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Catalyzing A Team Approach To Research

From cells to the cosmos, Research Development is creating roadmaps for scientific success

Richard Carthew has put the “I” in TEAM. The eye of a developing fruit fly, that is.

The molecular bioscientist explores the random variables of gene expression in eye development. Along with William Kath, engineering sciences and applied mathematics, and collaborators at Northwestern’s NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, they are using mathematical models to describe and analyze the development of Drosophila. Carthew has used the fruit fly to pinpoint the place where cancer cells begin.

The Center’s launch last July with $10 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation occurred just 12 months after an initial proposal development workshop was organized by Research Development, one of 18 specialized units within Northwestern | Research. However, the Center is part of an even larger University success story that helped drive a record $702.1 million in research funding last year.

The Research Development team supported 17 complex team science and young investigator funding proposals in 2018. Ten of those proposals — totaling $52 million over the lifetime of the grants — were funded. The 58 percent success rate is about twice the University average.

“We continue to learn about and improve how we support these big proposals, maintaining diligence about what needs to be included, while working with faculty to build teams with the urgency and consideration that is required,” says Nicole Moore, director of Research Development. “We now know a lot more about what sponsors are looking for and what pitfalls in team science may exist. Our ability to anticipate, identify, and promote applicable funding opportunities is a critical first step in this process.”

In 2018, Research Development reviewed 7,648 federal Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs), disseminating 712 opportunities. On average, federal FOAs allow just 12 weeks to form a team and submit a proposal.

“Even though faculty members may have submitted hundreds of proposals throughout their career, they are often surprised by the scale and various types of integrated components involved with these projects,” says Moore. “An average team consists of eight faculty members from numerous schools or institutions, and these proposals can be extremely complex. Thus it is critical that leadership is strong and roles are clear. Supporting the lead principle investigator is a large component of the support we can offer.”

Carthew says one of the biggest challenges for him was working with 12 other investigators to distill their multipage proposals into single-page documents that each outlined a major facet of the overall project. He credits the Research Development team with taking the lead on budgeting, training, and outreach so that the faculty involved could focus on the research.

“They were instrumental in helping me understand the magnitude of the proposal and the expectations that we would be required to meet to be successful,” says Carthew, director of the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, who leads the initiative alongside Co-Director Kath. “I’d never put together a multi-PI grant of this size, and Nicole and her team helped in a huge way, catalyzing the team and suggesting things that never crossed my mind.”

In summer 2017, Research Development organized the first proposal development workshop regarding the NSF-Simons funding opportunity and by October a proposal had been submitted. In May 2018 — following numerous team meetings and a site visit — the University was notified it would receive a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation to establish the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology.

‘Incredible Support’

Research Development currently helps faculty with the tracking and dissemination of federal research funding opportunities, proposal development, the limited submissions process, outreach activities to increase the competitiveness of proposals, and team development. Research Development also supports early career faculty in part via comments and feedback on proposals submissions.

“It’s virtually unheard of for a first-year assistant professor to be able to submit a proposal like the $3 million NSF Research Training (NRT) grant they helped me put together,” says Wen-fai Fong, physics and astronomy. “I had no experience with this type of grant, so it was incredibly important to me to have these resources available.”

Fong says she has also gained immense benefit from meetings with Moore and Karen Cielo, senior associate director of Research Development.

“The one-on-one consultation was crucial in helping me navigate all of the grant opportunities out there,” says Fong. “As someone who has never had to submit large grants before I am now working to fund an entire research group, a prospect that would feel even more daunting without this support.”

Developing Stronger Proposals

Jian Cao, mechanical engineering, founding director of the Northwestern Initiative for Manufacturing Science and Innovation, and an associate vice president for research, received support from Research Development last year on a successfully-funded Engineering Research Center planning grant.

“The Development team was able to provide constructive comments and helpful editing that allowed me to submit a highly competitive proposal,” says Cao. “The collaborative nature of the effort helped to secure a grant that will serve to strengthen the University’s foundation for future discovery.”

Early career investigators and faculty interested in submitting cross-school proposals are encouraged to contact Research Development early in any proposal process.


NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology

By studying laboratory animals ranging from fruit flies to worms to frogs, researchers at the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology will address fundamental questions about how life develops, including how a single cell can self-assemble into a complex, living animal with elaborate parts, each displaying their own intricate functions. Quantitative biology probes these questions associated with emergent properties in living systems by using mathematical, statistical, computational and big data techniques.

“The center applies mathematics to developmental biological research, which is uncommon today,” says Richard Carthew, director of the center and a professor of molecular biosciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “The hope is that mathematics will revolutionize the study of biology in a manner emulating the impact that mathematics has had on physics research.”

By Roger Anderson