Grand Challenges

Right now, hundreds of UCLA researchers are working together to solve the world’s most complex issues through a program called UCLA Grand Challenges. These ambitious initiatives unite experts across disciplines, setting the sights of many on a common goal for the common good. UCLA is uniquely positioned to work in this holistic, multi-faceted manner, thanks to its breadth and depth of resources and intellectual capital, interconnected network of visionaries, and the university’s spirit of optimism that drives perpetual progress in Los Angeles and around the world. Today, two such initiatives are well underway — the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge and the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.

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Addressing a devastating condition

Roughly 800,000 people commit suicide every year, according to the World Health Organization, and the leading risk factor for suicide is depression. Depressive disorders are found in one-in-four women and one-in-six men. Those who do not suffer from this devastating condition directly have family, friends or colleagues who do. And yet, no one even knows exactly what causes it.

Meanwhile, there have been remarkable scientific advances today in the treatment of medical conditions like cancer, but little has been achieved for mental health problems like depression. And these problems are not getting better. In fact, by some metrics, they are getting worse, especially among young people. For these reasons and more, UCLA is taking massive action.

The Depression Grand Challenge is the biggest and most comprehensive initiative in history to understand and treat the world’s greatest health problem.

The New Paradigm

The multidisciplinary initiative integrates basic brain science, genetics, social sciences and clinical research. Every discipline offers distinct insights that may inspire a breakthrough in another related field and ultimately advance the entire initiative.

The Depression Grand Challenge is composed of four components, each of which informs the others. The centerpiece of the initiative is a 100,000-person research study, the biggest genetic study for a single disorder in history. The study’s investigation of genetic and environmental factors will, in turn, bolster another component: the effort to uncover the origins of the disease. At the same time, the team is hard at work developing new screening, treatment and remote monitoring protocols as part of a third key component: an expanded and enhanced innovative treatment network that delivers the right treatment at the right time to those at risk or suffering. The fourth component is an effort to increase awareness and spread hope in order to erase the stigma of depression, which prevents people from understanding it, seeking help for it or even just talking about it.

There are no quick and easy solutions for challenges of this scale, but that does not deter UCLA.

runner and cyclist exercise along L.A. River
smiling woman stands in front of crowd
people interact in wastewater reclamation center greenspace

“We may not be able to entirely eliminate the burden of depression,” said Dr. Nelson Freimer, Director of the Depression Grand Challenge and the Maggie G. Gilbert Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. “It’s part of the human condition. Our goal, as with other aspects of the human condition, is to make depression manageable. So it doesn’t cause people to lose their jobs. It doesn’t cause people to lose their families. And it doesn’t cause people to commit suicide. The opposite of depression isn’t being happy. The opposite of depression is being well.”

Taking on the ambitious initiative pragmatically, the Depression Grand Challenge team, powered by the unrelenting spirit of optimism, remains deeply committed to improving global health and making a major positive impact for everyone, everywhere.

Thriving in a hotter Los Angeles

The Sustainable LA Grand Challenge (SLA) is also focused on solving giant problems for the greater good. The multidisciplinary initiative connects hundreds of Bruin researchers with the community and key stakeholders. Together, the team is developing an ambitious plan to transition Los Angeles County to 100% renewable energy, 100% locally sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050. The plan will make the region a model of sustainability for the whole world.

The work of Professor Alex Hall and researchers at the Center for Climate Science at UCLA is fundamental to this initiative. Hall’s research shows that the future for the Los Angeles region will be hotter with more extreme patterns of precipitation. Hall, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has developed modeling techniques that create neighborhood-scale projections of future climate change. The researchers recently completed influential studies of the L.A. region and the Sierra Nevada, where Los Angeles draws much of its water supply. Driven by the findings, the SLA team is relentlessly working to make the region more resilient through energy and water independence.

Inspiring New Technology

The initiative unites experts from about 30 centers and nearly two dozen departments across campus and it is already inspiring technological breakthroughs.

One example: Professor Bruce Dunn and Professor Yang Yang, in the Materials Science and Engineering Department of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, have been working with their teams to improve solar power, based on groundbreaking technology under development. Flexible photovoltaics have been used to capture solar energy and batteries have been used to store that energy independently, but the two had not been integrated into a single device until now. Working with architect Kevin Daly, a lecturer in UCLA’s School of Architecture & Urban Design, the researchers have developed a flexible thin-film device that makes it far easier to integrate solar technology into architectural elements, such as window coverings, awnings and panels.

Institutional Influence

Always leading the way, UCLA’s commitment to sustainability continues to inspire and influence other institutions. In Spring 2017, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block announced that they are co-chairing the new L.A. Sustainability Leadership Council, composed of prominent academic, business and community leaders. Further solidifying the partnership between the city and the university, the council will take on the region’s sustainability issues and work to progress the goals of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.

Inspiring the World

Since UCLA launched its Grand Challenges initiative in 2012, several other universities have followed suit and taken on their own initiatives, inspired and influenced by the methodologies developed and employed here. As such, UCLA is recognized as the global leader in university-led Grand Challenges.

Building on the success and momentum of these initiatives, UCLA is dedicated to creating a better world and a brighter future for all of us.



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