The Sky’s Not the Limit
A collaborative effort is paving the way to fast-track discovery
By Shelley Catalano
In a perfect world, scientists wouldn’t need to spend months writing a 70-page grant proposal in the hopes of obtaining the funding to support their work and purchase the advanced technology needed for their research. Or disturb their progress while their aging lab space is being renovated. Or miss finding the right student or staff to conduct experiments because of a lengthy hiring process.
But the world, especially lately, is far from perfect. And at a time when groundbreaking research is more important than ever before, Stony Brook University is working on solutions to help its faculty and students overcome the existing hurdles to speed their research journeys along.
Alfredo Fontanini, professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, intimately understands the many issues facing researchers, having experienced them himself, such as when the need arose for new technology his lab couldn’t afford on its own.
“I am interested in taste because it offers the unique opportunity for studying the integration of perception, emotion and decision making. When we taste ice cream, we first assess its sweetness, we then experience its palatability and based on how much we like it, we deliberately decide to continue eating it,” he explained. “Much of the research that my group conducts focuses on understanding how the brain builds the perception of taste and uses this perception to guide decisions.”
Several years ago, Fontanini realized that to answer the questions he was pursuing, he required a new, very expensive technology for imaging neural activity that relied on a 2-photon microscope. Not only would it help him with his work, but it would also allow his lab to run a series of experiments to enter into an entirely new line of research. But it wasn’t in Fontanini’s budget, and he didn’t have the data he needed to write a proposal to obtain new funding to purchase it. Fortunately, he had a very supportive department chair, and with her help and a partnership with another principal investigator, Arianna Maffei (also a professor in Neurobiology), “we were able to pool our resources and purchase the technology,” he said. “That equipment has since become one of the main tools for my research.”
In areas that are undergoing a technological explosion, such as neuroscience and many others, not being able to afford the latest technology is an issue that happens repeatedly. “If we want to pivot to a new technology, we first have to collect preliminary data and apply for a grant for that piece of equipment. Collecting preliminary data can be quite challenging if the desired piece of equipment is not available within the university or network of collaborators. And even if successful, this process can be quite slow,” Fontanini said.
Funding roadblocks is just one area that Fontanini is now working to address in his new role as vice provost for research and infrastructure, which he assumed last fall. In this position, he works closely with the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) to facilitate the best ways to invest and figure out how to help departments and investigators meet the growing demand for equipment, facilities and staff.
“One of the biggest challenges that every researcher faces is the need to maintain funding to support their research activities,” Fontanini noted. “And yet the funding landscape is unstable. General funding levels vary depending on federal policies, and even in times in which the federal funding is generous, the prioritized areas may shift. Researchers must be ready to jump from one area to another to capitalize on those opportunities or to follow novel research directions.”
One way the university is helping faculty is by giving them more support in preparing their requests for funding. “Adding staff with expertise in navigating the funding landscape and proposal development will help faculty teams really focus on preparing highly competitive proposals,” said Rich Reeder, vice president for research.
Two new specialists have already been added to OVPR’s existing eight-person staff in the Office of Proposal Development (OPD) for that very purpose. Specialists and coordinators help principal investigators with tasks such as understanding the requirements of a funding opportunity announcement, preparing the required administrative documents, editing and designing the project narrative, developing management plans and broader impacts statements, building collaborations with other institutions, among many other tasks. Eight more positions to support the sponsored programs and grant management will be added in the next year to aid faculty further in submitting their proposals and manage their awards.
“We want faculty to feel encouraged to pursue large, center-scale opportunities and not be dissuaded or overwhelmed by the heavy administrative requirements that come with that territory,” said Nina Maung, associate vice president for research. “The ability to hire more staff in OVPR will allow us to increase the number of faculty, proposals, awards and institutional strategic initiatives that we support.”
Yet easing the funding application process is only one part of the equation. Faculty not only need help to write, apply for and manage grants — a long and complicated process that takes them away from time in their labs — but, in a federal landscape where cross-disciplinary projects are favored, they also require guidance in finding collaborators to have the best chance of winning those grants.
Enter the “tiger teams.”
THE EYE OF THE TIGER
“What we’ve learned over time is that if we wait for a public announcement on a federal funding opportunity, it is often too late for us to put together a team to be competitive,” Reeder said. “We decided to construct teams of subject matter experts — in small groups so they’d be nimble — to prepare our faculty to respond to funding opportunities before they’re announced.”
Last spring, OVPR and the Office of the Provost initiated a pilot program to create these small cross-disciplinary groups, known as tiger teams (see section below), to help plan ahead to compete for new funding. Each team has four to six faculty members from different departments and an OPD representative to provide administrative support.
