UConn breaks record in research awards

02/23/2021 ITE for Research Beat by Kevin Lindstrom

Researchers at the University of Connecticut received a record-breaking amount of funding in the 2020-21 fiscal year, totaling $357.6 million in awards, according to a UConn Today article. The article also reports that this record surpasses the funding received the year prior, which amounted to $285.8 million and was a record at the time. 

Dr. Radenka Maric, Vice President for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UConn and UConn Health, recognized the significance of this monumental increase in funding. 

“Major awards such as these give UConn national recognition and raise awareness of the many talented faculty who are working here,” she explained. “Landing research grants is hard work and the funding landscape is competitive.” 

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, Interim President of the University of Connecticut and CEO of UConn Health. He stresses that the arrival at this record is a testament to the university’s continuous pursuit of excellence in its research. 

“The newest record-high annual research funding total is a demonstration of that ambition and commitment,” he told UConn Today. 

The cause for this year’s dramatic increase in research grants is multifaceted. In part, research at UConn is consistently growing due to the university’s top-notch infrastructure. 

“Our facilities research infrastructure, such as the Innovation Partnership Building’s Research Laboratories and centers, the new Science 1 building under construction and our partnership with the Jackson Laboratory in Farmington, [is] world class and will support exceptional research for years to come,” Maric said. 

She adds that internal funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research creates opportunities for external grants later on. 

“These seed funding programs that help faculty get early results… are very important in convincing funding agencies that we can do the work. We are starting to see evidence that all this hard work and investment across UConn and Connecticut is paying off.” 

Dr. Kumar Venkitanarayanan, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Education at the UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, acknowledged the role that internal funding played in attracting such colossal research grants. He received $10 million for his work on improving sustainability of poultry production. 

“This seed funding helps faculty to…collect data, which will be helpful in submitting [to] nationally competitive grant programs,” he explained. 

Venkitanarayanan also attributed full credit to the faculty for the shattering of UConn’s funding record due to their increased efforts in writing grant proposals. He shares that they have a success rate of around 40% in getting submitted proposals funded. 

Dr. David Steffens, a recipient of an award for his participation in research about depression in older adults, attributes some of this year’s funding increase to the nation-wide pause presented by the pandemic. 

“I can point to my own experience of writing two grants last spring/early summer during the time that our research activities were stopped then slowly resumed,” he explained. “I suspect that other researchers found that without the time usually spent conducting, they were able to devote time to grant writing.” 

Steffens’ grant money fuels his current two studies: one on how pandemic-related and other forms of stress impact older depression patients, and one on a computer game aiming to improve cognitive function of the frontal lobe in this same demographic. 

According to Maric, this year’s research funding included the largest grant in the history of the university. Dr. Jeffrey Hoch, director of the Gregory P. Mullen NMR Structural Biology Facility and a professor at the School of Medicine, accepted $40 million from the National Science Foundation for his “Network for Advanced Nuclear Magnetic Resonance.” 

Other recipients of awards include Dr. Dave Garvey and Dr. Chiara Mingarelli. 

Dr. Garvey, Director of UConn’s Department of Public Policy, facilitates the BIPOC Cohort for National Leadership, a nine-month training program that aims to elevate People of Color who work in the nonprofit sector, with the help of a $45,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven. 

Dr. Chiara received two grants this year, adding up to over $600,000, to fund her research on supermassive black hole mergers. 

“I’m very grateful to UConn for their support in helping with the grant submission and  application… the whole team was very supportive and understanding even during Covid,” she said. “Everyone was really flexible and that made things a lot easier.” 

The increased research funding is met with enthusiasm and excitement throughout the UConn community. 

Maric stated, “I am optimistic about the future because UConn has great faculty, students and staff. Our research is made possible by exceptional students coming to UConn for their educations and the great things they do here and in their careers.” 

Agwunobi also emphasized how grateful UConn was for the research funding awards, and noted the importance of it for the faculty, staff and students.  

“The growth of external research funding at UConn and UConn Health clearly tracks with the state’s many investments throughout our campuses, for which we remain very grateful,” he shared with UConn Today. “It is said that for whom much is given, much is required. Every day on every campus, the University, its faculty and staff and its students take that to heart.”

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