What resources does the Office for Research offer UVA School of Medicine faculty?
Steven Wasserman, PhD, Assistant Dean for Research, Director, Office for Research, answers that question and more.
This post is part of a series of interviews with faculty and staff who offer resources to SOM faculty. Stay tuned for more interviews with your colleagues!
Q: Will you tell us about a few ways that the Office for Research supports faculty?
We are the nexus for support for the investigators at the School of Medicine. The office has various functions. Some are compliance, some are funding opportunities, others are how can I do such-and-such, and to get people to the right offices when they don’t understand how the University works. The office’s portfolio is not fixed in any way. We will get people to the right place if the question is beyond what we usually do.
In addition to assisting faculty with securing and managing external funding opportunities, we also manage three internal funding programs. The first program is bridge funding, which is co-funded by the Vice President for Research and the investigator’s chair. This program supports faculty whose current research project, when submitted for renewal, was not re-funded. These one-year awards help maintain existing project personnel and allow faculty to generate additional preliminary data to respond to their initial reviewers’ comments at re-submission.
The second is gap funding. This program supports faculty who submit a new proposal, but again are not funded. If their proposal is close to the sponsor’s pay line, the program can provide money to generate additional data so they can secure funding upon re-submission of their proposal. It’s basically a venture fund to expand our funding in the school.
The third is a seed funding program called the Research and Development Fund, which provides $20,000 – $30,000 awards for individuals who wish to generate a specific resource or data that will allow them to submit a new proposal.
In addition to these programs, we manage a couple of small endowed programs that support research on specific diseases, as specified by their donors.
We also have access to support from the Virginia Equipment Trust Fund. This state program allows us to buy replacement or newer, advanced equipment to support research. Some of that equipment goes into School of Medicine research cores, some of it goes to groups of investigators who are going to share a piece of equipment vital to their research.
That’s the funding side of things.
I have just finalized our medical student summer research program, which is run every year. Historically, 50-96 students have participated annually; this year, 103 students are participating in a SOM-sponsored summer program – a record number. The process requires matching preceptors and students and managing the program during the summer. Much of this program is funded by the preceptors themselves, and we appreciate that support.
I also am the point person for conflict of interest at the School of Medicine. As conflict of interest policies and laws have become more restrictive, I must perform a lot of background activity in this area to maintain compliance at the school and individual levels. Approximately a quarter of my time is taken up with conflict of interest.
Q: Are you just checking in with people, making sure they’re abiding by the rules that they’ve already agreed to within a grant?
There are several aspects to maintaining compliance with conflict of interest policies and regulations. There is an educational aspect. I occasionally visit departments to discuss the regulations and how the School and University interpret them. We also maintain an online system where faculty and other research investigators must report their external financial interests.
External financial interests are not necessarily conflicts. When a faculty member’s financial interest might be considered a conflict, I help them obtain approval for a management plan that will allow them to conduct their research in the presence of that financial interest. I sit on the University’s conflict of interest committee and I staff the School of Medicine’s committee. The University committee approves and governs management plans for conflicts in research. I help faculty to develop their proposed management plans and make sure that they obtain approval from the committee. Finally, I work with a post-approval coordinator who makes sure that conflicted faculty actually are following their management plans.
Our office is comprised of several research deans, led by Dr. Margaret Shupnik, our Senior Associate Dean for Research. Our group of five meets weekly to catch one other up on recent events, troubleshoot issues, and strategize for the future.
One highly visible aspect of our group is our dozen or so research core facilities, which are specialized facilities that provide instrumentation and expertise, obviating the need for investigators to buy their own equipment or personnel. Our group, under Dr. Jay Fox, manages the cores, which are supported by the School of Medicine and user fees. We also run the School’s Office of Grants and Contracts (led by Stewart Craig), and the Clinical Trials Office and its associated Clinical Research Units (led by Linda Duska and Lori Elder). These represent two additional, mission critical pillars that help our research and researchers thrive.
The research deans currently are heavily involved in the strategic hiring process, which started January 2016, when Dean Wilkes launched efforts to increase NIH funding by about 50% in five years. We intend to reach this target by stimulating the research faculty already at UVA and hiring faculty who bring additional funding. We are in the middle of that process right now, and our efforts have been extremely successful so far.
More people means less space to work with, so the research deans, Dr. Shupnik, in particular, work with our facilities group to identify fallow space, move people around, and renovate new space. This last effort is important since a lot of our research space is decades old and must brought to twenty-first century standards in order to allow our investigators to be productive in less space one required in the past.
The research deans’ group also interacts with various offices around the University to support research, such as the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Vice President for Research, and compliance offices such as Environmental Health & Safety, the IRB office, and so on. Dr. Shupnik meets with the research deans from the other research-intensive schools to develop and coordinates programs with them.
Over the next couple of years, we will be developing collaboration discovery efforts, a form of “business intelligence.” We hope to install computer systems that will allow an investigator to ask, “I’m working in this area, who else is doing this?” without having to go to someone who knows everyone at the university – which is getting more difficult as we grow. We are working with the Vice President for Research on business intelligence.
We’re working as well with the central administration on strengthening the reporting of research funding data, which is not as strong it should be. We’d like faculty and administrators to be able to pull up a dashboard describing their research environment. Faculty want to know, “When is my next protocol renewal due? When do I need to submit another report of external financial interests? When are my grants lapsing, and what is the spend rate on my grants?” It would be a one stop shop, basically. We do not have that, but we’re in the process of developing that capability with central administration.
Q: How long have you been at UVA?
It will be thirteen years in June.
Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Q: What changed?
The thought of blood! When I had my blood test before getting married, I keeled over. (A Wassermann test, no less!)
Q: Do you have any children or pets that you’d like to tell us about?
Two and two! Michael lives in Chicago. He is a consultant for a large firm, working in the intersection of finance and IT. Daniel works for a market research company. His company is in New York State, but he lives in Indianapolis, which is where his wife works.
My wife and I share our lives with our fifth and sixth English Setters. They are a sweet breed, and we can’t imagine any other kind of dog in our house.
Q: Do you have any favorite local restaurants or hangout spots here in Charlottesville?
Our go-to restaurants are Mas and Orzo. Orzo because they accept reservations. Mas because it’s such a fun place.
Q: Anything else that you would like to add?
For someone who has been in research administration as long as I have – since 1987 – this is a near perfect environment. The excitement being generated by Dr. Wilkes’ mandate to increase the funding of the School of Medicine and the desire of the University to provide resources to renovate spaces and bring up our administrative systems to a 21st-century level – this has been the best environment that I’ve experienced since I got into the business.
That includes back in the ’90s, when they doubled the NIH budget, because this is all being spent here, which is fabulous. As a result, I am seeing results of our efforts six months, twelve months down the road, and beyond. It will be great to see some of our new hires encounter a collaborator that they hadn’t considered, expanding their research and our own existing faculty’s research in unanticipated ways. This is just a great time to be in research administration and in research in general. I love to watch the fruits of our labor on a monthly or quarterly basis.