Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017
The impact of Virginia Commonwealth University researchers is wide-ranging — they have patented a canine vaccine for Lyme disease, led a nationwide effort to study concussions and aided the resurgence of sturgeon in the James River.
Those are a few of the ongoing accomplishments made with $218.9 million in VCU research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey, which outlines higher education expenditures in the U.S. for fiscal year 2015.
Nationwide funding for university research has declined the past four years. Still, VCU ranked among the top 100 institutions for the highest total expenditures dedicated to research in 2015, according to the report. The university has held this distinction three times in the past 10 years. VCU also has been ranked for five consecutive years by the NSF as a top 100 research university based on federal research expenditures. Presently, VCU is ranked No. 81 in that category, with $142.4 million in federal research expenditures for fiscal year 2015.
“It’s a fitting tribute to the community of VCU scholars who continue to propel our research enterprise upward even in times of economic adversity,” said Francis Macrina, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU.
More than test tubes
Nearly 2,000 grants to VCU researchers were considered in the report.
The NSF calculates expenditures based on the portion of awarded research grants from all entities — not only NSF — spent in a fiscal year. The remaining grant amounts carry over to future years.
The university’s portfolio of total research awards for fiscal year 2015 was a then-record $270.3 million. Total research awards for 2016 exceeded $271 million. The totals include both award expenditures, remaining award amounts, and funds from other sources.
Macrina said the increase in expenditures is a credit to faculty and other researchers, who compete to obtain awards from various institutions, initiatives, endowments and foundations. The majority of VCU research is grant funded in this way, from nonuniversity sources.
“The people who are able to get that money to VCU are smart enough, hardworking enough, clever enough and productive enough to convince people that they ought to support their research,” he said.
The NSF rankings consider expenditures not only in STEM or health fields, but also in the arts and humanities. It takes contributions from multiple disciplines to build a well-rounded research institution, Macrina said.
“When people hear research, they tend to think test tubes,” he added.
Serving the community
The School of Medicine received $138.2 million in research awards in 2016, the highest amount for any VCU school. The School of Education was awarded $24.7 million, the second highest total. Education expenditures have funded initiatives such as finding ways to more effectively teach science education, addressing the needs of students with disabilities, and creating positive approaches to classroom behavioral management.
“We are working hands-on in the community with schools and service agencies to improve the lives of children and their families,” said Deborah Speece, Ph.D., associate dean of research and faculty development in the School of Education.
Federal funding also helps the Richmond Teacher Residency program, which gives aspiring teachers full-time classroom experience. The program recruits students interested in working in urban environments who have bachelor’s degrees in disciplines outside education and are working toward master’s degrees in education.
“We want to prepare people to teach in urban environments and stay in urban schools long term,” Speece said.
Lisa Abrams, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Foundations of Education, and colleagues have been funded by the National Institutes of Health to research teaching methods to improve science education. She said her research has been bolstered by administrative resources available to the School of Education and the university.
“It’s very clear that one of the university’s primary goals is to increase externally funded research,” Abrams said. “So, along those lines, we’ve seen investments in infrastructure. One example is greater resources being allocated to Institutional Review Board operations. Internally at the School of Education, we have a highly effective office of research that supports faculty in all aspects of grant development, grant submission and post grant award management.”
The university also works through its VCU Innovation Gateway, within the Office of Research and Innovation, to ensure research findings are applied to benefit the general public. VCU Innovation Gateway works with university researchers to facilitate commercialization of their innovations, which includes new venture creation that benefits regional economic development.
In 2016, VCU Innovation Gateway assisted with the filing of a record 156 patents and VCU faculty notified the office of 133 inventions.
“If you don’t move the inventions out of the university to the marketplace, society will never benefit.”
“I am very proud to be part of the process of establishing VCU as a leading research university with a tangible impact on people in the Richmond region and beyond,” said Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., executive director, VCU Innovation Gateway. “The work we do is gratifying because if you don’t move the inventions out of the university to the marketplace, society will never benefit.”
Many innovations advanced by VCU Innovation Gateway were made possible by expenditures detailed in the NSF report.
Recently, VCU Innovation Gateway helped foster the growth of Sanyal Biotechnology, which was formed to commercialize the research of Arun Sanyal, M.D., a VCU School of Medicine professor.
Sanyal, who serves as president, chair and chief medical officer of his company, created a proprietary mouse strain to test potential therapeutics to treat NASH, or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The obesity epidemic in the United States has led to an increase of NASH, which has become a leading cause of liver-related mortality.
VCU Innovation Gateway has also worked to secure intellectual property protections and licensing of compounds that could lead to the development of therapeutics that would reduce the risk of heart failure following a heart attack. VCU researchers Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D., vice-chairman, Division of Cardiology, VCU Health; Shijun Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Medicinal Chemistry, VCU School of Pharmacy; and Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., associate professor and research professor, Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, VCU School of Pharmacy, have created the compounds, which block overproduction of a protein in white blood cells that has been linked to heart attack.
Abbate said VCU Innovation Gateway worked to secure licensing of the invention by a startup biotechnology firm in Virginia.
“The ability to license it to a company involves also the marketing value of the product, in addition to the science,” he said. “These are concepts that we as scientists are not very familiar with, and Innovation Gateway help us navigate.”
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