Faculty experts tackle the world’s grand challenges

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

They are accelerating their work to address the world’s most daunting challenges and expand the role and visibility of voices in the social sciences, the arts, and other fields of study to help society implement effective solutions.

The following questions and answers are 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 DVM ’90 MPVM ’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; Professor Emeritus, Earth and Planetary Sciences:

The answer is a definite no. The actions and decisions we make now will determine what climate change looks like in the future. Innovative and targeted research is currently being conducted at UC Davis and has tremendous potential to reverse the impacts of climate change in the not-too-distant future.

One example is the Salmon-Rice Ecosystem Project where researchers from the Center for Watershed Sciences at the Institute of the Environment are working to restore endangered salmon populations while developing best management practices for rice farmers. Raising juvenile salmon in rice paddies mitigates climate change by reducing emissions of powerful greenhouse gases.

What is UC Davis doing to address global health issues?

Christine K. Johnson VMD, MPVM ’01, Ph.D. ’03, director, EpiCenter for Disease Dynamics; Associate Director, One Health Institute; professor, epidemiology and ecosystem health:

From the 1950s, global population growth really began to take off. This accelerated global change and the accompanying increasing demands have led to environmental degradation. In addition, epidemics in animal populations began to spread 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 deserve additional attention. UC Davis is set to investigate these issues. We hope to capture what triggers these emerging health threats through early detection and new technologies. We also strive to understand how these threats affect 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 Chair, Native American Studies:

The Land Grant University emerged from the Moral Act of 1862, signed by former President Abraham Lincoln, when the lands of Indigenous nations were directly seized or sold by the federal government. As a result, over 245 tribes were affected and over 10 million acres of land were transferred from government to universities. With this history and context in mind, UC Davis faces the impacts of the development of the university head-on.

UC Davis builds meaningful and lasting community partnerships, especially with Indigenous nations and Indigenous community organizations. Voters are realizing the promise to democratize education by investing in diversity and inclusion. Experts also conduct research that benefits a wide audience.

How is UC Davis helping solve the biggest problems 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 declining funding for advances in food systems, chronic health conditions detrimental to human and planetary health are becoming more common. The actual estimated cost of food in the United States is three times current national spending on food due to costs to human health, the environment, and biodiversity.

Fortunately, UC Davis is developing new personalized products and devices that can guide consumer decisions. For example, these products can help you find the right balance between what you like and what your body reacts to. There is 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 adopt cultural foods, while preserving the health of the planet and humans.

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