Symposium highlights breadth and depth of Penn Global research

The Penn Global Research and Engagement Fund is supporting the 19 new faculty-led projects that span research, capacity-building, and development efforts across Africa, Latin America, India, China, and beyond. 

A panel sits at at table in Perry World House as a presenter on the right stands at a podium explaining his research.
Bodong Chen of the Graduate School of Education (right, at podium) discusses his project that focuses on helping integrate sustainable development goals into schools in China. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

Faculty from across the University of Pennsylvania whose research is being supported by the Penn Global Research and Engagement Grant Program presented their projects at a symposium last week that showcased the breadth and depth of work being done: from improving stroke care in African countries to boosting early childhood development in refugee communities to helping teachers in East Asia develop global climate justice curricula, and much more.

The 2023 Launch Symposium at Perry World House brought together Penn Global’s latest grant recipients to share short presentations on their projects that span research, capacity-building, and development efforts across Africa, Latin America, India, China, and beyond.

Penn Global awarded $1.7 million in research and engagement awards to support the 19 new projects, which involve faculty from all 12 of Penn’s schools. The awards are made possible by support from four funds that make up Penn Global’s grant program: the Holman Africa Research and Engagement Fund, China and India Research and Engagement Funds, and the Global Engagement Fund.

All projects selected for funding this year will engage one or more of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2015 and adopted by all member states, the goals are a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.

As the U.N approaches the halfway point to achieve these goals by 2030, Penn Global solicited proposals that sought to reassess the progress of these goals and promote initiatives that would move toward reaching those goals.

In remarks at the symposium’s start, Eugenie L. Birch of the Weitzman School of Design and Penn Institute for Urban Research discussed her involvement with the U.N., particularly in the 2030 agenda which created the SDG 17. She told the participants that the global community is still far from where they need to be in reaching those goals.

Birch noted that Penn Global recently secured Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recognition at the U.N., which means experts at the University of Pennsylvania can enter into the conversations according to U.N. rules with the member states, and in their meetings bring Penn’s wealth of knowledge to an even wider audience.

She urged the grant recipients to “think about the challenges that lay before us, at the local level, at the national level and at the global level, to put these SDGs back on track.”

One way to do that is to provide research that will help public and private decision makers “come to the table and do what they have to do in terms of creating the policies and programs that will create the transformation that the SDGs are attempting to do,” said Birch.

The four panels at the symposium focused on SDGs in Africa and in India; SDG intersections of climate, education, and knowledge-sharing; and “Next Gen Penn,” which highlighted undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral researchers who are engaging in work targeting the U.N. goals.

In the second panel on efforts in India, moderated by Amrit Thapa, of the Graduate School of Education, the topics showed the range and reach of the grant recipients’ research, and illustrated how the symposium itself can inspire collaboration between departments, schools, and partners overseas.

The first presentation was “Stories of Climate Action: Negotiating Planning in Mumbai’s Wetscapes” from Rohit Mujumdar, School of Environment and Architecture in Mumbai, India, speaking on behalf of Nikhil Anand, associate professor of anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences. The project will look at telling everyday stories of development, infrastructure, and dwelling of marginalized urban residents in Mumbai that are often drowned out by the formalized procedures of expert knowledge of climate change action.

In the second presentation, Jere Behrman, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Economics in the School of Arts & Sciences, described his new project: “Synergy to Solve SDGs (S3): Targeting Physical and Mental Health in India.” He’s collaborating on the work with Vinay Nadkarni, a professor of anesthesiology, pediatrics, and critical care at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and his colleagues based in India.

India has huge physical and mental-health crises. For example, injuries and accidents are major causes of trauma-related morbidities, deaths, and related expenditures, and more than 150 million individuals suffer mental morbidities.

Seated at a table at Perry World House: Stephen Avery, of the Perelman School of Medicine, Kyle Cassidy, Annenberg School for Communication, Vanessa Denny, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Megan Rybarczyk.
Listening to a presentation during the first panel on efforts in Africa are (left to right) moderator Stephen Avery, of the Perelman School of Medicine, Kyle Cassidy, Annenberg School for Communication, Vanessa Denny, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Megan Rybarczyk, Perelman School of Medicine. (Image: Courtesy of Abhiram Juvvadi)

This new project addresses these crises through collecting and analyzing data to test a transformative idea in a severely disadvantaged population by studying the economic and social impacts of a unique set of clinically proven physical-and mental-health interventions targeted to young married adults in low-income households/slums in New Delhi.

The work builds on a previous project the ABC-Active Bleeding Control: Stop the Bleed program which educates lay persons in how to deal with emergency injuries and accidents, and Behrman’s earlier project that dealt with developing methods for adolescents to improve their emotional wellbeing in society through cognitive behavioral therapy.

“This project, to our knowledge, is the first collaboration from two former India Research and Engagement Fund projects. Which, in a way, it’s a proof of concept, since we got together because of meetings like this a year or so ago, and designed this project,” Behrman said.

They plan to recruit about 2,000 participants living in slums in New Delhi who agree to participate either in ABC Stop the Bleed training, the cognitive behavioral training, or both.

“We can see if there’s interaction between the interventions for the two and we thereby hope to increase knowledge about these possible interventions, about their interaction, as well as enhance the objectives of [Penn Global’s grant program] in regard to inter-school and interdisciplinary research within Penn and also internationally with our Indian colleagues,” he said.

The third presentation of the panel was “Clinical Multimodal Integration for Stratification of Glioblastoma Patients” by Spyridon Bakas, of the Perelman School of Medicine and Sharath Chandra Guntuku, of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Glioblastoma is globally the most common malignant adult brain tumor. This project focuses on novel integrative computational (AI) analyses of routinely acquired multimodal clinical data to develop new insights on glioblastoma.

The fourth and final presentation “Impact of Tech-based Teaching on Learning in India: Towards U.N. SDG4” was given by Daniel Wagner of the Graduate School of Education. The project addresses a critical aspect of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals: improving education especially in the world’s poorest communities.

To close out the symposium, Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives, noted that this year is the 10th anniversary of Penn Global, and she said she was struck by how much the funding program has expanded in that decade.

“When I joined Penn Global nine years ago, there was a small fund from which we awarded about $350,000 in grants in those early years,” she said. “One of the greatest accomplishments is how the funding program and sponsored projects have grown in that decade.”

Particularly coming out of the pandemic, she said it’s heartening to see the growth of global research and engagement across the university and the enthusiasm for global research “of every stripe and color.”

“I can’t imagine there’s any other conference that takes place at Penn that has this kind of diversity of disciplines, regional foci, methodology, level of engagement,” she said.

She’s discovered that people across Penn love the annual symposium, in part because it brings people together from across the university who don’t often get a chance to hear from each other to learn from each other, pointing to Behrman’s and Nadkarni’s collaboration as the perfect example of what they hope to accomplish in the program.

“It is our great hope that coming here today, you’ve heard from someone who has sparked a new idea that will inspire you to take your work and develop it in a new direction,” Gadsden said.