More Grant Proposals Mean More Grants
Writing Team is in Unique Position to Promote Research Agenda

The solicitation sent out early this year by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center Atlantic offered extraordinary research and development opportunities for Old Dominion University. Nearly $30 million in funding over five years was up for grabs, payable to universities in the mid-Atlantic and South that would be chosen to provide research, training, analysis and other services to SPAWAR.

Faculty members at ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology had done previous contract work with SPAWAR – one of the operation’s main centers is only three miles from the Norfolk campus – and they knew that the range of expertise in their college covered many of the electronics services described in the 76-page solicitation.

But it became clear to the engineering researchers and to the ODU Office of Research that the scope of SPAWAR’s upcoming needs would require the contributions of physicists and other scientists, of writing coaches and language translators, of sociologists and testing experts and of management and human performance specialists.

In other words, two dozen or more of ODU’s academic departments might be called upon to contribute to the grant proposal. The monetary award for the university’s researchers and instructors could be large, but the challenge of coordinating a proposal process involving so many investigators seemed daunting.

Cue Karen Eck, the director of research development for ODU, and her team of grant writers. “This was an opportunity that shows the wisdom of having a central team of grant writers, each with a specific college assignment. We were in a unique position to help pull this proposal together,” Eck said.

Mohammad Karim, who became ODU’s vice president for research in 2004, worked with Kaethe Ferguson, a former director of research development, to begin forming the grant writing team in 2006, when two writers were hired. Since then the program has grown to a complement of five writers. Simultaneously, the research and development (R&D) spending at ODU, which is made possible by grants, has moved steadily up.

ODU’s R&D expenditures in 2006 were $65.36 million. In 2009, the total was $96.18 million.

Just as telling, according to Eck, is the jump in the dollar amount of grant proposals submitted by ODU faculty members. “You can’t get a grant unless you submit a proposal,” she explained. “So this is an important indicator.” In 2006, the university’s researchers applied for $120 million in grants. That figure moved up to $224 million in 2008 and to more than $300 million in 2009.

Investment Paying Off
“We have made research and development a priority at Old Dominion, and our investment in a grant writing team is evidence of that,” Karim said. “This is an investment that is paying off. Preparing a grant proposal is a difficult undertaking for any faculty member and we owe it to our researchers to give them the most assistance possible.”

Karim and Eck said the Office of Research has insisted on high qualifications for the grant writers and career experiences that mesh with the demands of the job. Three grant writers have doctoral degrees, as does Eck, and the others hold master’s degrees. Familiarity with research disciplines is necessary, but people skills are too, as well as writing and editing skills and creativity, Eck said.

The writer with the most seniority, Luna Magpili, was one of the original hires in 2006. Her master’s in industrial engineering from the University of the Philippines and doctoral degree in systems and information engineering from the University of Virginia have served her well in her assignment to the Batten College. “She is an example of how we put grant writers in colleges who have the appropriate background,” Eck said. “Luna’s training is in engineering and she knows the terminology and the technology.”

Administrators who work with Magpili provided their own endorsement. “A grant writer has been the true enabling link that was long needed for, particularly, the proposals with multiple investigators and even multiple institutions,” said Oktay Baysal, the Batten College dean. “We have seen the results of having Luna in this critical role.”

Added Osman Akan, the college’s associate dean: “Luna is a hard-working and immensely capable professional with a wonderful personality. The Batten College researchers truly enjoy working with her.”

How the Process Works
It was Magpili who took a leading role in pulling together the SPAWAR proposal, working closely with two other facilitators, Cindy Walters of the Virginia Applied Technology and Professional Development Center, and Betsy Foushee of the ODU Research Foundation. The grant’s principal investigators are Charles Keating, professor of engineering management and systems engineering and director of ODU’s National Centers for System of Systems Engineering (NCSoSE), and Charles Sukenik, associate professor of physics.

Prakash Viswanathan, the grant writer for the College of Sciences, was called in early on to help. He has been a researcher himself, serving as a research assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. His doctorate in biophysics and bioengineering is from Case Western Reserve University.

Kevin Adams, the principal research scientist at NCSoSE, and the investigator who devoted the most hours to the eight-week proposal crafting process, had nothing but good things to say about Magpili and Viswanathan.

“Luna was responsible for all aspects of the 49-page technical volume of the proposal,” Adams said. “Her work was thorough, professional and delivered in a timely fashion. Prakash very capably assisted Luna by coordinating inputs from the various collaborators from the College of Sciences. The technical volume set the pace for the proposal and is the centerpiece of ODU’s offer to SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic in their role as the premier electronics systems center on the East Coast.”

Before the proposal was submitted in March, Eck put in quite a few hours herself on the project and also assigned some chores to Jackie Stein, the grant writer who works with the College of Arts and Letters. Stein’s bachelor’s degree in English language and literature is from the University of Maryland and master’s in counseling psychology is from Bowie State University.

