Dr. Robert Novak participates in by-invitation-only 2018 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting

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Vector-borne-disease expert Dr. Robert Novak, a USF College of Public Health professor of global health, recently returned from the 2018 Grand Challenges Annual Meeting, held in October in Berlin, Germany.

The Grand Challenges Annual Meeting is a scientific convening to foster collaboration among partners to solve the world’s most pressing health and development challenges.

It provides researchers with an opportunity to share their work and learn about advances in their own field and in others. This year’s Grand Challenges meeting was sponsored by a variety of organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, the African Academy of Sciences and Grand Challenges Canada.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a keynote address.

Novak participated in roundtable discussions that primarily dealt with pest and disease surveillance for human, livestock and crop health.

Robert Novak, PhD, was invited to attend the 2018 Global Challenges Annual Meeting held in Berlin. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

“One of the things we focused on were agricultural problems and how they relate to public health,” Novak said. “For example, the way rice fields in Uganda and Kenya are irrigated promotes the growth of mosquitos. If we’re going to figure out how to increase the yield of rice and minimize the growth of mosquitos, we have to involve both groups. The Grand Challenges meeting helped bring together these groups for collaboration and team building.”

One of the outcomes of the meeting for Novak was a partnership with colleagues at The Ohio State University. The partnership was formed to study the southern armyworm, an insect pest, and plant rusts damaging crops in Africa.

“We want to see if we can create markers for these pests so we can detect them earlier and eliminate them before they cause a lot of destruction,” explained Novak, who has submitted a joint proposal with colleague Dr. Enrico Borello from The Ohio State University for a $200,000 “proof of concept” grant from the Gates Foundation to work on the project.

“We will look at the destruction of a plant by these rusts and armyworms and then create a spectral signature [reflectance across a light spectrum] for each one showing the difference in the plant as the destruction grows,” he said. Once we can ‘prove the concept’ regarding the specificity of spectral signatures in the greenhouse, we can take our idea out for field trials, most probably in Africa where there is a growing problem.”

Novak says a huge benefit of the meeting was the give-and-take between disciplines.

“There is so much information and technology that can be shared between fields,” he noted. “What we know from one discipline can be utilized by another. It was an incredibly stimulating and interactive five days.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health

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