis

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned the public of the risks of social media use for young people. He stated that there is evidence of “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” But he also noted that science doesn’t fully understand the effects and urged that more research is needed.

UVA is poised to respond by creating what it calls a “YouthTechEcosystem.” The effort will bring together researchers from across Grounds to study the effects of digital technology on youth development, including its effects on their education, social lives and mental health. 

“Teens have been experiencing a devastating rise in rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties,” said psychology professor Bethany Teachman, who chairs the Digital Technology, Youth and Development steering committee. “Social media and the associated reliance on digital technologies has often been blamed as the primary culprit for youth’s distress, but many questions remain about the true causal role.” 

One goal of the project is to separate real threats from perceived harms. A second goal is to look for solutions. 

“Digital technologies are not only part of the problem – they can and should be part of the solution,” Teachman said.

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Working closely with the Precision Health for Populations team, researchers will study the causes of mental health issues and how they can be treated, both on an individual and population level. A particular emphasis will be to develop digital interventions that can be scaled up to bring help to young people who otherwise would not be able to access care.

Is Democracy Ready for AI?

Digital technology has led to cultural and political transformations that could not have been imagined a decade ago. UVA is poised to take the lead on addressing a major global challenge: ensuring that rapidly evolving digital technologies strengthen, rather than undermine, democracy.

Changes in education, work, social life and media fueled by digital technology are reshaping many aspects of our lives. This is particularly true of generative AI, which can create various forms of written and visual content, including “deep fakes” and misinformation.

Headshot of Megan Barnett

Megan Barnett, the University’s vice provost for academic initiatives, said the issues “are multi-disciplinary, and the solutions must be as well.” (Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost photo)

But could AI also fundamentally alter democracy, including the way we vote?

UVA aims to be a central player in defining how evolving AI technologies shape democracy, and how democratic institutions can and should respond. The initiative will bring together traditionally siloed experts in industry, government and academia to encourage exchange and to work toward solutions informed by nonpartisan research and expertise. Faculty members from across Grounds will play important roles in shaping this pivotal historical moment by providing expertise, research and training.

The project’s initial focus will be on how AI will shape elections, both in the U.S. and globally. 

“Many decisions that will affect the public are being made behind the scenes within the technology industry and within policymaking circles,” said Laurent Dubois, chair of the Digital Technology and Democracy steering committee and academic director at the Karsh Institute of Democracy. “We want to bring those groups together and help shape those decisions through the questions we ask, the answers we provide, and the conversations we convene.”

About the Grand Challenges

The ideas funded in this round of Grand Challenges emerged after a yearlong process involving the deans of all of UVA’s schools, as well as several hundred faculty and staff members.

“Researchers from across Grounds were excited to work together on these issues,” said Megan Barnett, the University’s vice provost for academic initiatives. “They recognize how important these challenges are – not only to UVA, but to the world. All of these problems are multi-disciplinary, and the solutions must be as well.”

Independent from state funding, the Grand Challenges Research Initiatives support UVA’s 2030 Plan, which aims to match areas of academic expertise with real-world problems in the commonwealth and beyond.

UVA previously earmarked more than $150 million for Grand Challenges research in democracythe brain and neuroscience and environmental resilience and sustainability.

The Grand Challenges Research Initiatives were first announced in 2021.

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