News from the Office of Research and Innovation at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio
Author: Research & Innovation Staff
The mission of the Office of Research & Innovation is to encourage, facilitate, and support the Miami University community in all forms of research, education, scholarly, creative, service, and outreach activities. Our communication channels provide news for Miami's researchers and students, as well as for businesses and community members who want to engage with our researchers and their work.
OARS’ 10th Annual Proposals and Awards Reception will be held Wednesday, February 12, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the Advanced Instructional Space (AIS) in King Library, Suite 134.
Miami faculty and staff who submitted proposals and/or received awards from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 have been invited to celebrate their accomplishments. Department chairs and deans have also been invited to join in the celebration, and we encourage invitees to extend an offer to the office support staff who assist with their grant-seeking endeavors.
Those who have not already done so, are encouraged to register no later than Monday, February 10.
We look forward to this opportunity to honor Miami’s researchers, scholars, and creative artists.
The University Senate Committee on Faculty Research (CFR) Faculty Research Grants Program awards three types of funding — summer research appointments, research graduate assistantships, and grants to promote research. Proposals are due annually during fall semester, with awards typically announced during J-term.
For 2019-2020, CFR received 57 proposals and funded 25. Congratulations to the following recipients:
Elizabeth Bell (Political Science) — Summer Research Appointment
Mithun Bhowmick (Mathematical & Physical Sciences) — Summer Research Appointment
Eileen Bridge (Microbiology) — Grant to Promote Research
Nathanial Bryan & Paula Saine (Teacher Education) — Grant to Promote Research
Qing Burke (Accountancy) — Summer Research Appointment
Andrew Casper (Art) — Summer Research Appointment
Wen-Ching Chuang (Western Program) — Summer Research Appointment and Grant to Promote Research
Michael Crowder (Chemistry & Biochemistry) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Kate Dannies (Global & Intercultural Studies) — Summer Research Appointment
Saruna Ghimire (Sociology & Gerontology) — Summer Research Appointment
Paul James (Biology) –Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Joseph Johnson (Psychology) — Summer Research Appointment and Grant to Promote Research
Andrew Jones (Chemical, Paper, & Biomedical Engineering) –Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Mahmud Khan (Physics) — Grant to Promote Research
Emily Legg (English) –Summer Research Appointment
Imran Mirza (Physics) — Summer Research Appointment, Grant to Promote Research
Jason Rech (Geology & Environmental Earth Science) — Summer Research Appointment
Paul Reidy (Kinesiology & Health) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Carlo Samson (Physics) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Jay Shan (Information Systems & Analytics) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Jinjuan She (Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Haifei Shi (Biology) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Mark Sidebottom (Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Yoshi Tomoyasu (Biology) — Research Graduate Assistantship
Christopher Wolfe (Psychology) — Summer Research Appointment, Grant to Promote Research
Updated January 24 to include the number of proposals received by CFR in 2019-2020.
The chemical, psilocybin, is naturally found in a specific mushroom, Psilocybe cubensis. Jones said to mass produce psilocybin from its natural mushroom host would require extensive real estate and time. Currently, alternative synthetic chemical production methods are used but are very expensive. Jones, the principal investigator of this research, wanted a solution that maintains biological integrity and reduces production costs.
Finding an optimal organic host
Through metabolic engineering, which finds ways to increase a cell’s ability to produce a compound of interest, his team of students developed a series of experiments to identify optimal psilocybin production conditions. The recently published article describes their work to optimize the production of psilocybin in the Escherichia coli bacteria. The team is using a well-known E. coli strain that is engineered for safe lab production.
“We are taking the DNA from the mushroom that encodes its ability to make this product and putting it in E. coli,” he said. “It’s similar to the way you make beer, through a fermentation process. We are effectively taking the technology that allows for scale and speed of production and applying it to our psilocybin-producing E. coli.”
Their end result is a significant step toward demonstrating the feasibility of producing this drug economically from a biological source.
“What’s exciting is the speed at which we were able to achieve our high production. Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per liter to over a gram per liter, a near 500-fold increase,” Jones said.
He gives much credit and praise to his students who designed many of the experiments performed during the 18-month-long study.
“A big part of my job is training undergraduates to do this work. The basic idea was mine, but much of the experimental design fell on the students. Early on, I would help guide them in the experimental design process. Toward the end, they were becoming more independent. That’s the type of student we want as they near graduation,” Jones said.