“This proposal, if awarded – and we should find out fairly soon (the word had not come by early May, when this story was written) – will qualify ODU as a preferred contractor to SSC Atlantic for analytical and technical support services and research and development efforts,” Eck explained. “We are proud of the role our grant writers played in documenting the expertise and capabilities of ODU’s faculty and students.”

While the SPAWAR proposal answered a solicitation, other grant proposals develop quite differently. Sometimes a researcher has a promising idea, and looks to Eck and the grant writers for help in identifying potential sources of research money. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are primary funding agencies, for example, and each has numerous funding programs that have financed ODU research studies in the past.

When a grant writer and researcher – or research team – are paired, the first step may include a thorough vetting of the proposed research project to answer questions such as “Is it good enough?” or “Who cares?” There also may be a need to identify potential research collaborators, at ODU and perhaps at another institution. If the project seems sound, then the writer/researcher team settles on a target funding source, creates proposal outlines and sets timetables for the work that will be required. The grant writer may suggest ways to organize the material, and will be involved in the editing and proofreading.

Startup Help for Young Faculty
If the proposal results in an award, there is celebration. If not, the grant writer and researcher will evaluate the reviewers’ critiques and may decide to rework and resubmit the proposal.

Viswanathan said most of the researchers he has worked with in the College of Sciences are quite familiar with the grant writing process and that he helps them mainly by providing advice about writing clarity and organization.

But more is required of him when he works with younger faculty members, such as Anna Jeng, assistant professor of community and environmental health in the College of Health Sciences. He helped Jeng with the proposal that resulted in a $150,000 grant last year from the NIH’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Prakash Viswanathan impressed me with his acute comments to enhance the content and quality of my proposal,” said Jeng. “In fact, he contributed to my success on receiving the NIH grant award.”

“Actually,” Stein added, “what we do is not just about dollars. An important part is working with junior faculty who have little or no experience in writing proposals and helping to get them connected to the world of research funding.”

Both Stein and Viswanathan used the term “jack-of-all-trades” to describe their duties. “It’s exciting in Arts and Letters,” Stein added. “One day I’m dealing with a grant in theater arts and the next it’s a grant for a political scientist studying some terrorist regime.”

In the spring of 2010, Eck filled two positions left open by resignations. Melissa Hallman became the first grant writer dedicated exclusively to the Darden College of Education. “The education faculty has been very proactive in pursuing grants and I felt they needed a grant writer who was not splitting her time with another college,” Eck said. Hallman is an experienced grant writer who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Virginia Tech.

Eck also announced that Helen Fillmore would start July 10 as the College of Health Sciences grant writer. She holds a doctorate in anatomy and neurobiology from the University of Tennessee, Memphis, and has been a grant reviewer for NIH.

The Grant Writing Team

Karen Eck, director of research development. (Joined ODU in 2009) She served as the biomedical grants officer at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for four years before joining ODU. She also did postdoctoral research at McGill and l’Universite de Montreal and served as director of community resource development for Federation CJA, a nonprofit umbrella organization supporting community service agencies in the Montreal Jewish community. She has presented workshops on grantsmanship, peer review and foundation funding. Her academic training is in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics with a focus on bilingualism. She received master’s and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology from Kent State University.

Luna Magpili, grant writer focusing on the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. (2006) She was an infrastructure officer for International Relief and Development and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia before joining ODU. Her bachelor of science and master’s degrees in industrial engineering are from the University of the Philippines. She received a Ph.D. in systems and information engineering in 2003 from the University of Virginia. She currently serves as a reviewer for the National Science Foundation.

Jackie Stein, grant writer focusing on the College of Arts and Letters, College of Business and Public Administration and university administration. (2007) Prior to joining ODU she served in various capacities as a grant writer, having written 11 proposals, all but one of which were funded. She also has served as a day treatment therapist at Child and Youth MHA Services, Virginia Beach Department of Human Services. She received a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from the University of Maryland and a master’s in counseling psychology from Bowie State University.

Prakash Viswanathan, grant writer focusing on the College of Sciences. (2008) Prior to joining ODU, he served a postdoctoral fellowship in electrophysiology at Vanderbilt University and was a research assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He received a bachelor’s-level degree in instrument engineering from Karnatak University in Dharwad, India, and a doctorate in biophysics and bioengineering from Case Western Reserve University. He is a member of the American Heart Association Basic Cardiovascular Research Council.

Melissa Hallman, grant writer focusing on the Darden College of Education. (2010) She has more than eight years of experience in the nonprofit sector, most recently as a funding specialist and grant writer for the Family Alliance in Lynchburg, Va. She also has done grant writing for the Corporation for Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and the Virginia Community Healthcare Association. At the Virginia Association of Health Plans, she served as director of administration. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Richmond and a master’s in public administration from Virginia Tech.

Helen Fillmore, grant writer focusing on the College of Health Sciences. (2010) She was a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University in the Department of Neurosurgery from 1998-2010. She also has been a reviewer for numerous scholarly journals and a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program, and the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission. Her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Memphis, is in anatomy and neurobiology.

Quest Summer 2010 • Volume 13 Issue 1