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Teaming Up for Success

Teaming Up for Success
Partnerships, collaborations help Tennessee State meet the challenges of securing research funding
By Phaedra Brotherton

For researchers, getting a single grant or award of at least $1 million takes skill and dedication, not to mention commitment to the university, students and to scholarship, says JoVita Wells, associate director of the Office of Sponsored Research at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

Tennessee State earlier this year honored 14 individuals who had been granted a single award of $1 million or more by a federal agency during a special three-day event called the Annual University Wide Research Symposium, marking 25 years of “research engagement” (see Black Issues, April 10).

“That level of funding to so many researchers at TSU is so significant because of the history of research funding in America, and the role of faculty at HBCUs,” Wells says, pointing out that historically Black colleges and universities were not created to be research institutions and therefore face special challenges. “Faculty workloads are heavy, and it’s difficult to attract young faculty.”

TSU has met this challenge head on by developing partnerships and collaborations with other colleges and universities, as well as government agencies and the private sector.

Collaborative efforts

TSU collaborations and partnership opportunities have increased over the years — particularly over the last 10 years.

“We were (already) engaged in innovative and excellence research,” Wells says. “Our principal investigators were obtaining grants, publishing, making presentations and our institutional research profile had been enhanced.”

When Wells arrived in 1992, she says she found individuals in the Centers of Excellence, the College of Engineering, Technology and Computer Science, and the biological sciences “who felt TSU researchers were as skilled as any in the country and that if there were opportunities for ‘true collaborations and partnership’ with adequate funding and compatible and complementary research interests we would collaborate or partner,” Wells says.

One example of a successful collaboration in the College of Engineering is the Strategic Manpower Development project, under Dr. Decatur B. Rogers, dean of the College of Engineering. The program aims to increase the pipeline of African American doctorates in engineering, technology and computer science by exposing them to research throughout their education, beginning in kindergarten through postgraduate education. Partners and funders include NASA, Office of Naval Research, General Motors, Boeing, Raytheon, Meharry Medical College and Penn State University.

“The companies and federal agencies were very interested in making sure that there would be a future pool of engineering talent,” Rogers says. “Right now, 50 percent of Ph.D.s in engineering and technology are foreign students. HBCUs were a good place to look for them to increase future engineers.”

TSU students benefit from working with leading researchers on cutting-edge research projects, such as examining the causes of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and new wireless technology to monitor the condition of heart patients. The program also gets TSU undergraduates and graduate students into local elementary and high schools to tutor students and help them with research projects. High school students from around the country attend TSU during the summer to attend special enrichment programs.

Rogers says that since 1999, they have had students who started with the program graduate with undergraduate degrees in engineering and go on to graduate schools. Two of these students are pursuing doctorates in engineering at top schools, including partner Penn State, as well as TSU.

The research under way in TSU’s Center for Neural Engineering, under Dr. Mohan Malkani, professor of electrical engineering and associate dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research, also involves partnering. The center has been involved in numerous research projects including developing and implementing humanlike behaviors and other behaviors on mobile robots; and developing a human machine interface for a virtual environment to control robots on Mars, using neural networks and fuzzy logic to make decisions. Funders have included the Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation, NASA Ames Research Center and the U.S. Army.

In addition, the Boeing Corp. has become a significant TSU partner, Malkani says. TSU and Boeing have filed a joint patent application for a PC-based tool to be on the market by November 2003 for use in the aircraft, automotive and manufacturing industries. It was invented by a TSU engineering professor, who became the first non-Boeing employee to receive the company’s Special Invention Award.

Malkani says he would like to get more well-funded, longer-term grants and contracts, such as $2 million per year for five years.

“Then you can do wonderful things,” he says. “You can hire people for long-term, you can produce a lot more Ph.D. students and attract more minority students and solve manpower problems. HBCUs can handle them,” Malkani says.

TSU supports its researchers by providing several types of recognition including OSR Researchers of the Year Award and the Million Dollar Researcher award, Wells says. TSU also provides funds for faculty development, equipment purchases, travel, training, the mechanics of proposal development, grant writing, budget development and editing, as well as identifying funding sources and helping to create opportunities for collaborations and partnerships.

Planning strategically

A key to the success of TSU’s research programs was developing and implementing a strategic plan.

“Ten years ago, Dr. Mills (director of sponsored research), and I sat down and worked a 10-year plan … He said, ‘I think we can do $40 million in 10 years,’ ” Wells says. “Last year we hit $41.42 million. We looked at our areas of strengths in engineering, agriculture and the sciences — particularly the biomedical sciences. We got input from deans, faculty and others, and we developed the plan.”

Wells says the reason TSU was able to reach its goals was due to the committed faculty members, the support of the president and a good staff. “The key is the people you surround yourself with,” she says. “The fact that the Tennessee Board of Regents decided to provide funding to establish or enhance research offices on many campus was a great help.” Wells also credits Dr. James A. Hefner, president of TSU, and the vice president of academic affairs for providing infrastructure support, the funding, the staff and the environment.

A major project on the horizon is strengthening the federal relations program.

“We now have the skills, the infrastructure, and the world knows more about our capabilities and interests in the research area than even the most optimistic among us imagined some 20 years ago,” Wells says. “Our students are hungry for research opportunities and we intend to provide them. Our faculty is strong and committed … we are proud of our results.”

Her advice to other HBCUs: Develop a strategic plan and establish some obtainable goals and objectives.

“HBCUs should be inclusive and listen to those who have been there,” she says. “It’s important to think broadly.” Wells adds, “Sometimes you have to believe when others believe you can’t. Be on the look out for new opportunities, create some opportunities and be responsive when opportunities present themselves.”

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