Learning to run laboratory experiments
Lead author Alexandra (Lexie) Adams, a junior chemical engineering major, became a member of the research team her freshman year, just as the Jones Lab was getting started. Patient and meticulous, Jones worked with the admittedly nervous Adams on the basics of laboratory research. It paid off.
The initial work was done in the summer of 2018 as Adams and another undergraduate student co-author, Nicholas Kaplan, took part in Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program. The program provides funding to students for undergraduate research.
Both students, working on separate studies, learned the ins and outs of research, gaining confidence and learning lessons as the summer progressed.
Kaplan, a junior chemical engineering major, studied the feasibility of cyanobacteria as another potential metabolic engineering host. His findings showed mixed results, and it was decided that the lab team would focus on Adams’ psilocybin in E. coli project.
Celebrating a research breakthrough
Adams remembers when they saw the breakthrough in their research. Their goal was to transfer the DNA from the mushroom and see activity in the E. coli host.
“Once we transferred the DNA, we saw [a tiny] peak emerge in our data. We knew we had done something huge,” she said.
Other members of the team included graduate Zhangyue ‘Tom’ Wei (Miami ’19), graduate John ‘Jack’ Brinton (BS Miami ’17, MS Miami ’19), junior Chantal Monnier, senior Alexis Enacopol, and staff member Theresa Ramelot, instrumentation specialist.
Both Adams and Kaplan continue to work with Jones. The students are leading projects that build on the recent success of the psilocybin work. Each of them is starting to pass down what they have learned in the lab by mentoring new undergraduate students who join the Jones Lab.
“It’s important for [the new students] to understand the big picture so they see the reasons for the different steps of the experiments,” Kaplan said.
Jones is pursuing the next phase of this research by studying ways to make the E. coli bacteria a better host — the next step toward enabling sustainable production at levels required by the pharmaceutical industry.
A team of Miami University scientists, led by Mike Vanni, professor of biology, received its fourth National Science Foundation Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (NSF LTREB) grant in support of long-term research at Acton Lake, a reservoir in Oxford, Ohio.
The LTREB grant provides $634,999 over the next five years for Vanni and his research team. It is the only LTREB project currently funded in Ohio.
The research looks at how long-term changes in agriculture affect streams and lakes, using the Acton Lake watershed as a model system.
The research team
Vanni has studied Acton Lake and its watershed for more than 25 years. His research on Acton Lake has been supported continuously since 1994 by the NSF, with the past 15 years through the NSF LTREB award program (researchers can only apply for an LTREB grant after they have six years of data from their study sites).
Maria Gonzalez, professor of biology, is a co-principal investigator of the project. Bart Grudzinski, assistant professor of geography, joined Gonzalez and Vanni this year, replacing original team member Bill Renwick, now professor emeritus of geography.
Long-term agricultural changes affect streams and lake
Little is known about long-term effects of agricultural changes on streams and lakes, Vanni said.
The practice of conservation tillage, which involves plowing the soil less frequently to reduce sediment runoff, was encouraged in the watershed area by the USDA in the early 1990s.
Similar changes are occurring in agriculture throughout the Midwest.
This practice strongly affected nutrients and sediments in streams that feed downstream Acton Lake, the researchers found.
They found an increase in the abundance of bottom-feeding fish, such as gizzard shad. These fish consume sediments and excrete nutrients into the water, providing more sources of nutrients for algae growth.
The amount of algae is controlled mostly by concentrations of sediment in the water and the abundance of bottom-feeding fish, Vanni said.
The LTREB research explores the long-term changes in these interactions.
“We wanted to compare how much nitrogen and phosphorous were coming in from the watershed, versus what was being supplied by the fish,” Vanni said. “We thought that movement of nutrients through the fish could be really important—and it turns out that it is.”
Decades of data reveal unexpected trends
Decades of data have revealed some surprises that would not have been detected in the short term. Research shows that stratification of nutrients in soil due to conservation tillage may be having unintended consequences in the Acton watershed. These effects are also seen in the Lake Erie watershed, according to Vanni. (See below for recent publications from the research team on storm events and on contrasting long-term trends in nutrient loads.)
Climate change and summer storms
Changes in agriculture are also mediated by climate change. Very wet springs followed by very dry summers have become more common in recent years in the Midwest, according to Vanni. This also affects nutrient input.