The teams worked together throughout the fall to outline SBU’s strengths in relation to possible federal funding opportunities in 10 key areas as identified in the United States Innovation and Competition Act, areas strongly aligned with growth in the National Science Foundation (a major funding source). This spring, they will share what they learned with the campus through a series of town halls.
“We asked them to use their expertise to forecast the most likely opportunities to come up next,” said Reeder. The teams provided their reports and predictions to OVPR in December, and now the university is ready to pursue new grants as soon as federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and NASA, announce their intentions later this spring.
Although much of the teams’ focus was on asset mapping, the insights gained will benefit individual investigators and will also provide a road map for future investments in strategic areas, Reeder noted. And while their initial work is done, the teams may be only getting started.
“The hope is that this effort is going to position us aggressively for new funding opportunities. More importantly, this initiative will help us connect researchers around areas of common interest and create new collaborations, new groups that work together,” Fontanini said. “If you bring together very talented researchers with complementary expertise who are interested in the same topics and if you facilitate those connections, then funding will follow as a natural consequence.”
To further encourage SBU investigators to pursue research in the areas investigated by tiger teams, the Office of the Provost has created, in collaboration with OVPR, a new seed grant program (internal funding often used to kickstart projects). “The Provost’s Venture Fund (ProFund) will help to coalesce teams in one of the identified areas of strength, giving scientists the ability to collect preliminary data or conduct preparatory activities that they may need for their proposals,” Fontanini explained. The five grants will be awarded this semester after an internal competition. “The tiger team initiative started from an internal effort of intelligence and due diligence,” he added. “Now it’s starting to spread out within the university. And we’re seeding it with financial support.”
Outside the areas represented by the tiger teams, which are now being expanded to biomedical sciences, the Office of the Provost is developing “a number of new and ongoing initiatives designed to stimulate research in the arts, social sciences and humanities,” said Maung. “Support will be provided jointly by OVPR and the Office of the Provost in the form of seed grants, mentoring awards and incentives for interdisciplinary team projects. And we are currently considering other thematic areas for future sets of tiger teams that could include these disciplines.”
The seed grant program in the arts, humanities and social sciences will provide three grants this spring, with each grant awarding up to $20,000 to support creative efforts. The other grant program will support the development of new mentoring mechanisms for senior faculty interested in developing programs for early and mid-career faculty interested in applying for grants from Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts and other programs. Finally, two $25,000 grants will be awarded to promote the development of new teams to explore interdisciplinary areas of scholarly work, such as digital futures/ethical artificial intelligence, global migration and sustainability.
While the tiger teams and other initiatives are helping with funding, another critical area on which Fontanini is concentrating is ensuring that faculty have the best facilities in which to conduct their research. On an aging campus, that’s the elephant in the room.
“Our infrastructure is aging. Many of our buildings are several decades old,” Fontanini stated. “And that impacts our ability to do research. If cold rooms where we need to put our chemical agents can’t function properly, or if there are electrical problems, these are major obstacles to our research. So it is extremely important to assess the health of our research infrastructures, and also identify effective practices for maintaining, repairing and renovating our facilities.”
Again, teamwork will be key to solving these complicated issues. Fontanini is collaborating closely with Facilities and Services to engage an external partner in conducting a detailed survey to determine the health and quality of the space on campus; identifying available swing space or procuring space via trailers, if needed; and developing a timeline as part of the long-term planning process for upcoming renovations. Several companies have bid on the proposal, and one will soon be chosen to start the review process, which should begin later this semester.
“There are incredibly complex logistical problems as our buildings are aging — and we’re entering a phase where we need to renovate several of them,” Fontanini said. “We need to make these improvements in a way that is efficient and at the same time extremely low impact for our researchers. And that is going to take time, thoughtful consideration and faculty input.”
The Office of the Provost has also launched the Strategic Resource Council as a way to give faculty more avenues to voice their concerns on renovations, funding and other issues. Most important, it gives faculty more opportunities to be part of the broader, campuswide conversation on research strategy. “We thought the best way to begin those conversations was to bring together all the associate deans for research from across the university,” Fontanini said. “And then to have ongoing conversations about the challenges that researchers face. The group has already met a few times and now we’re starting to meet in smaller groups, because it became quite clear that each school has different strengths and interests, and that smaller groups are really best to hone in on how to help all our schools and colleges to achieve their full potential.
“We want faculty to know we will continue to listen to them and hear their ideas and concerns,” he added. “We will do everything we can to provide faculty with the support, technology and space to create new knowledge, inspire our students, and help achieve their research and academic goals.”
To learn more about the next stage for research growth, please visit stonybrook.edu/acceleratingresearch
Update on the Strategic Budget Initiative
When the Strategic Budget Initiative (SBI) was launched in October 2020, one of its primary goals was to discover how to build and strengthen SBU’s research programs. In under a year, the 50+ members of SBI’s Research and Innovation Task Force and its three working groups – in the areas of strategic growth, productivity and infrastructure – listened to faculty, heard their concerns and made dozens of recommendations for the Provost’s Office and OVPR to focus on.
