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Sowing the Seeds of Research Success

Faculty research investment program yields 25-to-1 returns in external funding.

If stock market investments were as successful as the University of North Dakota’s faculty research seed money program, some might be praising Wall Street instead of trying to occupy it.

Sowing the Seeds

Milavetz

According to Barry Milavetz, associate vice president for research and economic development, over the past five years the University has given out $1.3 million in research seed money grants to 55 faculty.  In return, UND has received 36 external grant awards worth a total of about $33 million — a rate of return better than 25 to 1.

The goal of the seed money program is to enhance the ability of full-time faculty to submit successful extramural grant applications.

“By all measurements, it is a very successful program,” Milavetz noted.  “It’s doing what it was intended to do.”

The program, in existence since 2000, was the idea of William Sheridan, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of biology.  The goal was to assist faculty members in submitting competitive research proposals to major funding organizations, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One of its primary functions has been to help new faculty researchers become established to a point where they can begin to attract external funding.

“The reality for a new faculty member is that it’s probably going to take them three years to get funded externally,” Milavetz said.  “A startup package usually doesn’t last more than two years.  That immediately puts them in a bind.  They have lots of money for two years and then they might hit a blockade.  If they get a seed money award during their third year, that’s what gets them through that time period.”

The other valuable aspect of the program is to help established researchers bridge the gap from one area of research to another.

“One of the ‘kisses of death’ is not to change with the field,” Milavetz said.  “If you’re going to continue to ask your questions in exactly the same way, eventually the funding agency will comment on that.  They’ll say that the field has moved into a different area.”

As Milavetz knows from personal experience as a biomedical researcher at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, “It can be tough.  You really have to make the change.  Otherwise the funding sources will dry up.  It’s fairly common with such agencies as the NIH where you have a 1 in 10 chance of being funded.”

Funding for the program — approximately $300,000 annually — comes from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.  The Faculty Research Seed Money

Committee makes awards ranging from $1,000 to $40,000 in support of faculty projects in any department of the University.

Faculty proposals are subjected to a competitive review and ranked by subcommittees from related disciplines with members appointed by departments.  The proposals must be designed to develop a project or provide preliminary data for one or more extramural grant proposals.

Program participants must submit a final report to the Office of Research Development and Compliance.  The report includes a summary of study results, how the funds were spent, and whether the project resulted in external grant proposals or awards, publications or presentations.

Sowing the Seeds

Thomasson

Faculty research seed money success stories

Kathryn Thomasson, professor of chemistry

Thomasson, who’s been at UND for 18 years, credits the faculty seed money

research program not only with helping her move from one research area into another, but also with increasing the scope of her research on cell energy production.

Her work could help answer questions such as why cell mechanisms in diabetics break down and interfere with the body’s ability to turn food into energy.  One of her graduates is looking at finding an effective treatment for malaria using the lab techniques she developed.

“When I started out, my research was dealing with tiny little peptides, tiny little systems,” Thomasson said.  “I have been able to expand to ask questions I never thought I could ask.  We’ve gotten so much larger, and we’re heading larger still.”

Thomasson received a seed program grant for $16,800 late last year.  She recently received a three-year, $235,980 NIH award for “Channeling Within Glycolysis: Steps Involving Nicotene Adenine Dinucleotide.”

“The seed money is enabling me to connect with computer science on campus,” she noted.  “I’m working with a computer scientist who can deal with the computer code that handles the larger systems, and we’ve had some success.”

The research Thomasson did with the seed money enabled her to submit the grant proposal to the NIH.  Even though it’s a different project, some of the proteins she’s studying are the same.

“Instead of looking at individual, isolated proteins, with the NIH grant we’re looking at protein-protein interactions,” she explained.  “Plus, since these proteins are enzymes, we’re looking at how they pass small molecules from one active site to another.”

As many researchers have found, Thomasson reached a point where she needed to bridge the gap from one research area to another.  The Faculty Research Seed Money Program helped her to do that.

“I had 12 years of funding from the NIH, but it was time to change gears,” she said.  “That was difficult because it hit at the time when national funding rates started dropping, particularly NIH.  The seed money has helped keep me going and it’s enabling me — thanks to the connection with computer science — to start asking questions that I couldn’t deal with before.”

Sowing the Seeds

Foster

James Foster, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology

If James Foster had left this area for greener pastures, he may not have had the opportunity to explore a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which his father suffered from for 20 years.

Foster was recently awarded a three-year, $406,000 grant from the NIH for a project titled “Dopamine Transporter Palmitoylation.”  The grant came through the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse because understanding how the dopamine transporter works in brain cells could lead to breakthroughs in treating drug addiction.

The dopamine transporter is also linked to depression, attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia, as well as neurological cell death with Parkinson’s disease.

“The dopaminergic systems are involved in reward,” Foster explained.  “It’s that good feeling you get after eating a bowl of ice cream.  It’s the same with cocaine and amphetamine.  You get sustained and high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine released, opening the reward pathways.  That’s the euphoria and feeling of well-being that you get from these drugs.”

The NIH grant might not have been possible without the support Foster received from UND’s Faculty Seed Money Research Program.  His research led to the publication of a paper in the prestigious Journal of Biological Chemistry, which served as the basis for the NIH grant proposal.

After graduating from Bemidji State University, Foster, a Greenbush, Minn., native, came to UND and earned his Ph.D. studying under Robert Nordlie, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology (now retired).  Foster had opportunities to go elsewhere, but decided that he’d prefer to stay closer to home.  Twenty-two years later, he’s still here.

Foster became involved in neuroscience research while working with Roxanne Vaughan, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.  In the department, he also teaches carbohydrate metabolism.

“I’m kind of a duck out of water,” observed Foster. “I know they always talk about trying to keep the young people in North Dakota.  “Although I wasn’t born in this state, I’ve lived in Grand Forks the past 22 years, so I kind of feel like I’m a North Dakotan.”

Patrick C. Miller | Staff Writer