Water temperatures are increasing faster than the air temperature in some lakes, Vanni said. But in our area — and in similar agricultural landscapes — the effects of changing precipitation patterns on nutrients and sediments may be more important than the effects of temperature.
Big storms bring in a lot of the nutrients. In Acton Lake, more than half of the nutrients that come in one year can come in a matter of about 10 days, Vanni said. Learn more on the Acton LTREB Blog.
Long-term environmental research — more important now than ever
Long-term environmental research is fundamental to understanding an ecosystem’s response to environmental change. It is key to informing policy decisions about natural resources and environmental issues, especially in response to climate change.
After the first and second decades of their research, Vanni and his team discovered unexpected trends in nutrient and sediment inputs in Acton Lake.
“Now, what is going to happen after the third decade? Things can change and surprise us,” Vanni said.
Research opportunities for 100+ students over the years
The Acton Lake LTREB project has provided research opportunities for more than 100 Miami undergraduate students over the years, on projects mentored by Vanni, Gonzalez, Renwick and Grudzinski.
Many of these students conducted research full time in the summers, supported by fellowships from Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars or Miami Hughes Intern programs. Others were supported by NSF REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) supplements to the LTREB grants.
Martina Rogers, junior chemistry major, works with Vanni. This past summer she was funded through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) supplement from Vanni’s previous LTREB grant.
Ashley Mickens, senior geology and environmental earth sciences major and sustainability co-major and a French minor, worked with Vanni in summer 2018 as a member of the Ecology REU program.
Ferdos Abdulkader, junior kinesiology major and premedical studies co-major, also worked with Vanni in summer 2018, funded through his REU supplement.
Isabelle Anderson (Miami ’19), currently a doctoral student at Baylor University, was a 2018 Undergraduate Summer Scholar with Vanni. She is first author of a paper with Vanni and others recently accepted in Limnology and Oceanography, the top aquatic sciences journal.
Josh Tivins, a junior biology major and previous Miami Regionals student, currently works with Gonzalez. He was a 2019 Miami Hughes intern.
Izzy Aristizabal, senior geography major and sustainability co-major, and Claire Stock, junior environmental earth science major and sustainability co-major, work with Grudzinski.
Current graduate students:
Tanner Williamson is a doctoral candidate advised by Vanni. He is the recipient of the 2019 Biology Dissertation Scholar Award. Graduate student Carrie Ann Sharitt is also advised by Vanni.
Heather Luken and Xiu Gao, master’s students in biology, are advised by Gonzalez.
Tessa Farthing is a master’s degree student in geography and geographic information science, advised by Grudzinski.
Recent publications from the research team include:
Miami University’s 26th Annual Undergraduate Research Forum will be held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. This showcase of faculty-mentored student research and scholarly and creative activities by Miami undergraduate students will feature poster sessions and 10-minute talks. The Miami University community and the public are encouraged to save the date for this free event.
We’re pleased to reblog this Duke University Press post by guest blogger Courtney Berger. Berger is an executive editor with a university press, so this post focuses on peer review of books under consideration for publication. However, most of her advice applies just as well to peer review of grant applications (just substitute “editor” for “program officer!”).
On a not-too-infrequent basis I see posts and memes in my social media feed denouncing the dastardly deeds of Reviewer #2—that querulous and impossible-to-please peer reviewer. I usually hover over the post, thinking that I might chime in with a bit of helpful advice. I am a book editor after all. Surely I can say something to help alleviate my friend’s experience of feeling misread, misunderstood, or even personally attacked by an anonymous peer reviewer/colleague. But I always resist weighing in, knowing that at that moment my friend just needs to voice their frustration and receive some affirmation. It can be painful to receive this kind of criticism, especially when facing the pressures of tenure and promotion. However, while momentarily painful, even a negative peer review can be a good thing, and you can use the report to strengthen your book. So, here’s a bit of practical and philosophical advice to help you work through a tough peer review.
1) Go ahead and vent—but be careful about where and how you do so.
