Research News

Global Innovation Challenge focuses on communicating complex science

This year's Global Innovation Challenge was held Jan. 21-25 in Hayes Hall, South Campus. Photos: Douglas Levere


Published February 18, 2020

Our hope is that opportunities like these facilitate a broader, more diverse, transdisciplinary worldview and conversations — something that will benefit our university and the world.
Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, assistant professor
Department of Urban and Regional Planning

If a key part of the university experience is gaining an expanded worldview, the Global Innovation Challenge just offered students a concentrated blast.

A weeklong competition and workshop-based course for undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and nontraditional students, the annual Global Innovation Challenge (GIC) focuses on developing solutions to some of the world’s major, unsolved global health challenges. This year, some 90 students engaged in team-building and creative problem-solving with international experts and UB faculty around the 2020 challenge: How do we communicate complex health information like advances in genomics, toxic chemical exposures and climate change to people across ages, cultures, and geographies?

Korydon Smith, professor and chair of the Department of Architecture and co-lead of the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE), and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and CGHE, were instructors for the challenge, which was held Jan. 21-25.

“The GIC offers a unique learning experience to our students,” Boamah said. “They engage with their peers and UB faculty across decanal units. This year’s GIC participants learned and practiced how to communicate complex science in genomics, climate change and environmental exposures to different target population in global North and South countries.

“Our hope is that opportunities like these facilitate a broader, more diverse, transdisciplinary worldview and conversations — something that will benefit our university and the world.”

A key part of students’ thinking was choosing how to focus the solutions. Each team had to determine:

  • A health topic to address — chemical exposure, genomics or climatic events.
  • A population or audience to work with — by age, geography or gender, for example.
  • A communication strategy incorporating platforms like social media, art, etc.

A further facet: The teams were asked to focus on issues of equity by seeking to work with populations from low- or middle-income countries, or under-resourced communities in the United States.

As they developed their ideas, students considered how complex health information is currently communicated, how to communicate in a way that’s culturally relevant and more. As the flurry of work progressed, coaches encouraged teams to make sure they could feasibly carry out the recommended innovations over the next year. Coaches also helped teams refine their ideas and gave advice on how to “pitch” the innovations when, later in the week, the teams competed for funding to further their ideas.

Additional perspectives on the work came from two experts: sociolinguist Julie Sweetland, senior adviser at Frameworks Institute, which develops learning experiences for nonprofit leaders, and Martha M Tellez-Rojo, senior researcher for Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, who studies environmental exposures on children’s health.

In all, 15 teams presented their ideas to a panel of judges, who evaluated the teams’ efforts based on criteria like the team’s understanding of the science of its chosen topic, the degree of innovation of the proposed communication, and the clarity and impact of the team’s verbal and visual presentations.

The modestly named Epigeniuses won the competition. Their innovation was a multi-day, community-based intervention to educate women over the age of 12 in Abuja, Nigeria, on the transgenerational epigenetic effects of exposure to alcohol or drugs during pregnancy.

Part of the team’s solution, outlined in their presentation, “Education, Empowerment, and Epigenetics in Abuja, Nigeria,” was partnering with Wellbeing Foundation Africa, an organization that empowers women. Among the recommended tactics: sharing cultural dances and foods, involving community leaders, and developing models and a presentation on DNA and epigenetic effects, all part of a three-day educational community event. The team felt that sustainability of the effort would come through incorporating educational materials into Wellbeing Foundation Africa’s “momma-care” classes and directing messages in all channels to include other relevant environmental exposures, among other tactics.

Epigeniuses team members were Rachel Seibert, PhD student in epidemiology; Ramya Kommidi, New York Institute of Technology; Delaram Haghdel, architecture; Liz Schlant, biochemistry; Taylor Quinn, biomedical engineering; and Laura Schultz, biomedical engineering). Team members will receive mentoring to further develop their ideas, as well as $5,000 to implement their ideas in partnership with CGHE faculty and international partners.

Teammates Charlene Obeng, occupational science/occupational therapy; Hawraa Allami, psychology; Isabel Hall, environmental and water resources engineering; and Isaac Bravo won the Innovation and People’s Choice prizes. Their project aimed to increase education of exposure risks among children living near e-waste recycling sites in La Teja, Montevideo, Uruguay.