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UCL rises to meet the Grand Challenges

By news editor, on 6 February 2013

gc1pencil-iconWritten by Dr James Paskins, Coordinator for UCL Grand Challenge of Sustainable Cities,  and Helen Hopkins, Coordinator for UCL Grand Challenge of Global Health.

On 29 January, the South Cloisters was filled, but not with students desperately trying to find a quiet place to work. The space had instead been commandeered by the UCL Grand Challenges to show off work from its small grants programme.

The cloisters echoed to the conversations of more than 100 grant winners, staff, students and donors. They had come to see the exhibition of 40 posters illustrating the achievements of the previous Small Grants winners, and to hear presentations from previous Grand Challenge winners.

The small grants programme began in 2009 with the first grand challenge, Global Health, and is now offered by all four Grand Challenges: Sustainable cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing.

The scheme provides awards of up to £5,000 for projects that support, cross-disciplinary collaboration. The posters displayed in the South Cloisters, which are now viewable online, showed the work of grant winners from the past three years.

The posters illustrated the innovative, cross-disciplinary work that has had an impact through scholarly output, public engagement, influence on policy and practice, enterprise activity or translational research.

Professor David Price introduced the presentations by highlighting the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration and how the small grants scheme provides a mechanism to remove barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration, allowing UCL researchers to tackle novel questions and take advantage of interesting opportunities.

The presentations covered four projects, one from each Grand Challenge:

Dr Barbara Penner (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) talked about her work “Sanitation and the urban poor: The case of urine diversion toilets in Durban, South Africa”.

She told us how keeping urine and faeces separate brings major benefits for public health, and explained how Grand Challenges funding had made her work with groups in South Africa possible.

Working across disciplines with the Grand Challenges has also led to further work with Dr Sarah Bell (UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering) and Dr Tse-Hui Teh (UCL Bartlett School of Planning), who share her interest in sanitation.

Dr Michael Stewart (UCL Anthropology) presented his work on Open City: Architecture, including the highly successful OpenCityDocs Festival and the MyStreet Films website.

The site keeps the spirit of the Mass Observation movement alive, by allowing people to post short films about places; the only requirement is that films are linked to a postcode.

Dr François Guesnet  (UCL Hebrew and Jewish Studies) told us how Grand Challenges funding had made his work on “Negotiating religion: inquiries into the history and present of religious accommodation” possible and its catalytic nature.

As a result, he was able to hold interdisciplinary workshops to look at the complexities of integrating religion, and religious institutions, into modern life. This activity has led to collaboration between the University of Cambridge and UCL, the ‘Godless institution in Gower Street’.

Dr Eve Macharia (Institute of Child Health) was our final doctor, and she arrived with a TARDIS.

Dr Macharia has been leading an interdisciplinary team that are developing an app for tablets and phones that enables “Tracking Activity in Relation to DISease”.

At the moment, TARDIS is helping clinicians track the triggers and responses to treatment for gastro-oesophageal reflux, but it can be expanded to work with a range of conditions.

The reception and poster event both demonstrated the diverse range of research that is undertaken at UCL, and how, when multi-disciplinary collaborations are effectively undertaken, exciting new activities emerge.

The small grant scheme has not only resulted in one-off, cross-disciplinary projects, but also has encouraged the development of solid new working relationships between staff and students from across the university, which have continued far beyond the initial project time frames.

Applications to this year’s small grants scheme can be made online at the Grand Challenges website by 15 February. More information about the progress of the Grand Challenges to date can be found here.

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