As I mentioned, I see plenty of social media posts railing against Reviewer #2. No judgment. It’s good to get your community to support you through tough times. But I would caution against offering too much detail in a (semi)public forum or lingering in this phase for too long. It’s a small world—and although there should be an appropriate amount of distance between you and the reviewer, it’s always possible that they are in or adjacent to your social circles. You never know when the person you’ve declared to be the enemy of your book project will turn out to be the person you most wanted feedback from. (Yes, that happens!) After your initial venting, share the report with a trusted friend or colleague and get their feedback. Perhaps they will have a different take on the reader’s comments. They may identify productive advice that it was tough for you to see at first. If it helps, write a scathing response, voicing all of your frustration with the reader’s misapprehensions and misreadings. Get it all out. Then file it away.
2) Focus on problems, not solutions.
My colleague Ken Wissoker touched on this in his blog post on the merits of peer review, and it’s a strategy that I frequently employ to help authors shift their perspective on a review (even a positive one!). It’s easy to get hung up on the reader’s suggestions for how to improve your book. Maybe they recommend adding a chapter or including analysis of a topic or critic that you think is tangential to your project. Or, perhaps you feel like they didn’t “get” your argument or missed a point that’s already in the manuscript. Your job is to figure why the reader is tripping up. If you said something and they missed it, that may not be the reviewer’s fault. Chances are the point is buried at the end of a chapter or not articulated with enough force. In that case, you need to clarify and highlight your claims so that the reader does get it. It’s not uncommon to have two readers—one more positive, the other more critical—pointing to the same issue. It’s just easier to hear the person who presents their comments more constructively. As the author, it’s your job to make the leap and to figure out what your readers need in order to be convinced. Once you do that, it will be much easier to come up with a revision plan.
3) Clarify your vision.
Use the reader’s comments to sharpen your own vision for the book. I often ask authors early in the process: what do you want your book to accomplish? Are you aiming to shift a scholarly conversation, revise an accepted history, offer a new theoretical tool? Do all of the parts of the book support that mission? Clarity on this point will help you to decide which advice to take on board and which to leave by the wayside. The goal of the review process is to help you write the book you want to write, but even better. Let me repeat that, since it’s easy to forget as you’re wading through frustration, self-doubt, or any of the other feelings that this process provokes. You should use the review process to help you realize your vision for the book and to help you say what you want to say in a way that will reach your readers. For a peer-reviewed book, you need to do that in a way that is convincing to other experts in your field; but the book is yours. (Note: I am setting aside exigencies such as tenure review, departmental pressures, and disciplinary policing, which can make this more complicated. But I always urge people to come back to their own ambitions for the project. The audiences and conversations you initiate or enter into with the book are the ones you’ll likely be engaging with for a while, and so they should be ones you care about.)
4) Talk to your editor.
Sometimes a negative review might mean that a press decides to turn down your project, and you may not have an opportunity to get substantial feedback from the editor. But other times, if the reports indicate that the project has great promise, an editor might be eager to work with you to see the book to publication. So process the report, get through the venting phase, and then set up a time to talk to your editor or send them an email with your preliminary thoughts and questions. As the editor, I have a different perspective. First, I know who the readers are, and while I keep their identities anonymous, I can also help an author think critically about the book’s audience and why a particular reviewer might be frustrated with the manuscript in its current state. For example, maybe you thought the book was for a history of science readership. Reviewer #2’s comments might help you to realize that this audience won’t be as receptive to your work. Is this who you are really writing for? If so, you may need to make some adjustments. If not, you may need to reframe the book for the readership you want. Also, I appreciate authors who can take a tough criticism and respond productively. I take it as a good sign when an author is willing to tackle Reviewer #2’s comments and use the feedback to make their book even better.
5) Remember that the review process is part of a larger scholarly conversation.
For many the review process simply feels like a set of hoops to jump through. And it can be that. But it’s also a chance to learn from your peers—just as you would when presenting a paper at a conference—and to respond. While there is the occasional mean-spirited reviewer, most readers are trying to be helpful. Try to receive the comments in the same spirit. Be grateful that someone took the time to read and think with you and take what you can from the conversation.
6) Make your response about you, not the reviewer.
Your editor may ask you to write a response to the reader reports, addressing the readers’ questions and laying out a revision plan. It’s tempting to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate all the ways that Reviewer #2 was wrong. (See #1 above: if you do this, keep it in your drafts folder.) Instead, focus on what you plan to do to improve the book. Now is the time for solutions! For example, if the reader didn’t think the book’s argument was cogent, offer a clear and concise overview of the book’s intervention. If the structure wasn’t working, explain how you will either adapt the structure or make the structure more visible so that the reader will understand it. And hold your ground when you need to. If you really don’t agree with a reviewer’s take on your project, say so and explain how you will make your vision for the project come to life.
