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Grand Challenge Initiative

GCI logo anchor and globe The art + science of solving pressing and enduring problems.


The Grand Challenge Initiative is a unique, faculty-led effort to identify and tackle some of the biggest challenges facing society today. A&S faculty select a topic and submit a proposal describing how they plan to apply cutting-edge and collaborative research to address it.

Our faculty are uniquely positioned to lead this initiative because of their academic diversity, vast range of expertise and knowledge, and commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration. With 34 departments and more than 600 faculty across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, we are able to find effective solutions to pressing, complex challenges by examining them from multiple angles.

By engaging faculty from across the college, A&S can identify its strengths and areas of focus for years to come. A Faculty Committee selected the first round of projects in spring 2020 and the researchers have received funding to begin their work. Every two years, new projects will be selected, added to the roster, and provided funding for research.

Donors interested in supporting the Grand Challenge Initiative should contact

Projects for 2020-2022
Borders of Citizenship

Today’s global mass migration urges us to rethink historical understandings of the concepts of borders, citizenship and national belonging. This project will tackle intertwined and complex questions around the sources of migration, how borders have been conceived and reconceived, what makes a citizen, and what it means to belong in the contemporary world. These questions will be explored through topics such as nationalism and statelessness; refugees, asylum, and rights; immigration and citizenship; race, religion, and ethnicity; democracy and demography; and cultural collision and collaboration.

Lead researcher: Sarah Igo, Andrew Jackson Chair in American History

Representative collaborators: Alex Jacobs (American Studies); Lutz Koepnick (German, Russian and East European Studies); Emily Ritter (Political Science); Allison Schachter (Jewish Studies); Paul Stob (Communication Studies); Gabriel Torres Cólon (Anthropology); Edward Wright-Ríos (History)

Climate and Society

Climate change affects everyone in the world and will do so with increasing severity for generations to come. It also cuts to the core of concerns about global justice because the industrial activities of wealthy nations are harming less-developed nations. Failure to address climate change within the next several decades will have lasting impacts on future generations for millennia. Successfully addressing climate change, however, requires deeply integrated interdisciplinary research. By leveraging ongoing environmental and climate-related projects throughout Tennessee, this initiative will identify useful connections and opportunities for collaboration across disciplines. The goal is to advance fundamental knowledge of climate change and develop practical responses to climatic threats and hazards.

Lead researcher:  Jonathan Gilligan, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Representative collaborators:  Teresa Goddu (English), Steven Goodbred (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Patrick Greiner (Sociology), David Hess (Sociology), George Hornberger (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Claire Sisco King (Communication Studies), Lutz Koepnick ( German, Russian and East European Studies ), Ole Molvig (History), Jessica Oster (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Betsey Robinson (History of Art), Paul Stob (Communication Studies)

Evolutionary Studies

Evolution, the study of the historical and contemporary patterns and processes of biological diversity, is the central organizing principle of the life sciences. By informing our understanding of how organisms respond to drugs, climate change, pathogens, and each other, evolution is a formidable asset to treating disease, understanding environmental change, and protecting world food security.  This project will focus on the creation of a cohesive, scholarly community on evolutionary studies at Vanderbilt, leading to the establishment of a world-class Center for Evolutionary Studies that innovates on research, pedagogy, and outreach by engaging scholars, students, our community, and the world.

Lead researcher:  Antonis Rokas, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Biological Sciences

Representative collaborators: Jada Benn Torres (Anthropology), Kenneth C. Catania (Biological Sciences), Jay Clayton (English), Nicole Creanza (Biological Sciences), Simon A. F. Darroch (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Larisa R. G. DeSantis (Biological Sciences), Suzana Herculano-Houzel (Psychology), Steven Hollon (Psychology), Jon Kaas (Psychology), Jennifer Larson (Political Science), Keivan Stassun (Physics and Astronomy), Tiffiny Tung (Anthropology), John Weymark (Economics)

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Global Ecology and Health (ASCEND)

Human activity has disrupted the Earth’s environment and ecology to the point where we now face catastrophic and compounding threats to biodiversity and food security; increased spread of infectious diseases; broad environmental pollution; and extreme weather events leading to desertification, crop failures, wildfires, and sea level rise. Microorganisms play a central role in ecological health and climate change biology because they can help remove carbon from the atmosphere, increase crop resiliency, limit the spread of invasive species, detoxify environmental pollutants, and contribute to new and sustainable antimicrobials to protect us against infectious diseases. This project, Advancing Solutions to Climate and Ecological Needs and Discoveries (ASCEND), brings together experts from many fields to build resources and tools, conduct transdisciplinary microbial research, and, ultimately, contribute to solutions to these challenges.

Lead researcher: John McLean, Stevenson Professor of Chemistry

Representative collaborators: Brooke Ackerly (Political Science), Seth Bordenstein (Biological Sciences), Jonathan Gilligan (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Steven Goodbred (Earth and Environmental Sciences), David Hess (Sociology), Maria Luisa Jorge (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Antonis Rokas (Biological Sciences), Steven Townsend (Chemistry), Glenn Webb (Mathematics)

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Parsing the Pandemic: Finding Solutions to COVID-19

With millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead globally, COVID-19 has changed the way we live in almost every way. Scientists, public health experts, economists, and government officials have spent months collecting and analyzing data to better understand the virus and combat its physiological, social, psychological, and economic impacts. This group of projects will provide insights about the COVID-19 pandemic from a wide range of angles and academic fields. Projects include predicting the virus’s spread; analyzing its socio-economic impacts; highlighting its effects on the public’s trust in institutions, experts, and scientific knowledge; and assessing the effectiveness of various interventions. This research will produce insights and findings that will ultimately help to treat and stem the virus.

Lead researchers:  William Caferro, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History; Jennifer Trueblood, Associate Professor of Psychology; David Wright, Stevenson Professor of Chemistry

Representative collaborators:  Joshua Clinton (Political Science), T.S. Harvey (Anthropology), Cindy Kam (Political Science), Eunji Kim (Political Science), Tara McKay (Medicine, Health, and Society), Jonathan Metzl (Medicine, Health, and Society), Gabriela Oré Menéndez (Anthropology Ph.D. student), Sohee Park (Psychology), Natalie Robbins (Vanderbilt Initiative for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Research), Tom Scherr (Laboratories for Innovations in Global Health), John Sides (Political Science), Michael Shepherd (Political Science Ph.D. student), Lijun Song (Sociology), Steven Wernke (Anthropology)

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Racial Justice: The Third Reconstruction

Some analysts say that the Reconstruction era (1867-1877) and the heyday of the U.S. Black freedom movement (1955-1965) marked the first and second attempts at reconstructing a U.S. society which had historically been built on white supremacy, racist violence, and racial oppression. This project will explore the conditions that contributed to and resulted from the murder of George Floyd and consider the prospects for racial justice in light of those conditions. The Third Reconstruction initiative will take a hard look at our current moment and ask about the requirements of justice, the full dimensions of injustice, and what it would take to bring the original dream of reconstruction to fruition.

Lead researcherPaul Taylor, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy

Steering committeeFrank Dobson (Associate Dean, Martha Rivers Ingram Commons), Derek Griffith (Medicine, Health, and Society), Karla McKanders (Law), Jonathan M. Metzl ( Medicine, Health, and Society), Rich Milner (Education), Tracey Sharpley-Whiting (African American and Diaspora Studies), Emilie M. Townes (Ethics & Society), Rhonda Y. Williams (American History), Christoph Zeller (German and European Studies)

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