Jesse Winter; Elizabeth Nelson
Jesse Winter; Elizabeth Nelson

Your Success Is Our Success

by J. Edward Anthony

Like professional tennis and college entrance exams, the competition for research funding is a strategy game all its own, according to Carmel Lurito Lee, director of research development in the Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Development (OSP). “Groundbreaking research doesn’t sell itself,” she says.

If you’re looking to win research dollars, Lee is ready to discuss any topic, be it environmental justice, quantum materials, edge computing, or chemical signaling pathways.

“I approach research development as a consultant,” Lee says. “I sit down with each researcher one-on-one and learn who they are, what their goals are, and what their research is all about. Together we create a tailored assessment of next steps. Sometimes I help them to innovate and brainstorm about their own ideas. I’m kind of like a colleague and mentor, but I’m also a resource—somebody who's there to support them in all the many ways that they need support. In Research Development, we take seriously the idea that your success is our success. We work really hard to make sure that faculty can achieve their goals.”

Lee, her colleague Tiffany Fleming, the research impacts and partnerships manager at OSP, and Josephine E. M. Martell, the director of research development for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), understand the priorities and culture of various grant-making institutions. And when it comes to successful writing strategies, they have decades of experience as writers, editors, and reviewers.

“We're always evolving to meet the challenges of a shifting funding terrain and the evolving needs of faculty,” Lee says. “Because everything's always changing.”

Winning Strategies

Lee and Fleming in OSP, and Martell in CALS, are tasked with supporting the strategic elements of grant applications across Cornell. In addition to supporting individual researchers and faculty teams, they offer multi-workshop series and one-off sessions throughout the year, often organized around the calendar for major submission deadlines.

Regular programs include a weekly one-hour deep dive on better grant writing called “Write It Right,” the annual Cornell Early-Career Grant Mentoring Program, and a four-part series in the spring geared toward the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER). Additional sessions focus on other federal agencies and feature guest speakers with domain-specific knowledge and established relationships with grant-awarding entities. Videos of some web sessions are available at Grant Writing Training and Other Resources on the Research Services website.

By coordinating collaborative efforts and coaching grant writers, Research Development is sharpening the university’s competitive edge. The total research expenditures at Cornell are more than one billion dollars. The majority of funding comes through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), other federal agencies, and New York State. Other awards come from private charitable foundations and from corporations.

Research Development also advances Cornell’s core values. Adopted in 2019, the core values “serve as the foundation for a more equitable and inclusive atmosphere for all Cornell campuses” and include “A Culture of Belonging.” As the university takes concrete steps to increase faculty diversity through hiring and retention efforts, Research Development ensures that researchers who bring diversity to their departments have access to mentorship and resources.

Grant Mentoring Program for Early-Career Faculty

In fall 2021, Lee and Martell will facilitate the Grant Fellows Workshop for Early-Career Faculty, part of the Cornell Early-Career Grant Mentoring Program sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI), with additional support from the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity (OFDD).

“We're always evolving to meet the challenges of a shifting funding terrain and the evolving needs of faculty. Because everything's always changing.”

The program addresses funding opportunities available to early-career faculty from all the federal grant-making agencies. During the six-week workshop series, participants develop a review-ready proposal. The workshops cover trends and opportunities in grant-making, integrated evaluation plans, persuasive and compelling narrative writing, and effective supplementary materials. The program also pays for faculty to travel to Washington, DC, with Martell to meet with their federal program officers.

Fatma Baytar, Fiber Science and Apparel Design, is one of 13 Cornell faculty members to receive an NSF CAREER award in 2021. She was a member of the Grant Mentoring Program’s first cohort in fall 2019, and she credits Research Development for helping her understand the ins and outs of the various funding agencies.

“Everything we did [in the Grant Mentoring Program] positively impacted my approach to grant-writing,” Baytar says. “There is a certain mechanics to grant proposals—how you frame your work and what you decide to foreground. The workshop was full of useful techniques and methods for discussing your project. One of the guest speakers who impacted me most had us rethink and refine the metrics we were putting forward to evaluate the success of our research.”

The Grant Mentoring Program was initially developed by Martell for female faculty and grew out of a collaboration between OSP and CALS. The program forthrightly addresses the unique challenges that people from historically underrepresented groups may face in submitting proposals for research funding.

“Every cohort includes a diverse group of young faculty, and we strive to keep a really honest, open conversation going around race, gender, and any other kind of discrimination or barriers that people face,” Martell says. “It was foundational to the development of the workshop, and these discussions are integrated throughout.”

Applications for the fall 2021 program, due on July 1, are available through the program website.

An Ecosystem of Collaboration and Invention

Lee, Martell, and Fleming were among the first people Baytar contacted upon learning she had won an NSF CAREER award. “The people in Research Development, they are so supportive. They are wonderful,” Baytar says. “And because they see what everyone is doing, they serve as a kind of hub for the entire university. It means they are uniquely positioned to make some really generative connections across colleges and departments.”

As of 2021, Cornell currently ranks thirteenth in the nation among colleges and universities, and first in New York State, in terms of research dollars awarded to its faculty.

“Our faculty make Cornell a top research university with an incredible ecosystem of collaboration and invention,” says Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation. “Extramural funding is crucial to Cornell’s contributions to the scientific community and our ability to touch the lives of people all over the planet. We couldn’t make this happen without the talent and competitiveness of Cornell faculty. Research Development is there to support that talent. They help ensure that we are attracting and retaining a dynamic and diverse faculty. And they help faculty face new challenges at all stages of their careers.”

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