6) Know when to cut your losses.
Sometimes a negative review is just a negative review. As difficult as it sounds, you may need to set it aside and move on—to a new press or to a new reviewer, depending on the situation. But hopefully with some of these strategies you can get the most out of the review process, and maybe someday you’ll even be thanking Reviewer #2 in your acknowledgments!
They ventured from Iowa, North Carolina, Puerto Rico and other communities to study at Miami University during the summer as part of the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Miami students also are eligible to apply to the program. Some undergraduate researchers came to take advantage of equipment and resources that might not be available at their universities. Others came to be mentored by a specific faculty member. They all gained valuable research experiences, connections and the thrill of scientific adventure.
Here are a few of their stories.
Samir Bali looks back fondly to 2006 when his baby, of sorts, was born. You won’t find arms, legs or even a stray hair on Penelope. Think more twisting wires, camera lenses and laser beams.
Despite the seemingly breakneck speed of technological advancement, current methods of measuring turbid (opaque) substances’ properties are not foolproof. With the help of his dad, Bali, a physics professor at Miami, built and refined a laser-based sensor to solve this problem.
“I was introduced to a physics research lab at the age of 19, and I’ll never forget the sights and sounds when I first walked in — the green, red and orange colors of the lasers, the quiet humming of the vacuum pumps. I remember feeling this powerful sense of intrigue. I enjoy recreating those moments for myself by reliving them with my undergraduate researchers.
— Samir Bali
A prototype like this doesn’t come with an instruction manual.
Before visiting undergraduates Menaka Kumar, from North Carolina State University, and Sydney Rollins, from Whitman College in Washington, could begin investigating turbid media, they first needed to understand how the device works and develop a standard process for using it.
“She [the sensor] was kind of making us mad. We gave her a name so we could call her something,” said Rollins.
Penelope, they quickly realized, requires extensive cleaning. Even the smallest speck of dust skews the results.
After weeks of testing, Kumar and Rollins hoped to turn their attention to melamine – a compound that is virtually indistinguishable from milk when diluted in water. It’s used to produce glues, adhesives and other plastics.
In 2008, melamine was discovered in a Chinese company’s infant milk. Melamine artificially inflates the protein content of a substance and has nearly the same particle size as milk, making it hard to detect. Infants across China who consumed the melamine-contaminated milk developed bladder stones, and several died. The scandal shocked the world and pointed to a need for better contamination detection methods.
“Chemical detection methods are very targeted,” Bali explained, “but you need to know what you’re looking for.”
As with many opaque substances, it’s challenging to determine the properties of liquid melamine. Penelope, they hope, can shine light on this substance to prevent future contamination.
REU student Echo DeVries, a senior at Clarke University in Iowa, was mentored by Hang Ren, Miami assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry this summer. Their project: measuring the distribution of surface charge on electrodes.
An electrode conducts electricity and allows reactions to occur on its surface when electricity is applied. These electrodes play a key role in electrocatalysis, the process of using electricity to drive chemical reactions. For example, an electrode can be used to convert water to hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen is a clean fuel, which produces no CO2 emissions – the same fuel NASA uses to launch rockets. However, the generation of hydrogen on the electrode surface is not uniform. Hot spots exist that efficiently catalyze this reaction.
That’s where Ren and DeVries’ research comes in.
Different electrode surface charges could cause electrochemical reactions to behave differently. That’s why Ren and DeVries analyzed electrodes’ properties and surface charges.
Down the hall from Ren’s lab, Kevin Ruiz, an REU student from the University of Puerto Rico, explored a different area of chemistry research. Alongside his mentor Andrea Kravats, Miami assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and graduate student Yaa Amankwah, Ruiz studied molecular chaperones, which are proteins that assist in maintaining cellular integrity by folding and unfolding proteins that are misfolded. Incorrect folding of proteins has been linked to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Kravats hopes her lab’s work can one day be used to establish new cancer treatments or therapies.
“ Students are eager to learn and tend to get involved early in their undergraduate careers here, giving them an excellent opportunity to excel in their studies.
— Andrea Kravats
At the University of Puerto Rico, Ruiz is a chemical engineering major, but his goal is to become a biochemical engineer. His summer at Miami provided an opportunity to dig into research he’s excited about.
