Strategic Approach Leads to Double-Digit Increases in Sponsored Research Funding

UVA Engineering’s focus on bold research to benefit society is earning results: Sponsored research funding increased by 74 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. The one-year increases included 27.5 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2018 (from $60 million to $76.5 million) and 36 percent from FY2016 to FY2017.

The Engineering School is a driver of the University of Virginia’s overall sponsored research funding increases, which totaled 11 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2018. Nationally, UVA Engineering is performing exceptionally well on another key metric for research: compound annual growth rate in research expenditures. UVA is well above the average research growth rate for the top engineering graduate schools in the country, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

“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 Dean 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.

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

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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 recently the School announced that Susan L.R. Barker, who has served as senior director of research development, will take a new role as associate dean for research. Norris and Barker also hired a director of corporate relations, John Ralston. And they 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, Norris 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, multi-disciplinary research efforts that target pressing societal challenges - efforts that are now facilitated by John Lach, professor of electrical and computer engineering who is also serving in a new role as director of cross-cutting research. 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 Health – 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; in cyber-physical systems with the establishment of the interdisciplinary Link Lab for research into smart and connected technologies; and in cybersecurity with the new Cyber Innovation & Society institute. 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. Read more about the graduate program’s gains here.

The University also 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 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, the newly appointed associate dean for research. 

UVA Engineering also is investing in top-quality faculty hires.

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.”