Those suggestions have led to many of the new initiatives outlined here, such as the need for the position of the vice provost for research and infrastructure, the creation of the Strategic Research Council, the hiring of an outside agency to do a space evaluation and the expansion of the proposal development staff.
“SBI has focused university wide attention on the important role of research administration in many different areas supporting the university’s research enterprise,” said Maung. “It provided us with a framework to evaluate the needs and opportunities to provide the most effective support to researchers on campus.”
Other recommendations that are currently underway include:
- Streamlining the process to hire postdoc and early career PhD graduates. Fontanini is developing a working group to address this issue, with the goal of having a new system approved by fall 2022.
- Expanding support for research in the Creative Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
- Establishing a new Revise and Resubmit Seed Grant Program
The Genesis of Collaboration
When Professor Michelle Ballan joined one of SBI’s task forces little did she know how her efforts to help other scientists fast-track their work would lead to accelerating her own research and foster new collaborations.
At a November 2020 presentation to one of the task force meetings, Ballan — associate dean for research for the School of Social Welfare — met Jon Longtin, professor of mechanical engineering and currently interim dean, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. And while Ballan has been at SBU since 2016, and Longtin since 1996, this was the first time their paths had crossed. After the meeting, the two had a separate conversation that soon turned to Ballan’s work regarding children and young adults with autism.
“With children and adults with developmental disabilities, a common behavior is wandering, the act of leaving without supervision or permission of their caretaker. This behavior puts them at extreme risk, as they are often attracted to water features [like pools],” Ballan explained. “They are motivated to leave, for a continuum of reasons: to seek stimuli, avoid events and sometimes reasons simply unknown. But parents try many approaches to keep them safe during the night, such as sleeping in shifts, activating alarm systems throughout their homes and placing numerous locks on doors and windows in an attempt to minimize wandering. What could we do to ease the parent or caretaker’s stress while helping to keep their children safe?”
During their December 2020 Zoom call Longtin began making logical suggestions, such as cameras that trigger alert systems, which Ballan said would restrict their autonomy. Or embed a tracker in their shoelaces, which Ballan noted wouldn’t work because many children with autism wear shoes with Velcro, not laces, and often leave without their shoes. “So how do we come up with a solution that could work and be cost effective for families?” she asked.
Longtin realized professors I.V. Ramakrishnan and Shubham Jain from the Department of Computer Science could help Ballan realize her goals to create such a device. Soon they were discussing the idea every week and in only three months, Ballan and the team had drafted and submitted a National Science Foundation grant proposal. The team won the grant in July 2021 and now the idea is in the testing stage.
Through their partnership, the team created SafeGuard, a suite of low-cost, non-invasive technologies founded on technical and social-science innovation to detect, mitigate and de-escalate wandering events. The system will leverage new opportunities at the nexus of intelligent sensing, data analytics and digital intervention to improve quality-of-life for children and adults with autism and their families.
A Zoom call on a cold winter’s day not only brought Stony Brook University professors together, it also fostered a connection with experts who could best guide them toward finding a solution, the adults with autism who wander, along with adjunct expertise from their parents, siblings, first responders and direct support professionals. Another example, noted Ballan, of how by working together as a community, “we can improve the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities.”
A Primer on the Tiger Teams
Birth of the Tigers
Rich Reeder first brought the idea of developing teams to university leadership late last spring. He wanted to find ways to proactively explore and prepare faculty in advance of new funding opportunity announcements expected from federal agencies. In July 2021, 10 SBU tiger teams were created to proactively explore and prepare faculty in advance of new funding opportunity announcements expected from federal agencies.
A “tiger team” is a term coined by the military to describe a “cross-functional team brought together to solve or investigate a specific problem or critical issue.” The term came to wide public attention when NASA famously deployed a tiger team to save the Apollo 13 astronauts after they suffered a problem on their 1970 mission to the moon.
The First 10 Tiger Teams
- Advanced Communications Technology
- Advanced Energy
- Advanced Materials Science
- Artificial Intelligence
- Biotechnology/Medical Technology
- Climate Change/Natural Disaster Mitigation
- Data Storage/Management
- High-Performance Computing
- Quantum Information
Building on the success of the first 10 teams, the creation of eight more teams in the biomedical sciences is underway, selected based on anticipated federal funding priorities and Stony Brook’s strengths.
Members are currently being recruited and teams will launch later in the semester in these disciplines:
- Aging and Life Span
- Brain/Neurodegenerative Disorders
- Drug Development
- Environmental/Human Health
- Immunology and Infectious Diseases
- Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disorders
- Technology/Regenerative Medicine