“I already work with protein purification in Puerto Rico, but not the background of why the protein purifies, how it purifies, how we can separate proteins from others. It has been a really good experience,” he said.
Ty Cooley, a Miami University sophomore zoology major, hunched eagerly over a bucket filled with pond water from Shaker Trace Wetlands in Harrison, Ohio, about 20 miles southwest of Oxford. Cooley, originally from New York, gently swirled the bucket’s contents, revealing a host of creatures swimming beneath the algae: mayflies, water mites, water boatmen, glass worms, water scorpions. His eyes lit up as he dug deeper into the bucket and pulled out a large dragonfly larva.
“You see this?” he said, pointing near the arm. “This is where the mouth is located. Let me see if I can get him to- Whoa!” The dragonfly suddenly expanded and thrust an arm-like tongue outward.
Cooley maintained his grip.
“They will shoot out like that, grab stuff, and pull it in. It’s like an alien!”
He’s been bitten by water scorpions. Poked by dragonfly larva. Burned in the scorching July sun. Such is the life of a field researcher, but it is, without question, one chosen gleefully.
Cooley and his mentor, graduate student Jess McQuigg from Mount Vernon, Ohio, are both researchers in biology associate professor Michelle Boone’s amphibian lab. This summer they studied different types of macroinvertebrates in 21 different wetland systems around Hamilton, Butler and Preble counties. Macroinvertebrates are visible to the naked eye but lack a spine. As part of the lab’s larger project, they wanted to see how certain macroinvertebrates affect the density of a pathogen called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd or amphibian chytrid fungus for short) in a given wetland.
Bd is responsible for a significant number of amphibian declines and extinctions, and many sources call it the most devastating pathogen in wildlife history. According to research in Boone’s lab, this pathogen exists in about 30% of wetlands in southwest Ohio.
But the team is optimistic that they’ll discover a method for controlling the pathogen. One of the lab’s big goals is to understand how wetlands can be created that are more naturally resistant to Bd.
As the weather turns colder, Cooley and McQuigg will be back in the lab performing DNA analysis to determine the locations and quantities of the pathogen – what McQuigg refers to as their “fall and winter sport.”
The Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) “provides organizations with opportunities to acquire major instrumentation that supports the research and research training goals of the organization that may be used by other researchers regionally or nationally.”
MRI is a limited submission opportunity, meaning that the number of proposals submitted from a given institution is limited by the NSF. To determine which proposals Miami University will submit each year, OARS conducts a review of preliminary proposals. For the 2020 MRI competition, the window to submit to the NSF is January 1-21, 2020, but the deadline to submit preliminary proposals to OARS is October 28, 2019. With that date coming up, we thought we would re-run a post from 2017 that shares some insights about applying to the program.
INSIGHT 1: Get the basics right.
Be sure to read the solicitation carefully, even if you’ve applied in (multiple) previous years. Solicitations for longstanding programs do change from time to time, so it’s important to read each new solicitation. In fact, the institutional submission limits changed with the 2018 solicitation. Rather than submission limits being based on acquisition or development, they are now based on amount of funding requested. Institutions may submit up to two proposals with funding requests between $100,000 and $999,999 and one proposal with a funding request between $1 million and $4 million, inclusive.
At the NSF Spring Grants Conference held Louisville in June 2017, Randy Phelps, the NSF staff associate who coordinates the MRI program, suggested the following points are especially important to note:
The program funds equipment for shared use, so the proposal must demonstrate use by at least two personnel. There can be up to four co-PIs on the project, but there can be more users than PIs.
The project period can be up to three years because the program will fund operation and maintenance of the instrument for that length of time.
Make sure that what you’re requesting is eligible for funding under the MRI program. In general, the program will not fund anything that can be re-purposed for non-scientific use after the end of the project period. Specific details about what can and cannot be requested can be found in the NSF MRI FAQs.
Remember that voluntary committed cost share is prohibited. While MRI requires that institutions share 30% of the total project costs, NSF does not allow institutions to volunteer to share costs over and above that mark. This prohibition extends to reduced indirect cost rates.
Mike Robinson and Paul James, members of Miami University’s Department of Biology, attribute much of their success in securing an award in the 2017 MRI competition to their recognition of Phelps’ first point.
