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UB taking on mankind’s ‘really big problems’

How can health disparities across the globe be reduced? Can new manufacturing systems be both ecologically and economically sustainable? How can medical treatments be more personalized, based on a better understanding of an individual’s genes and the environment’s effects on his or her risk for diseases?

They’re monumental questions, for sure.

But University at Buffalo officials believe UB has plenty of brain power to answer them, especially when faculty and researchers from across a variety of academic disciplines are working in tandem.

Those officials are now staking $25 million on it. UB President Satish K. Tripathi and Provost Charles Zukoski announced on Thursday the establishment of three new Communities of Excellence that will tackle some of the toughest challenges facing mankind today.

“We have an awful lot of talent that exists on campus,” said Zukoski. “We want UB to be known for working on really big problems.”

More than 300 faculty from across the university will be involved in the Communities of Excellence, which are: Global Health Equity; Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies, or SMART; and the Genome, the Environment and the Microbiome, or GEM. A fourth venture, RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water), was launched last year and served as the model for the Communities of Excellence.

“We’re really excited about this. We do think it will be transformational,” Zukoski said.

The Communities of Excellence are an extension of an assessment several years ago of its strengths as an institution and a discussion of how to build on those strengths in a way that would help distinguish UB in the highly competitive world of comprehensive research universities.

The university spent about a year exploring possibilities for the Communities of Excellence, with teams of faculty submitting nearly 100 “concept proposals.” A panel of seven UB administrators and professors whittled the proposals to six finalists.

Interdisciplinary research will be a key element of the communities, but not the sole element. Some “fabulous” proposals with very strong research elements were passed over because they didn’t do enough to educate and engage the community beyond the campus.

“It’s not just a research program. They all have education components to them. They all have engagement components to them,” Zukoski said. In Global Health Equity, for example, UB faculty and students from industrial and systems engineering, urban and regional planning, epidemiology and environmental health and architecture will be working together on issues such as how to deliver essential medicines and quality food to impoverished communities.

To make inroads on those issues, the UB group’s work likely will have to result in public policy changes, Zukoski said.

“The real impact for SMART is changing the way we manufacture,” he said.

The GEM group will focus on promoting and increasing “genomic literacy,” educating the public about the interplay among the human genome, microbiome and environment.

“It isn’t just, ‘Let’s go sequence more human genome,’ ” Zukoski said. “How does it impact us?”

The $25 million investment in RENEW and the three Communities of Excellence will be over five years. Some of the money will be used on new faculty hires, but most of it will support efforts within the university, including new curriculum building. Four or five new degree programs, involving faculty from multiple schools, already are being envisioned, Zukoski said.

UB will conduct reviews of the Communities of Excellence at regular intervals to assess whether they’re meeting milestones and deserve further investment.

But Zukoski said it “will take some time to see the results from this.”