Herzberg, Riggs awarded Grand Challenges Research grants

University of Minnesota School of Dentistry faculty members Mark Herzberg, DDS, PhD and Sheila M. Riggs, DDS, MS, DMSc were among those receiving the first Grand Challenges Research grants from the University.

University Provost Karen Hanson announced the grants September 29. The grants are part of a $3.6-million investment to fund 29 research collaborations that span the university. The Grand Challenges Research grants are part of the campus strategic plan – Driving Tomorrow.

“I think it’s fabulous that the Provost stepped back from the day-to-day issues she deals with to identify really big projects to tackle and that she created an infrastructure to bring different minds together,” Dr. Riggs said. “I came away from the meetings with new thoughts and a different sense of what’s possible.”

Dr. Herzberg, a professor in the Department of Diagnostic and Biological Sciences and director of the Minnesota Craniofacial Research Training Program, and his team received a $300,000 Grand Challenges Interdisciplinary Work Group Collaboration Grant for “Developing a simple, inexpensive smart chip to detect water pollutants.”  The project is a direct response to one of the University’s Grand Challenges, Assuring Clean Water and Sustainable Ecosystems.

“It’s very exciting because there is a real opportunity to impact the lives and wellbeing of millions of people,” Herzberg said. “There are very few opportunities in life where we can have that kind of impact.”

Mark HerzbergMark Herzberg, DDS, PhD

Dr. Herzberg served as principal investigator on the project along with University faculty members and co-principal investigators Daniel R. Bond and Jeffrey A. Gralnick of the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) (Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics), with Mikael Elias and Lawrence P. Wackett, also from CBS Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics. Other team members include Katey Pelican of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Anu Ramaswamy of the Humphrey Institute, and Casim Sarkar, Paige Novak, Bill Arnold, and Joseph Talghader, all from the College of Science and Engineering, and Michael Smanski from the College of Biological Sciences.

The diverse, interdisciplinary group is tasked with creating an inexpensive chip that incorporates bacterial proteins that bind specific pollutants in the water. The pollutant-binding proteins will be coupled to reporter proteins to indicate the levels of each pollutant. Herzberg said the project’s long term goal is to create a chip that would detect a number of pollutants and would be so inexpensive to manufacture that the World Health Organization could buy it and give it away for free in the developing world.

“It’s very exciting because there is a real opportunity to impact the lives and wellbeing of millions of people,” Herzberg said. “There are very few opportunities in life where we can have that kind of impact.”

While not an expert on water, Herzberg’s knowledge of bacteria, proteins and his ability to find and collaborate with experts enabled him to lead the multi-disciplinary group.

“Being a participant in the Working Group discussions required me to reach beyond my comfort zone,” Herzberg said. “The way the committee was put together was intentional. The University wanted a fresh point of view to work with established experts in this area.”

Sheila RiggsSheila M. Riggs, DDS, MS, DMSc

Dr. Riggs, associate professor and chair of the Department of Primary Dental Care, was co-PI of the team that received a $250,000 grant for “Reminders for readiness: E-communication to support parents in promoting early childhood development.” The project is in response to the Grand Challenge of Enhancing Individual and Community Capacity for a Changing World.

“Community capacity is when a community of people feel they have the information they need and the access to what they need,” Riggs said. “Then the whole gets stronger.”

The “Reminders for readiness” project seeks to develop, pilot and study the implementation and initial impact of a universally available, low cost, personalized text messaging system to support parents in promoting their children’s healthy development by having closer-to-recommended well-child visits and immunizations, higher levels of engagement in child development by all community members, and closer partnerships between the University, communities and stakeholders to improve the effectiveness of the platform and messaging.

“Anything that fosters the win-win of the community and the University working as partners means we can just do better,” Riggs said. “It cannot be just the university having all the answers. It has to be an equal partnership to solve the Grand Challenges of our times.”

Much like Dr. Herzberg’s group, Dr. Riggs’ team features people in a diverse array of disciplines from throughout the University. Dr. Riggs brings extensive relationships with community leaders and organizations throughout the Twin Cities due to her leadership positions in the United Way, the YWCA, HCMC and others.

“I came away from the meetings with new thoughts and a different sense of what’s possible," Riggs said.

Her team also includes co-PIs Richard Lee (College of Liberal Arts - Psychology), Megan Gunnar (Institute of Child Development), Aaron Sojourner (Carlson School of Management), Olihe Okoro (College of Pharmacy) and Akosua Obuo Addo (College of Liberal Arts - Music), Amy Susman-Stillman (Center for Early Education & Development), Amy Gross (Medical School - Pediatrics), Katy Kozhimannil (School of Public Health - Health Policy & Management), and Susan Walker (College of Education and Human Development - Family Social Science).

Dr. Riggs is also a team member of the group that received a $300,000 grant for “Shared leadership lab: Analyzing success factors to address complex societal challenges.”

The two-year grants will be used to address five Grand Challenges outlined in the campus strategic plan:

  • Assuring Clean Water and Sustainable Ecosystems
  • Feeding the World Sustainably
  • Advancing Health through Tailored Solutions
  • Fostering Just and Equitable Communities
  • Enhancing Individual and Community Capacity for a Changing World
Clean water
Dr. Herzberg's grant revolves around detecting pollutants in water