Founded in 2018 with the help of a $1M five year institutional grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence program, the Grand Challenges program at Vassar College fosters inclusive excellence in STEM education at Vassar College through curricular innovation, faculty development, and community engagement.

We believe an institution embodies inclusive excellence to the extent that it pursues and achieves its scientific and educational goals within a pervasive culture of inclusion—that is, an intellectual climate founded on the diversity of identities, backgrounds and perspectives of its members as a necessary precondition for achieving excellence.

Who works on Grand Challenges?

Image of a drawing produced during at conference which displays the text, What Does Inclusive Excellence Look Like in Your College Campus.

Vassar Grand Challenges Core Teams 2018-2024

The Grand Challenges leadership team is comprised of students, administrators, and faculty from across the College. From the outset, a core leadership team was established from among the many people who contributed to the development of the grant proposal, with the aim of reflecting the many stakeholders whose voices and connections could help shape the emerging program. The leadership team has evolved, bringing on new people with new perspectives, new connections, and new expertise.

Core Team for GC Round 2 September 2021 – August 2024 Grand Challenge: Inclusive Excellence

  • José Perillán, Faculty Co-Director, Associate Professor of Physics and Science, Technology and Society
  • Jodi Schwarz, Faculty Co-Director, PI and Founding Director of GC Program, Associate Professor of Biology
  • Tom Pacio, Administrative Director, Director of Creative Arts & Institutional Grant Innovation
  • Esteban Argudo, Assistant Professor of Economics
  • Mary Ellen Czesak, Lecturer and Lab Coordinator in Biology
  • Krystle McLaughlin, Assistant Professor of Chemistry
  • Maya Pelletier, Environmental Studies Major, VC ’22
  • Eréndira Rueda, Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Latin American & Latino/a Studies
  • Kathleen Susman, Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Biology
  • Joey Escamilla, Sociology Major, VC ’23
  • Jordan Shamoun, Environmental Studies Major, Migration and Displacement Studies Minor, VC ’24

Grand Challenges Program Founding Core Team and Core Team for GC Round 1 September 2018 – August 2021 Grand Challenge: Climate Change

  • Jodi Schwarz, PI and Founding Director of GC Program, Associate Professor of Biology
  • Tom Pacio, Administrative co-Director, Director of Creative Arts & Institutional Grant Innovation
  • Jan Cameron, co-PI, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics
  • Chris Bjork, co-PI, Professor of Education
  • Kathleen Susman Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Biology
  • José Perillán, Associate Professor of Physics and STS
  • Maya Pelletier, Environmental Studies VC ’22)
  • Nandeta Bala, Education and Cognitive Science VC ’22
  • Nia Smith, Neuroscience VC ’22.


The Grand Challenges Program is an opportunity for students to actively shape our Vassar experience, to equip ourselves and future students to critically understand climate change and its accompanying injustices, and to use our distinct perspectives to collaboratively construct solutions. Discover resources for getting involved, such as professors who are integrating climate change into their work and teaching, classes that address environmental problems, ways to create your own programming, and more. -Sophie Cash VC ’19

Summer Catalyst Research Experience

Four faculty-led research projects were selected to participate in a collaboration between URSI and HHMI Grand Challenges. Several students will present their research at an upcoming symposium with peer institutions from the HHMI Inclusive Excellence program.


Professor and Students in a class

The Grand Challenge program is fostering a community of faculty and students coming together to tackle complex interdisciplinary problems. As the problems evolve, so do our ways to teach, learn, and collaborate. Explore how the Grand Challenges program can facilitate our evolution as teachers, scholars, and members of an engaged community.