“What was key for us was that we hit a broad swath of people and types of research,” Robinson says. “We included faculty working in developmental biology, physiology, ecology, physics, and engineering.”
Their proposal included Robinson as PI, four co-PIs (including James), and seven additional equipment users as senior personnel.
INSIGHT 2: Tell a story that resonates with reviewers.
“Get the instrument and they will come” is not a compelling story, Phelps said. Instead, he urged proposers to demonstrate that the science is driving the request for the instrument. There’s lots of advice out there (here, here, and here, for instance) for scientists who want to become more persuasive storytellers. In addition, Phelps offered this specific advice for MRI proposals:
Make sure that the format of your proposal emphasizes the science, rather than the instrument.
Consider grouping users into categories by type of use and organizing the proposal around these categories. Break down the use of the instrument by group, identifying the percentage of total use each group will account for. Demonstrate, for example, that Group A’s use will account for 60% of total use; Group B’s use will account for 20% of total use, Group C’s use will account for 15%, and Group D’s will account for 5%. Then explain how each group’s use correlates to a corresponding percentage of the instrument costs. In this example, that means that since Group A will account for 60% of the instrument’s total, the proposal should show that 60% of the instrument costs derive from the capabilities Group A users require.
Show that the instrument will be used — a lot. The less downtime you can project, the better your proposal will fare in review.
Robinson recalls that when he and James first decided to write the MRI proposal, conversations with colleagues were less than encouraging.
“I can’t tell you the number of people that told me there was no way we were going to get this award,” Robinson says. “We had all of these things going against us: We were going to have to work on the proposal over the holidays; neither Paul nor I had used the equipment; we were told we were going to have to have preliminary data on that very piece of equipment, which we certainly didn’t have; and they kept talking about broader impacts and how there was no way we could satisfy the NSF with that.”
But Robinson and James forged ahead, with the help of an external consultant provided by OARS. Consistent with Phelps’ second recommendation, they organized their proposal around three types of use, or “themes.” Each of these themes incorporated the work of at least two of the proposal’s co-PIs or senior personnel, and Robinson and James worked hard to weave each researcher’s individual descriptions of their work into a coherent overall narrative. The end result was a story that clearly resonated with the program’s reviewers.
INSIGHT 3: Research training is a critical component of an MRI proposal.
Give a someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime. That old adage encapsulates NSF’s perspective on research instrumentation. Not only do they want to get instruments in labs to facilitate research today, but they also want to help create the next generation of instrument users and/or instrument developers.
“If a proposal does not describe research training — particularly for underrepresented groups — it will fail during review,” Phelps said.
The research training plan must be concrete, feasible, and able to be evaluated. Outreach — especially to K-12 students — is not fundable through MRI, and simply providing undergraduate training is not enough.
“All proposals will include [undergraduate training],” Phelps said. “What makes your institution stand out?”
Robinson and James’ proposal made clear that all of the undergraduate and graduate students work in the labs of the project’s PI, co-PIs, and key personnel will receive training to use the fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) system that will be acquired with the NSF grant funds. Professional technicians working in the labs and in Miami’s Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics (CBFG), where the FACS system will be housed, will also receive training. In addition, Robinson says his team “took the broader impact stuff very, very seriously.” So while there are no funds in the grant to support outreach activities, they will nevertheless incorporate FACS-related material into a range of activities that will be shared with K-12 students through STEM outreach initiatives of Miami’s Hefner Museum of Natural History.
INSIGHT 4: Treat the required Management Plan with as much care as you do the rest of the proposal.
Phelps pointed out that good scientists are not always good managers. So, he said, it’s important to reassure the reviewers that the project team is capable of competently managing the acquisition of the instrument, the operations of the instrument, the scheduling of user time, and the strategic use of downtime. For Robinson and James, these issues were resolved by involving the CBFG, whose staff has an extensive track record of managing instruments and coordinating user time.
INSIGHT 5: You probably need a Data Management Plan, even if you think you don’t.
It may not seem intuitive, but Phelps said he considers a Data Management Plan crucial for most MRI proposals. Acquisition is the perfect time to think about how to enable metadata and manage storage of the data generated by use of the instrument. If you can demonstrate a plan for facilitating the dissemination and sharing the results of all the research that will eventually be conducted using the instrument, you give the reviewers one more reason to fund your proposal.
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.
Photos by Kemberly Groue, U.S. Air Force, public domain.