“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.
“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.
“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.