A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Tackling the World’s Grand Challenges

By Mason Spirit contributor on April 3, 2021


George Mason University has long prided itself on innovation and meeting the needs of our students, the region, and beyond. The world changed in 2020 in ways no one could have anticipated, and so have we.

The engineering world has called them “grand challenges.” The United Nations calls them “sustainable development goals.” These are the problems plaguing the planet that can’t be tackled by one person, one university, or even one country—climate change, social justice, the opioid crisis, and COVID-19, to name a few.

“Great research universities tackle the grand-challenge problems of our time,” says George Mason University President Gregory Washington. “We call it research of consequence for a reason—we face serious consequences as a planet if we cannot solve our most pressing global challenges.”

As Virginia’s largest public research university, Mason is committed to being part of the many solutions the world needs. Faculty researchers at the forefront of their fields and our innovative students—all committed to making real change happen—are helping Mason make an impact in the United States and abroad with their inventions, scholarship, and analysis.

The university has pinpointed four key areas where Mason hopes to move the needle and contribute on a large scale: healthy planet, healthy people, healthy economy, and healthy society. These challenges affect all of us regardless of who we are or where we live. By making inroads in these four areas, Mason will be making a global impact for years to come. 

Healthy Planet

Wildfires raging unchecked, rising global temperatures and sea levels, drought on one side of the planet and hurricanes on the other—current and future generations must be ready to face climate change-related challenges. One thing is clear: No country will be able to proceed into the future unscathed. Paving the way to a healthy planet and finding a way to thrive in this new reality requires a multifaceted approach that crosses disciplines and traditional ways of thinking. Here are some of Mason’s efforts to innovate solutions:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has selected scientists from Mason’s Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies to lead the effort to create a more reliable drought forecasting model.
  • Daniel Tong, an associate professor of atmospheric chemistry and aerosols in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Sciences, is using aircraft campaign data to assess the quality of a new satellite fire product that NOAA officials are considering to support their next-generation wildfire forecasting system.
  • Mason’s Business for a Better World Center focuses on training Mason students to become leaders who keep the planet foremost in mind as they embark on future endeavors. One of the center’s projects involved partnering with the university’s Honey Bee Initiative and Fairfax County to convert mowed land at the I-95 Landfill Complex in Lorton into meadows that are ideal for honey bee pollination and to install an apiary there.
  • Mason has a unique partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Together, through the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, they offer a range of compelling, hands-on, interdisciplinary, residential programs in conservation biology for students and professionals at its facility in Front Royal, Virginia.
  • This year Edward Maibach and researchers at the Center for Climate Change Communication reported on data that showed how, over the past decade, its programs have increased U.S. climate literacy. Maibach was recently recognized with the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication.
  • Mason’s Flood Hazards Research Lab focuses on developing innovative water resources and coastal engineering ideas, methods, and systems aimed at restoring and improving urban infrastructure and society resilience in the National Capital Region, the Chesapeake Bay, and beyond.

Healthy People

The coronavirus pandemic has put public health in the spotlight and brought the health disparities that exist across social, racial, and economic groups into sharper focus. Mason researchers are exploring disease detection, treatment, and prevention. A public health focus in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services helps position the university to be a leader in health and well-being in the region. Here are a few of the projects that made a difference this year:

  • Mason epidemiologist Amira Roess played a crucial role in the overall planning of Mason’s successful Safe Return to Campus plan in the fall, including developing the university’s online Health Check Tool. Roess also advises public and private organizations on how to safely resume operations and is frequently quoted in the media.
  • The 10 Mason and Partners (MAP) Clinics serve the uninsured and refugee communities within Prince William and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia. In addition to providing health care, school physicals, screenings, and mental health services for vulnerable populations, they have pitched in during the pandemic to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
  • Mason researchers Ali Andalibi, Lance Liotta, and Virginia Espina are leading Mason’s on-campus COVID-19 testing in 2021 with a saliva-based test they developed and piloted with the university’s student-athletes in the fall. Mason’s innovation makes it possible to increase our weekly surveillance and random COVID-19 testing from around 1,000 tests per week to a goal of 10,000 tests per week in the spring semester.
  • The Mercatus Center, under director Tyler Cowen, BS Economics ’83, created the Fast Grants initiative to rapidly fund COVID-19-related research. Starting with a $1 million grant from the Thiel Foundation, the program has received more than $22 million in funding and offered more than 130 grants through the fast-tracked program, which provides responses to applications within 14 days.
  • Mason’s Center for Psychological Services has long been a mental health resource for the Northern Virginia community. In November 2020 the center established a COVID-19 Essential Workers Emotional Support Line, a telephone line for those affected most by COVID-19 to speak to a trained provider about stress, anxiety, depression, or grief—for free. The help line is staffed largely by Mason undergraduate psychology student volunteers, which is in keeping with the center’s goals.
  • Mason education professor Elizabeth Levine Brown recently surveyed PreK–12 teachers throughout the United States about their experience teaching during the coronavirus pandemic and discovered that 55 percent of teachers tended to student wellness, often at the expense of their own emotional health.

