Spring 2011

Recipe for research

Scientists rely on funding to get the job done

Feature Image
Research proposals are scrutinized and polished before they are submitted for grant consideration.

“A $1.4 million grant has been awarded by the NIH to a Binghamton researcher ...”

Announcements of grants are always good news at Binghamton University, and the bigger the grant, the bigger the news.

While most people understand that the grant will pay for research yet to come, most don’t comprehend what it takes to turn a good idea into a funded project; and only about 30 percent of applications are approved for funding.

Lisa Gilroy, director of the Office of Sponsored Programs, breaks down the steps of a grant application while Patricia Di Lorenzo, a professor of behavioral neuroscience who has been awarded several large grants for her research into taste, shares her personal experience.

1. Where does a grant application start? With a good idea that springs from a faculty member’s field of study. First stop: the Office of Sponsored Programs. 

Patricia Di Lorenzo wanted to know what temporal coding tells the brain about taste.

Basic tastes — bitter, salty, sweet, sour and umami (savory) — excite neurons in the brain, which exchange information through “firings” and pauses. Temporal coding describes the pattern of firings and pauses.

2. Is there money? A faculty member must explain her work to the Office of Sponsored Programs, which then identifies potential funding sources and determines if the faculty member — called the principal investigator (PI) — and school meet eligibility requirements.

Di Lorenzo said that understanding taste could shed light on such issues as obesity and the refusal by some people to take medicine because it tastes bad. Her research fit the criteria for National Institutes of Health funding.

3. How much will the research cost? The Sponsored Programs staff works with the PI to put together a business plan that determines if the project’s costs are in line with the grant money available.

Di Lorenzo’s project required multiple years, several employees and sophisticated equipment. She needed a million dollars.

4. Once the project gets the green light from Sponsored Programs, a staff member is assigned to shepherd the application through channels: It needs the approval of all faculty members involved in the project, their department chairs and deans, and any collaborators. That can be as few as three people or as many as 25. Writing the application can take a few months to as long as a year to complete.

Di Lorenzo had one outside collaborator, Jonathan D. Victor, professor of visual neurophysiology at Cornell’s Weill Medical College in New York.

5. Filing the application. When paper applications were the norm, one might have to be copied up to 30 times (with accompanying documentation), packed in a box and shipped to the funding agency.

Today, most are loaded into a computerized management system named Coeus, after the Greek Titan and god of intelligence. Three days before deadline, the full application gets one final review by everyone involved. Then it is submitted.

6. Waiting. It can take up to nine months to hear yea or nay. Sometimes an application needs revisions. Smart people keep doing research while they wait.

It took Di Lorenzo two years and three tries before receiving her $1.125 million grant in 2005. During those two years, she used another grant to keep her research going, adding new data to her application each time it was resubmitted. “You can’t get discouraged and say ‘oh, never mind,’” she says.

In 2008, three years into her five-year grant, she successfully applied for an extension; a $233,427 grant began July 2009 and paid for a technician and some expensive equipment.

7. Managing the money. Once a grant is awarded, the Office of Sponsored Funds sets up an account to help the faculty member buy equipment, hire students, travel, etc.

Each funding agency has its own rules on how its money can be spent; Sponsored Funds makes sure the rules are followed.

Status reports. Some funding agencies want monthly or quarterly updates on the research.

Di Lorenzo says her grant requires a two-page report just once a year. She gives a summary of what she has published the previous year and offers a look at what’s next.

Outcomes. Success is measured by disseminating what was learned. It can be by publishing in a journal, writing a book or showing progress in your field of endeavor. The best outcome is to have the research open up another path to be explored.

Di Lorenzo’s progress — discovering that temporal coding has identifiable patterns associated with different tastes — led her to apply for a renewal of the initial grant. She was awarded $1.25 million over five years, beginning December 2010. The grant pays for one graduate student, one post-doctoral fellow and a second technician. They are now examining flavor — a combination of taste and smell — and where in the brain that originates.