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UConn Today, November 2, 2009

Federal Stimulus Funds Spur UConn Science and Research Projects

By David Bauman

Photo of Dr. Douglas Peterson

Diane Lillo-Martin, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, has received two NIH grants as part of the federal stimulus funding.

Photo by Daniel Buttrey

University of Connecticut researchers have secured more than $33 million in federal stimulus funds through competitive grants awarded by federal agencies, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) enacted by Congress earlier this year.

To date, UConn investigators at Storrs have been awarded $14 million in ARRA grants for 43 projects, while at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, 32 projects have been awarded $19 million. The funding will support a wide variety of ongoing and new research.

Funded projects include a $3.6 million grant to study biodefense responses to microbial pathogens, led by Health Center immunologist Leo Lefrancois; $800,000 for a study of the genomic conflict in Poeciliid fishes by biologist Michael O’Neil; and $400,000 for an investigation into the formation and applications of ultracold molecules by physicist William Stwalley.

“The innovation in our laboratories will help drive the future economy of the State of Connecticut,” says Suman Singha, vice president for research and graduate education. “It will also prepare the graduate and undergraduate students who will become our next generation of scientists, engineers, healthcare professionals, and teachers.”

The flow of stimulus money may accelerate, as federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) complete the process of reviewing thousands of proposals, notes Michael Crouch, executive director of the Office for Sponsored Programs and assistant vice provost for research.

In all, UConn faculty from Storrs and the Health Center submitted more than 370 grant proposals by the Sept. 30 deadline, totaling more than $227 million in requested funding from the federal stimulus package, Crouch says. Even with 75 UConn research projects allotted federal funding so far, there may still be additional research awards to be announced.

“The funding is slowly beginning to arrive,” says Crouch, whose office is responsible for processing grant proposals and managing awards for Storrs. “Our trail of funded projects should continue through FY 2010, as we get further into the awarding cycle.”

About two-thirds of the new money coming to UConn is from the NIH for biomedical research, and most of the rest is through the NSF.

“These new grants allow investigators to grow their programs and become highly competitive for other research awards,” Crouch adds. “The process is highly competitive and the UConn faculty has done very well.”

For example, three grants totaling nearly $3 million awarded to the Health Center are “Challenge Grants,” a new NIH initiative to jumpstart specific biomedical and behavioral health research. The awards will pay for researchers’ salaries, supplies, and equipment for three ongoing Health Center research projects. These projects include: more than $983,000 for a novel method that uses a molecular diagnostic approach to classify lung cancers and provide useful information to guide treatment, led by geneticist Bruce Mayer; $1 million for a study of a bleeding disorder caused by problems in several molecules on platelets, by immunologist Dr. Zihai Li; and $968,000 for a two-year trial to evaluate the feasibility of screening and treating tobacco and drug dependent patients in dental settings, led by Thomas Babor, head of the department of community medicine.

“There were more than 20,000 applicants for the Challenge Grants but only 1 percent was funded,” notes Marc Lalande, chair of the department of genetics and developmental biology and the Health Center’s senior associate dean for research planning and coordination. “To have one grant is significant, but to have been awarded three shows that our researchers are competitive with the very best.”

Other funded projects at the Health Center include two “equally competitive and highly sought after” grants designed to recruit new faculty, says Jeff Small, associate vice president of the Office of Research Administration and Finance at the Health Center.

One, a $765,000 grant for Sandra Weller, chair of the molecular, microbial, and structural biology department, will further Health Center efforts to recruit world class researchers in structural biology while fostering collaborative research within UConn, Small says. The other, for Victor Hesselbrock, scientific director of the Alcohol Research Center, will provide $900,000 for a new faculty member, who, in collaboration with existing Alcohol Research Center investigators and researchers from other branches of UConn with related interests, should move quickly to develop his or her own interdisciplinary independent research program.

The stimulus funds represent a welcome boost for researchers, as budgets at federal agencies such as NIH have remained flat for several years, says Small. The two recruitment grants, he adds, “allow us to invest in infrastructure, which in higher education means hiring new professors.”

The largest ARRA funding awarded to Storrs-based researchers to date are two NIH grants totaling $1.9 million, to linguistics professor Diane Lillo-Martin. One award will be used in support of her research on how deaf children and hearing children in deaf families become bilingual in both sign and spoken language. The other award will be used to hire two new faculty members, with two full-time technicians, and laboratory startup funds.

The new faculty will have joint appointments in psychology, communications sciences, and linguistics, and thus comply with an ARRA goal to promote “interdisciplinary and collaborative research,” says William Snyder, head of the linguistics department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It’s extremely exciting to have Dr. Lillo-Martin’s grant reach out to the rest of the cognitive science community and bring about a whole new level of interaction.”

Another NSF-funded project at Storrs includes $900,000 to increase scholarships in the Neag School of Education’s Teachers for Tomorrow program, for improving teacher preparation in math and science –content areas where there is a critical shortage in the state and in the nation.

“Our Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates program was a natural fit for this grant,” says Thomas DeFranco, dean of the Neag School, who is credited with co-developing the innovative program with math department colleague Charles Vinsonhaler. “This award validates the notion that we can collaborate with colleagues across campus to meet the challenges involved in the preparation of mathematics and science teachers in Connecticut.”

Additionally, among the 22 research grants supported by the nearly $9 million the NSF awarded to Storrs-based investigators, are four CAREER grants – each totaling $400,000 or more – designed to promote the early career development of faculty researchers. The recipients are José Gascón and Nicholas Leadbeater in the Department of Chemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Yunsi Fei in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Shiva Kotha in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering.