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UNM Grand Challenge leaders outline initiatives

February 23, 2019

Copyright ? 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Developing sustainable water resources. Reducing the prevalence of substance use disorders. And ensuring high quality of life for aging friends and family members.

Those are the ambitious goals that University of New Mexico researchers are taking on as part of a new “Grand Challenges” initiative that the state’s flagship university is embarking on.

Katie Witkiewitz, Regents’ Professor in psychology, left, and Brandi Fink, assistant professor of psychiatry, share their plans for a “Grand Challenges” initiative during an “Out-of-the-Box” campus event Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

And they’re hoping that the project will come up with solutions that will improve the lives of everyday New Mexicans.

Project team leaders from the recently named initiatives presented their goals, approaches and plans during an “Out-of-the-Box” campus event Friday.

The Grand Challenges were selected from 14 proposals, representing 160 faculty and staff from over 60 departments across the university.

Kerry Howe, professor and Regents’ Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, said the water resources challenge focuses on developing the Rio Grande watershed as a vibrant and resilient trans-boundary watershed that supports a thriving economy, healthy landscapes and aquatic ecosystems, as well as vibrant communities.

Kerry Howe , UNM professor of civil engineering

Citing a statistic that New Mexico receives only 14 inches of rain annually, Howe said the state’s water supply is under threat.

“Our climate is changing ? we have to worry about droughts,” Howe said. “We have an arid climate and that arid climate leads to forest fires. We have problems with water quality. We’ve got water shortages ? the Rio Grande nearly runs dry some years when the drought is really bad. We’ve been overpumping our aquifers and our surface water supplies are completely outdated.”

Howe said the approach to the challenge is to connect the natural and human landscapes.

“We need to address and investigate various issues including cultural diversity, water demands, technology, economics,” Howe said, “and do all of this in a framework that includes inclusive public engagement because the stakeholders who use the water need to be able to provide input on how it needs to be used and where it needs to be used.”

Janice Knoefel, a professor of neurology, said the successful aging challenge will focus on researching and implementing strategies that will improve the quality of life for New Mexico’s senior population and extend the time that seniors can remain independent. She described a “tsunami of change” where half of the state’s population will be over 65 and New Mexico will move from 23rd in the nation to 4th in the percentage of people older than 65 by 2030.

Janice Knoefel, UNM professor of neurology, shares her plans for research and outreach to improve the quality of life for New Mexico seniors.

“Our system of health care, education, research and community engagement must radically improve to meet this ‘tsunami of change,’” Knoefel said.

She proposed four projects as part of the challenge. A healthy aging project would include community-based screening of 65-year olds for walking, thinking, emotions, physical, vision and hearing with results discussed with the individual; an activity project that would comprise organized activities at senior centers; a home alone project that would encompass custom interventions to ensure safe and satisfying home living; and a dementia choice project that would involve case management services.

Katie Witkiewitz, a Regents’ Professor in psychology, and Brandi Fink, assistant professor of psychiatry, will share leadership duties on the substance use disorder challenge, with a goal to reduce mortality and substance use disorders including alcohol, opioid and other substance misuse.

“I can guarantee you that there is not a single person who has not been affected by a substance use disorder in some way,” Fink said, “either personally or a family member or a close person who they care about.”

Fink cited 2017 UNM statistics indicating that 26 percent of New Mexicans surveyed know a family member who suffered from alcohol or drug dependence, 29 percent know a close friend actively using substances or in recovery and 33 percent know someone who died from opioid overdose.

This challenge will include joining with rural communities to support all New Mexico residents which Witkiewitz said will result in improved health, safer communities and stronger families.

More than 20 other public research institutions have created similar grand challenges programs, with the goal of contributing their research power to benefit community societal and economic health.

The Grand Challenge initiative will provide each team about $70,000 to seed their projects. These teams will work over the coming weeks with members of the Office of the Vice President for Research, Heath Science Center Office for Research, as well as campus and university offices in an effort to further develop their research plans.

UNM Vice President for Research Gabriel Lopez and HSC Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Larson are overseeing the Grand Challenges initiative.

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