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The Art of Grant Writing: Science Faculty Fund Research

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November 7 , 2003

The Art of Grant Writing: Science Faculty Fund Research

Photos: Todd LeMieux (top) and Paul Schnaittacher

Maria Gomez (top) and Gary Gillis

When Mount Holyoke’s assistant biology professor Gary Gillis heard last summer that his application to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a research grant had been approved, he was elated. Two weeks earlier, he had been told that the application was up against stiff competition and would likely be rejected. “I pinch myself sometimes,” said Gillis, noting that first-time grant applications are often passed over.

Gillis’s three-year grant is enabling him to study the relationship between an animal’s size and the workings of its musculoskeletal system. The funding will provide equipment, student lab assistants, and professional travel, as well as salary augmentation during the summers he spends on the research.

For Gillis and other Mount Holyoke science faculty, grants have become increasingly crucial to support their research. Associate professor of geology Al Werner, who studies global climate change over the millennia, does field work in the Arctic. “To do my research I need pretty big money just to pay for the logistics,” Werner said. “You need money to get there and to be there. You need to rent planes and helicopters, bring in quipment, as well as pay salaries to research assistants.”

According to Frank DeToma, Professor of Biological Sciences on the Alumnae Foundation and chair of biological sciences, the need for grant money has also increased as research has become “more equipment driven and technology intensive.” Janice Hudgings, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Physics, has been awarded six grants since she came to the College in 1999, the most recent of which is to support her research into thermal measurements of optoelectronic devices. “Anytime I start a new experiment I need to invest in $10,000 to $50,000 worth of equipment just to set up the experiment,” Hudgings said. “So grants are critical.”

Another factor driving grant applications is the expectation that faculty will keep research going throughout the year. According to DeToma, while it used to be acceptable for professors to limit research to the summer months when they were not busy teaching, they now “need to keep the boat high in the water all year round.” It is difficult to maintain teaching and laboratory responsibilities without having additional help from a paid lab technician or a post-doctoral fellow, DeToma said.

The success of Mount Holyoke scientists at keeping the grants coming is attributable to several factors, the foremost of which is the high quality of the faculty themselves. “The College gets really top people,” said Tara Fitzpatrick ’78, director of corporations and foundations in the development office, who works closely with science faculty in writing proposals for institutional grants from private foundations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In addition, there is a culture of expectation and encouragement that engenders continued success. Dean of Faculty Donal O’Shea is extremely supportive of faculty, whether their applications are successful or not. Gillis recalled that O’Shea sent him a handwritten note when Gillis initially learned that his grant would not be funded. “He said, ‘It’s great that you applied, and too bad you didn’t get it. Just keep on going, reapply, and don’t get down.’ That was great advice. After all, that’s the way science works,” Gillis said.

Sean Decatur, associate professor and chair of the chemistry department, agrees that O’Shea is a boon to faculty. “He has done a great job of bringing campus recognition and a sense that getting grants is worthwhile. The attitude on campus is very helpful.”

DeToma has watched the grantsmanship system evolve over the 33 years he has been at the College. “It’s part of the culture that science faculty are supposed to get grants,” he said. “As faculty begin to serve on review panels for other grant proposals, they become more sophisticated and gain experience that they apply to their own grant proposals and in helping others.” The science faculty is collegial and very supportive of each other’s grant proposal efforts. “There is a strong intellectual community here,” said Craig Woodard, associate professor of biology. “We share resources and supplies, bounce ideas off each other, and read each others’ manuscripts and grant proposals.”

In recognition of the importance of grants in all fields of study and the complexity of the application process, several years ago the College hired Sirkka Kauffman as director of sponsored research. While it is unusual for a college of Mount Holyoke’s size to have a full-time grant facilitator, Kauffman has proved invaluable in helping faculty college-wide apply for and administer grants.

Woodard recalled that before Kauffman came on board, faculty members took turns handling this responsibility. DeToma explained that few science faculty arrive here with experience in writing major grant proposals, which generally require a series of internal and external approvals and complex budgets. “They can be a bear to do,” he noted.

Once a grant is awarded, Linda Niemczura, the grants accountant in financial services, helps the recipients make certain that the money is fully accounted for. “Most faculty are not used to being bookkeepers,” DeToma said, adding that it’s crucial to maintain good relationships with the NSF and other funding agencies.
Maria Gomez, a new member of the chemistry department this fall, won a research grant last year from the American Chemical Society during her final year as a professor at Vassar. Gomez said that applying for grants is an ongoing process.

She continues to pursue individual grants and is also participating in a joint grant with several peers in her department.


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