Healthy Economy

Accelerated by the pandemic, the nation’s economy has endured drastic changes in the past year. Up to 40 percent of jobs lost in 2020 are likely gone forever, and the unemployment rate of college graduates is at its highest since the Great Depression.

With small businesses shuttering and companies having to quickly adapt to remote-work culture, revitalizing the economy will take time and ingenuity. Given the links between a healthy regional economy, a robust workforce, and an innovative university, Mason is critical to the region’s economic success.

  • The Mason-based Virginia Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC) has been crucial in advising and assisting the commonwealth’s business community during a financially challenging year. The SBDC Network quickly scaled up its remote capacity to offer more consultations, webinars, training opportunities, and online tools and resources. In 2020, the SBDC assisted 9,500 businesses, resulting in $86 million in new capital received and 1,167 loans obtained.
  • The Stephen S. Fuller Institute and the Center for Regional Analysis identify trends and conditions affecting the region’s economy. Businesses and government leverage this critical data to make informed decisions regarding the region’s future.
  • With a $1 million grant from Strada Education Network, the ADVANCE Program, Mason’s partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, launched the ADVANCE Career Accelerator Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind web-based application designed to help prospective students select majors based on desired career outcomes and better communicate to employers how their experiences relate to prospective jobs.
  • Mason’s Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) program is working to address the growing skills gap from multiple angles. In addition to developing and delivering professional certification for entry-level and middle managers looking to advance their careers, Mason is focused on serving dislocated workers with degrees and helping them fill a skill gap—known as upskilling—that improves their eligibility for a career switch.
  • Assistant professor of accounting Bret Johnson was awarded a one-year academic fellowship with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Johnson is assisting the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant with its oversight of accounting and auditing issues, helping companies implement new accounting standards, and assisting regulators in keeping up-to-date with the latest academic research on economic and financial reporting regulatory issues.
  • The launch of the new School of Computing leverages investments from the Commonwealth of Virginia that were driven by Amazon’s decision to locate its East Coast headquarters in nearby Crystal City. With these investments, Mason has an unprecedented opportunity to play a leadership role in shaping the future of computing regionally, nationally, and globally.

Healthy Society 

These are turbulent times. The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred a necessary national dialogue on race and policing, and the recent presidential election has left us a country divided. Cyberattacks on the United States show the critical need to fortify our data networks. And we can’t forget the lives lost to the global pandemic, as well as COVID-19’s often crippling effect on worldwide economies, travel, and trade. Here are a few of the efforts Mason is making to affect change in the United States and abroad:

  • The Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy seeks to make scientific research a key component in decisions about crime and justice policies and carries out this mission by advancing rigorous studies in criminal justice and criminology through research-practice collaborations, and proactively serving as an informational and translational link to practitioners and the policy community.
  • The new Peace Labs at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution incorporate knowledge, innovation, and unconventional methodologies to design solutions and processes for reducing violence, building sustainable peace, and restoring relations among social groups around the world. Lab practitioners create evidence-based, measurable, and reproducible responses to the challenges posed by conflict.
  • Robinson Professor Laurie Robinson is a two-time former U.S. assistant attorney general who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. She co-chaired the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and is frequently in the media for her police reform expertise.
  • In 2020 Mason was selected to house one of 23 Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Centers in the United States, which focus on using Rx Racial Healing Circles to build trust and understanding among diverse groups.
  • Scholars at the Schar School of Policy and Government and the Antonin Scalia Law School monitor the political climate in both the United States and abroad and are quoted in the media daily.
  • The Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center (CINA), a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, is a multidisciplinary academic consortium led by Mason that pursues innovative strategies and solutions to advance criminal network analysis, forensics, and investigative processes. CINA researchers are developing tools and technologies, as well as innovative educational and training solutions, to advance our nation’s abilities to counter transnational criminal activities.

Melanie Balog, Priyanka Champaneri, BA ’05, MFA ’10, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95, contributed to this article.


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