Crisis can strike suddenly and on a large scale: take a major hurricane or tsunami, for example. It can also strike more gradually and on a small scale, such as the breakdown of the human body as it ages. To be better prepared for risks that can threaten our health and well-being on the national and cellular levels (and everything in between), dozens of researchers across Northeastern’s colleges are working to bolster the broad understanding of resilience.
Through a new seed grant program supported by Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute, 11 interdisciplinary teams of researchers from all of Northeastern’s colleges are studying vastly different facets of resilience—including combatting arthritis and better understanding the role gender plays in community resilience—so we can bounce back better and stronger when we get knocked down.
“The resilience imperative recognizes and responds to the reality that risk can never be eliminated,” observes Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute. “As individuals and societies, we will continue to be buffeted by an array of hazards that are growing with greater frequency and intensity. What we’re hoping to accomplish with these seed grants is to tap and cross-pollinate the latest research from a variety of disciplines to inform and advance individual, community, and societal resilience.”
One of the 11 projects will focus on improving quality of life as we age. Another will center on how women respond to disaster.
Benjamin Franklin said that, “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” With all due respect to Mr. Franklin, one might add aging to that list as well.
A U.S. Census Bureau report indicates that between 2012 and 2050, America will “experience considerable growth in its older population.” So, as the nation ages, the idea of being able to grow old gracefully becomes more and more important.
“We’ve pretty much tapped out how old we can get—a century-plus is the upper ceiling—so now the goal is improving the quality of life during those later years,” said Flynn.
Indeed, that’s exactly what assistant professors Ambika Bajpayee and Justin Crane are studying: how to become more resilient to aging. They’re focusing on developing novel approaches to treating arthritis as a means of doing so—and they’re particularly well-positioned to make it happen.
Bajpayee, the lead researcher on the project, runs a lab in the College of Engineering on osteoarthritis and drug delivery. Crane’s lab, meanwhile, in the College of Science, studies the causes and consequences of metabolic dysfunction during aging.
“There is a real synergistic process here,” Bajpayee said.
Specifically, the pair is working to develop novel ways to treat osteoarthritis, which Bajpayee said is the most common musculoskeletal disease and the leading cause of immobility.
To do that, they’re homing in on three goals: determining why cells age and die; identifying the effects of lifestyle choices (such as diet) on joints; and developing a therapeutic intervention.
Bajpayee and Crane will develop petri-dish tissue that mimics that found in a human knee joint, in order to study both the effects of certain factors on the flexibility of that tissue as well as to test drugs that would treat arthritis. It’s research that stands to have a vital impact on the resilience of a growing population of aging adults.
“In developed nations, the aging population is increasing, and what I want to do is make the quality of life as good as possible for a human being until they die,” Bajpayee said.
Crane said he was motivated by a similar pursuit.
“Human aging is fundamentally a durability issue at the whole-body level,” he said. “Aging is unlike any other disease in that it impacts everyone, but to different degrees and at different rates. Because it is so universal, I was drawn to aging research because improving aging can be so broadly impactful to human health.”
Women in resilience
A different team of researchers is studying the role women play in growing and maintaining community resilience.
“Women frequently carry a disproportionate burden in strengthening community resilience in moments of social crisis,” the researchers wrote in their project description. “Despite this prominent role, women are rarely centered in resilience studies.”
Changing that are Brooke Foucault Welles, assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design; Jennie Stephens, Dean’s Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and associate director for strategic research collaborations at the Global Resilience Institute; and Suzanna Walters, professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.
“What’s interesting about this project is that it relates to so many different challenges in society,” Stephens said. “Consider so many difficult issues—from climate change to drunk driving, from gun control to politics—and there is a network of women who have come together to respond.”
Their research will focus on five such groups in order to understand and track how women coalesce and respond to risk to individuals, families, and communities. Those groups include Mothers Out Front, Moms Demand Action, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Mothers of the Movement, and the Women’s Movement.
Through their exploration, the researchers hope to develop an understanding of best practices. They’ll also present their findings at the 2019 Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies symposium.
“Women do a lot of work on the ground to shore up community structures,” Welles said. “So, we’re curious: What is it that women and girls are doing when they’re doing this work? How are they communicating? How do they work differently than groups traditionally run by men?”
The researchers will review existing literature to study the history, mission, and impact of these groups, then supplement that work with an analysis of news and social media coverage of the movements they’re studying.
“We’re really changing what resilience means here,” Welles said. “My suspicion is that there’s all kinds of resilience work that we’re not studying yet. So, we’re starting with some of these community- and social-level issues.”
Grant program forms ‘connective tissue’
According to Flynn, the seed grants will serve as a way of connecting various fields of research.
“What is so novel about the Global Resilience Institute is it is able to harness and catalyze cross-college interdisciplinary research,” he explained. “These seed grants help connect dots where they might not naturally form. They provide the connective tissue so that the whole is far greater than the parts.”
The seed grants will fund the research projects for one or two years. During that time, the Global Resilience Institute will work with the researchers on securing external funding sources. In total, 11 interdisciplinary projects spanning eight Northeastern colleges and two institutes received initial seed grant funding—including work focusing on terrorism, critical infrastructure, disaster assessment, community and urban resilience, energy systems, and coastal adaptation. The Institute will solicit a second round of research proposals in early 2018.
“We’re really all about creating a community of interdisciplinary scholarship and research, and not just with faculty members, but with students as well,” Flynn said. “We’re building this university-wide community, because in reality, the solutions for most of the really important societal challenges require the collective insights and expertise garnered from the sciences, social sciences, and engineering. Northeastern is leading the way in forging these kinds of collaborative research teams.”