As part of a focused strategy to advance UNT’s research standing and help faculty members’ dreams come alive as they address some of society’s biggest problems, last year a new Washington D.C. Research Faculty Fellows program was launched to take select researchers to visit Washington D.C. and meet federal research agency program directors.
In early February, 19 junior faculty from across all disciplines traveled to Washington, D.C., to interact with granting agencies about their research. Their projects run the gamut — they focus on everything from optical-sensor lined bras that can help detect breast cancer to the human factors of cybersecurity to behavioral neuroscience and exercise psychology. The researchers’ goal, however, is the same — to better understand the grant-review process as a way to claim their piece of the $6 billion in federal funding released each year.
“All of our faculty need to become comfortable in explaining very clearly why their research deserves investment,” says Mark McLellan, vice president of research and Innovation. “The better they get at this, the more likely they are to receive federal support for their work.”
That’s why upon his arrival to UNT last fall, McLellan established the Washington D.C. Research Faculty Fellows program as a way to provide young faculty an inside look at granting agencies and their review processes, to increase their awareness of the funding opportunities available and to help them discern what is — and isn’t — effective when it comes to grant applications.
The 2020 cohort hailed from 11 of UNT’s 14 colleges and were nominated by the deans and associate deans of research.
"I had a very positive experience speaking with agencies and program officers, many of whom provided feedback and guidance on other potential funding that may be more aligned with my work,” says Ryan Olson, assistant professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation, whose research focuses on behavioral interventions to improve cognitive, cardiovascular and mental health outcomes. During the trip, he spoke with representatives from the National Institutes of Health. “This opened the door to new opportunities that I originally missed in my search.”
April Becker, assistant professor of behavior science who recently won a prestigious Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award for her work in improving behavioral assessment testing for stroke research, visited four granting agencies during the February excursion. She’s seeking funding in the area of neuromodulation of cortical and behavioral plasticity — specifically as applied to recovery from brain injury or skilled training — as a means to discover basic principles of brain changes that contribute to learning and to find brain stimulation approaches that can augment the process. Following discussions with granting agencies, her goals included completing minor revisions to a grant for resubmission and applying for up to three junior-level grants before spring 2021.
“The added value of this kind of in-person experience compared to phone contact can’t be overstated,” Becker says. “Direct contact with federal funding officers and parallel support and advice through the research office and colleagues improves the quality of opportunities for networking, self-education, communication, clarity of information, and many other grant-relevant skills and content.”
The fellows contributed significantly to the 14% increase in grant applications that UNT’s Grants and Contract Administration saw in the past fiscal year. Several of the fellows have already received awards from major funding agencies including Qing Yang, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, who has been awarded multiple grants from the National Science Foundation for his autonomous vehicle research, and Sara Champlin, assistant professor of journalism, who was part of an NSF RAPID grant for a collaborative project providing usable COVID-19 health information to refugee populations.
“Everyone needs aspirational leaders that you see as being successful, and you want to ride their coattails and be like them,” McLellan says. “We’re creating that here in our young new faculty hires so that they’re just rocket ships taking off.”