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Research missions magnified at UD, DSU

Expanded emphasis nets more federal funds

Written by: Wade Malcolm, The News Journal, 9:10 am, Jan. 24, 2012

A few years ago, Tatyana Polenova saw an opportunity to improve the University of Delaware's research capabilities.

The professor of chemistry and biochemistry noticed that no laboratory in the state owned the sophisticated device needed to analyze protein molecules and other complex samples.

With the help of assistant professor Sharon Rozovsky, Polenova secured a $2.2 million federal grant to purchase the equipment. The new nuclear magnetic resonance device -- similar to a hospital MRI but much more sensitive -- arrived in October. It's far from the only recent success story, however.

With UD and Delaware State University increasing their emphasis on academic research, the amount of large federal grants flowing into the state has surged, nearly doubling in the past decade, according to a new study released by the National Science Foundation.

In 2002, the two universities combined for nearly $51 million in federally sponsored research expenditures. In 2009, that number grew to $95.3 million, according to NSF.

In recent years, the two universities have put more of their own money and resources behind grant applications, enhancing their chances of success. In the case of Polenova and Rozovsky, UD administrators backed their proposal with $800,000 in matching funds.

"Without matching funds, the funding agencies don't consider the applications competitive," Polenova said. "The university has been putting more funding into pursuing grants."

Mark Barteau, UD's senior vice provost for research and strategic initiatives, said the university has had the extra funds available to prioritize research development in recent years. He sees it as money well-spent, but he said it will be difficult to continue expanding grant funding at the current rate, given the federal government's budget deficit.

"It's going to be a challenge," he said. "That's part of my job, to think of creative ways to fund things, but we make the argument that these are wise investments to build infrastructure."

At DSU, the growth in research has been even more rapid. In the past, the school's teaching mission was emphasized more than academic research. But now DSU ranks 14th among historically black colleges and universities in federally sponsored research expenditures.

"I've seen a focus and an understanding that research is an integral part of the mission of this university," said Noureddine Melikechi, DSU's vice president of research. "That has been a driving force for the faculty."

Melikechi's optics program has expanded with the help of several multimillion dollar grants from NSF and NASA. Recently, the lab helped develop a laser device that the next Mars rover will use to analyze mineral samples.

DSU has also had success securing funds for research in applied mathematics, neuroscience and agriculture, Melikechi said. The increase in federal funding shows that academics in Delaware are not only doing more research but higher-quality work as well, Melikechi said.

"To have these grants, you've gone through a process where your peers have decided the research is worth funding," he said.

Both universities spent time and money on attracting talented faculty in recent years. To attract more high-profile researchers, UD has developed a new recruitment strategy, Rozovsky said. More flexible joint appointments allow the university to focus on the quality of the faculty candidate, rather than their specific academic background. A talented chemist might also have something to offer the biology department.

"We look less at what department the person will be located in, but rather trying to find the best person," Rozovsky said.

Research_Missions_1: Graduate student Alexey Chibisov works in a physics lab at Delaware State University. DSU and the University of Delaware have expanded their research missions. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/GARY EMEIGH