Strategic Approach Leads to 36 Percent Increase in Sponsored Research Funding

UVA Engineering’s focus on bold research in areas of societal need is earning results: Sponsored research funding increased by 36 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, to $60 million in FY2017 compared to $44 million the prior fiscal year. The Engineering School drove the University of Virginia’s overall sponsored research funding increase of 10 percent during the same time period.

“This outstanding growth is a direct result of UVA Engineering faculty’s determination to lead the nation in research that is relevant and valuable to society,” said Dean Craig H. Benson. “Our strategy is to focus in thematic areas where we can bring unique, interdisciplinary strengths to bear on complex engineering challenges, such as medicine, cyber and sustainability. In a highly competitive research environment, our strategy is paying off.”

Executive Associate Dean for Research Pamela M. Norris said, “We’ve taken a strategic approach to building a strong research program, supported by excellent collaboration and focus among our faculty, staff and leadership. I am exceptionally proud of our faculty, whose proposals to funding agencies have been highly effective and increasingly bold. Our faculty are dreaming big.”

In FY2016, faculty submitted six proposals that were more than $1.5 million each, Norris said. The following year, faculty submitted 40 such proposals. In FY2017, there were 12 proposals of more than $3 million each, compared to only one the year before. Most of these proposals are still under review, but a few have already been funded.

“The research awards we’re pursuing will allow UVA Engineering to lead the way in addressing grand challenges from healthcare to the environment, advanced materials and the cyber future,” Norris said.

Norris began laying the foundation for research growth several years ago by building a research infrastructure within UVA Engineering to support faculty in leading large initiatives. She appointed a new director for pre-award research support and a senior director of research advancement. She also hired a director of corporate relations and a director of research message training. And she strengthened ties with the University’s research leadership to provide services and support for faculty across UVA.

To support new faculty in building their research programs, she instituted a series of research orientations, workshops and mentoring opportunities, as well as a library of online research resources.

Norris also worked to inspire faculty to greater heights for research. A new Research Innovation Award competition provided more than $600,000 in seed funding to eight interdisciplinary teams in 2016, and more than $1 million to 21 interdisciplinary teams in 2017.

In 2015, Norris began leading annual engineering cross-cutting research retreats, attended by the majority of UVA Engineering’s faculty. During the retreats, teams of faculty present concepts for highly focused, interdisciplinary research efforts that target pressing societal challenges. Initiatives emerging from the retreats have driven Engineering School and University investments in new faculty and research facilities.

“These retreats helped identify UVA Engineering’s research strengths, guiding investments, building new research connections and helping us clearly articulate our areas of strength and focus,” Norris said.

UVA Engineering has focused its research program around three general areas:

Engineering for Medicine – UVA Engineering researchers believe that new methods to prevent, diagnose, monitor and treat disease are within humanity’s grasp. In this area, Engineering School faculty closely collaborate with physicians and researchers at UVA’s top-ranked School of Medicine and Health System to create knowledge at the intersection of engineering and medicine. Their work in this area is leading to major breakthroughs, including innovations in diabetes treatment, wireless health, injury prevention and tissue regeneration. Click here to read more.

Engineering for the Cyber Future – UVA Engineering researchers are determined to catalyze the cyber age with technologies essential to next-generation projects such as the Internet of Things and 100 Gbps Ethernet. Areas of focus include cybersecurity, machine learning, avalanche photodiodes and ultra-low-power chips. UVA Engineering also is a global leader in big data with the Data Science Institute and in cyber-physical systems with the establishment of the interdisciplinary Link Lab for research into smart and connected technologies. Click here to read more about cyber initiatives.

Engineering Technologies for a Sustainable and Connected World – Engineering a better future will require the best work of researchers collaborating to address challenges along the spectrum from the tiniest building blocks of materials through the complex workings of entire societal systems. UVA Engineering researchers work at the micro- and nano-scale in fields such as heat transfer, catalysis and 2-D materials to identify fundamental properties of matter. At the systems level, engineers harness these insights to create more durable, sustainable platforms in areas like energy, stormwater management and transportation. Click here to read more.

Another important factor in driving research program growth has been increased attention on UVA Engineering’s graduate program. In 2016, the School hired Shannon Barker as director of graduate programs. Barker and Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Maite Brandt-Pearce have worked closely with Norris and with UVA Engineering’s Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion John F. Gates to increase the number of incoming Ph.D. students by 68 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. Read more about the graduate program’s gains here.

The University also has committed to building the foundation for research growth with a Strategic Investment Fund supporting multi-disciplinary and multi-school research initiatives and research infrastructure. From the Strategic Investment Fund, UVA Engineering already has received:

“By careful strategic planning, evaluation of resources, and thoughtful discussions across schools, we are able to come together to promote outstanding, collaborative efforts that will provide significant return on investment from UVA Strategic Investment Fund support,” said Susan Barker, senior director of research advancement. “Reporting from initial efforts such as the Link Lab demonstrates the outstanding potential of such investments. Link Lab researchers, funded in the University’s first award cycle, have been awarded external funding of more than twice the total internal investment in just the first year, and construction of the lab is not even complete yet. Researchers are looking forward to moving in at the end of this calendar year.” The Link Lab will occupy the top floor of UVA Engineering’s Olsson Hall.

UVA Engineering also is investing in top-quality faculty hires. There were 16 hires for last year and 14 for this year. The School is searching for 20 new faculty now.

Norris said UVA Engineering’s strategic approach to its research program has effectively captured the attention of funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, which are looking for high-impact, collaborative research strength.  

“We have come together as a research community to tackle complex societal challenges that defy traditional solutions,” she said. “Our researchers look for opportunities to work collaboratively at the intersections of their disciplines, discovering, innovating and creating new knowledge. We are well positioned to continue leading the way.”