Global Health Initiative seeks campuswide involvement in incubator series

January 6, 2011 By Chris Barncard

Global health problems extend beyond clinics, vaccine laboratories, and hospitals. Some of the most pressing problems stem from societal, economic and environmental factors as well.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s growing Global Health Initiative is taking on this multisector challenge by fostering research collaborations that advance sustainable health in Wisconsin and the world.

“The tendency in our research programs is to get hooked on that one problem and dig deeper and deeper and deeper,” says Jeremi Suri, E. Gordon Fox Professor of History and co-chair of the initiative. “That separates you from the questions that move people to innovation and really remarkable solutions.”

To pry likely contributors away from that singular focus, the Global Health Initiative is organizing an incubator for ideas in the form of a series of evocative forums centered on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and running through the spring semester.

The first Incubator — set for 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 31, in The Forum at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery — features environmental health expert Jonathan Patz and Caitilyn Allen, who studies wilt in tropical plants. Patz and Allen will set the tone for the series by combining diverse perspectives on battling infectious diseases.

“You’ll see an overview of the challenges from one of the researchers and then a very local view of the problem from the other,” says Jeanette Roberts, dean of the School of Pharmacy and co-chair of the initiative. “For every Incubator — every development goal — we’ll have two directions of approach to a problem to get people thinking about it in a new way.”

With a pair of researchers driving discussion roughly every other Monday through the spring semester, the Incubator is a vehicle for jump-starting novel partnerships and approaches to daunting global problems.

“We might come out of the Incubator sessions with new ideas and, hopefully, new teams of researchers,” Suri says. “There are so many extraordinary people on this campus, but they don’t know each other … yet.”

The spring Incubator series will prime the university talent pool for a summer funding competition for teams of UW–Madison faculty, students and staff with research proposals that show fresh promise for global health application and an eye toward the initiative’s collaborative goals.

Attendance at the Incubator will strengthen participants’ proposals by inspiring and preparing them to take this approach towards their research.

“A good proposal will be transdisciplinary, especially involving people who don’t typically work together,” Roberts said. “It will address problems in new ways — not just running in and vaccinating people, but figuring out why they’re getting sick in the first place.”

But by no means is the initiative’s focus exclusively on health sciences.

Reflexively limiting the idea of global health to medicine is a major barrier to reaching members of the campus community who are doing pertinent work, but are not thinking about its health implications, according to John Ferrick, director of international programs for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

One of the most important goals of the Global Health Initiative is to facilitate collaboration to maximize the impact that work can have on solving global health problems.

“There are tons of people in Madison who are thinking, ‘I’m a food person,’ or ‘I’m engineering,’ or they look at their work as a narrow-but-necessary sort of contribution to the scholarship in their corner of the academic world,” Ferrick says. “They’re not making the connection even when their research and their insight could play a pivotal role in the health problems of people all over the world.”

That was the gap and the critical opportunity identified in the university’s reaccreditation and strategic planning process which led to the creation of the Global Health Initiative. A research engine with UW–Madison’s horsepower is uniquely able to address the UN’s wide set of ambitions — from establishing universal education to ending hunger to protecting maternal health and promoting sustainable development.

“Because we have such strength in a wide range of applicable disciplines, we can make stronger internal connections than other campuses,” says UW–Madison Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr. “Because UW–Madison is a recognized leader in so many of these fields, we can help organize other universities or organizations behind solutions that are necessarily collaborative.”

Jake Moskol, the Global Health Initiative’s coordinator, is turning the initiative into a clearinghouse for campus programs, events and groups with ties to global health. His list of departments, units, centers and people with applicable missions or work has climbed into the dozens, and he urges others to make themselves known as the initiative gets set to launch the Incubator.

“We’re finding programs and groups we didn’t know about who are already doing important work on global health, and some of them are already looking for ways to create and participate in the kind of partnerships the Global Health Initiative should be fostering,” Moskol says.

The Global Health Initiative is encouraging faculty, students and staff from all disciplines to attend the first Incubator Jan. 31 and learn more about how their research contributes to solving global health problems. For more information on the Incubator series, the RFP process and the Global Health Initiative, visit http://ghi.wisc.edu.

Register online for the GHI Incubator.

Incubator dates and topics:

Jan. 31: Combat Global Infectious Diseases

Feb. 14: Improve Maternal Health

Feb. 28: Reduce Child Mortality

March 7: A Global Partnership for Development

March 28: Promote Gender Equality

April 11: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger

April 25: Achieve Universal Primary Education

May 2: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

Some topics and dates may shift. Visit http://ghi.wisc.edu for an up-to-date calendar.