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Researchers, staff rise to grant proposal challenge

  Jennifer Lassner
 
Jennifer Lassner, senior associate director in the Division of Sponsored Programs, and her team submitted 137 NIH Challenge grant applications by the June 1 deadline. In addition, they’ve submitted another 271 stimulus-money-related grants. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.
   

The University and surrounding communities this week are marking the flood of ’08. But fewer folks know about the flood of ’09, a moniker jokingly applied by the staff of the Office of the Vice President for Research to a veritable inundation by grants.

The deluge can be traced to President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which included an influx of dollars for research. While this money is seen as a positive sign by researchers everywhere, obtaining a piece of the funding pie requires submission of a grant proposal on a significantly accelerated timeline. And each proposal must be shepherded through the submission process by the Division of Sponsored Programs.

The relatively flat funding trend for scientific research in recent years meant this opportunity set a fire under researchers around the United States. One of them is Louis Messerle, an associate professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He joined forces with Geoff McLennan, professor of internal medicine, and John Engelhardt, professor of anatomy and cell biology in the College of Medicine, to submit a grant proposal on developing a method for using microparticles in imaging lung disease. Messerle also wrote a proposal seeking funding to create new tools for protein crystallography, a method of imaging proteins and their functions to help scientists explore and better understand disease processes.

Messerle admits long hours were spent gathering information for and writing the proposals.

“I tend to be a perfectionist, so I polish my proposals many, many times before I submit them,” he says. “The timetable for these was very short, and there were many late nights spent pulling the proposals together.”

The need to put in long hours to meet the tight deadlines was shared by staff members in the Division of Sponsored Programs, which helps researchers submit grants to the appropriate organization in the appropriate manner.

And you might say they asked for it. When the ARRA money was announced, Cheryl Ridgeway, grants coordinator in the Office of the Vice President for Research, quickly developed a web site linking to information about what was available, who might be eligible, and how to apply for it. Federal agencies issued new ARRA funding announcements so rapidly the site often had to be updated daily. (This in part is where the comparison to last summer comes from: the flood of ’08 also necessitated quick action from the OVPR’s office, helping grant-funded, flooded researchers understand how to cope with the disaster and still comply with grant requirements.)

 

"Without your professional and swift response, our research enterprise would not be able to act on the historic opportunities before us."

—UI president Sally Mason,
at a luncheon honoring staff

   

Staff members then geared up in preparation for the inevitable onslaught. While grants are submitted electronically—an improvement from the days when submitting hard copy sometimes meant late night runs to FedEx—each granting agency has different requirements for each type of grant. Twila Reighley, director and assistant vice president for research, notes that the National Institute of Health (NIH) Challenge grants were no exception.

“Submitting the grants often required problem-solving and detective work,” she says. “The ARRA funding was so new that the NIH system wasn’t ready. We often had to submit a grant multiple times, and there were certain hours of the day when it was so busy you couldn’t get a grant through. But the staff did an incredible job.”

Heading up the team that shepherded the grants through the final phase was Jennifer Lassner, senior associate director in the Division of Sponsored Programs. She and her team submitted 137 Challenge grant applications by the June 1 deadline. In addition, they’ve submitted another 271 stimulus-money-related grants. Lassner, who’s been in the office 13 years, has seen a major change in her work.

“When I first started, there’d be piles and piles of papers,” she says. “Now we’re pseudo-IT specialists, having to understand all the various programs that exist.”

The number of grants submitted from around the country (estimates are that 20,000 NIH Challenge grant proposals were submitted in total) added an additional challenge.

“The systems were so overloaded that it was difficult to work after noon,” Lassner says. “It became easier to submit after 7 p.m., after West Coast universities closed.”

In May, UI president Sally Mason recognized employees’ long hours and extraordinary efforts at a luncheon organized in their honor.

“Without your professional and swift response, our research enterprise would not be able to act on the historic opportunities before us,” she told the staff.

Faculty member Messerle echoes her sentiments.

“I’m so impressed by what they did and how they stepped up for the University,” he says. “If any of the grants are funded, it’s because of them.”

While the NIH Challenge grant deadline has been met, stimulus funding to other government agencies will continue to keep the Division of Sponsored Programs busier than usual. And even if grants aren’t funded through these programs, Jordan Cohen, the vice president for research, believes the opportunity to compete for stimulus dollars will create more grant submissions in the future.

“Activity like ours is being replicated all over the country and the competition for the Challenge grants will be stiff,” Cohen says. “But one of the most exciting aspects of these programs is that many faculty who hadn’t recently submitted a grant will use this as an initial review of their ideas and likely revise and resubmit their proposals. It’s stimulated a lot of new ideas and collaboration across disciplines that we expect will show up in a significant increase in overall grant activity for the next few years.”

by Linzee Kull McCray

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.