Spring 2016 Grant Program Report: Success Rate Declines

Yesterday evening we sent out award letters for the New Investigator, Joint Venture and Research Development grant programs.The award list will post at our website soon, if it’s not there already.

We’re still busy in the program office with the myriad communications and logistical details of giving out CSUPERB grants. We have yet to announce Curriculum Development, Travel, Presidents’ Commission grant awards – so hold tight out there; we’ll get them made before the fiscal year close.  I want to take a break, though, and let you know about our new funding rates.  Spoiler: they’ve declined.

All CSUPERB grant and award programs are competitive and involve peer review panels of CSU faculty. We make funding decisions based on 1) recommendations from the CSU faculty proposal review committees, 2) the available CSUPERB budget, and 3) program priorities.  We get ranked order lists from review panels.  We “pay” down that list as long as we have funds to make grants; this year we have a ~$510,000 budget to make major grants.  The Faculty Consensus Group and Strategic Planning Council set “program priorities” each summer and they are reflected in the requests for proposals (RFPs) we issue each fall. In addition the FCG and SPC want to see similar funding rates across all grant programs, if possible. There is no CSUPERB ‘formula’ for campus or disciplinary distribution of funds. The awards made depend on applications received.

CSUPERB calculates “success” or “funding” rates as (the number of awards made) divided by (the number of applications received); we usually report these rates as percentages.

Due to the increase in applications this year across programs, we’re making awards to only 26% of the applicants, down from our average “success rate” of 33%.  This year we saw a large spike in the number of applications to the New Investigator and Curriculum Development programs; across grant programs we’ve received 25% more applications this year compared to last year.

Interestingly 77% of the New Investigator applicants were first-time applicants to CSUPERB major grant programs, reflecting new hiring system-wide. We’re making awards to new faculty members in biological sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, bioengineering, physics, geology and kinesiology departments system-wide.  They are investigating new coatings for drug-eluting stents, point-of-care diagnostic devices, biosensors, small molecule inhibitors of viral infection, genomic effects of environmental toxins, fundamental mechanisms of cell development, the role of alternative splicing in adaptive evolution and more. Just think of the cool science and engineering projects CSU students will be part of in the coming years!

This funding rate is sad news for faculty applicants who might have been funded at the higher funding rates (we publish those rates in our annual report).  We follow national reports and news about peer review, of course.  We know that the difference between proposals at the 25% and 30% “pay lines” are negligible and is not predictive of future success or impact.  Many disappointed applicants are going to receive the written reviews and wonder why they weren’t funded based on the positive and encouraging things they read there (we’ll send written reviews to applicants later this week).

We hope the written reviews will help PIs focus on points to be made when writing proposals to NSF, NIH and other external-to-the-CSU funding agencies. Each year I get emails saying ‘CSUPERB didn’t fund me – but NSF did!’ I celebrate those moments too. Each new research grant represents uncharted discovery opportunities for the CSU’s students.

What I advise between now and next February’s proposal deadline is to: 1) call the CSUPERB program office for advice and pointers (we run a proposal writing workshop* at each CSU Biotechnology Symposium), 2) sit down with a colleague who has won CSUPERB funding to get tips and advice, 3) write a new draft (far in advance of the next deadline!) for a general review panel – not a panel of experts in your subspecialty (!) and 4) have someone else willing to read it, able to red-line edit like crazy, and who is not an expert in your subspecialty. Last – but definitely not least – address ALL the CSUPERB review criteria in your proposal. It’s not only about the science or technology at CSUPERB. It’s also about demonstrated need, future plans, student involvement and/or partnerships (depending on what RFP you’re answering!).

Grantsmanship requires life-long learning. Sometimes it can feel like there is never enough time to learn when you’re teaching multiple sections of organic chemistry, working with a student researcher on a lab protocol, writing proposals, serving on committees, and trying to move a research idea forward. But – pace yourself – take the time to read a lot, follow Twitter feeds from experts in your field, get advice from colleagues, find a mentor to help, stay grounded in why you chose this career, and rest. In academia there is always another deadline ahead.


*Find here a slide deck from our January 2016 CSUPERB proposal writing workshop. It’s dated – assume details reported here will be different for the next review cycle!

Spring Grantmaking

Last week we announced the CSUPERB spring grant awards.*  We spend the largest percentage of our annual budget on spring grants – last week we sent $567,088 to CSU students and faculty all over California.  That total includes both our “major grant” (seed grant) programs and the faculty and student travel grant programs.

Last week I had Seth Godin’s mantra in my head, so it’s rewarding to see where the money is going. We’re sending CSU engineers, kinesiologists, and biologists worldwide to scientific and engineering conferences in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Stockholm and Beijing.

We’re funding collaborative faculty-student research projects in medicinal chemistry, computational modeling, synthetic biology and more.  Numerous PIs are planning on collecting next generation sequencing data sets, reflecting a sea-change in the way biological systems are characterized in CSU research laboratories these days. We’re funding joint ventures, including one between Dr. Jaqueline Padilla-Gamino, a new assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, and the Catalina Sea Ranch. Together they are going to study temperature-tolerant strains of mussels that shellfish farmers can depend upon going forward. The joint venture also draws upon the expertise of faculty at CSU East Bay and CSU Long Beach. CSU Dominguez Hills student researchers will learn both biotechnology and aquaculture hands-on practices and skills along the way.  Drs. Katie Wilkinson, Susan Lambrecht and Cleber Ouverney won a Curriculum Development grant to work with departmental colleagues to overhaul San Jose State University’s (SJSU) introductory biology curriculum to better align with the Vision & Change Report. Roughly 900 SJSU students per year will be impacted by the new course and laboratory sequence.

Many thanks to the fifty or so CSU faculty we recruited to review proposals this spring. This spring’s five review panels were the most diverse we’ve ever seated. They patiently worked through the new CSYou online review system with us. The expected disciplinary culture differences played out in front of us (engineers like terse, cogent descriptions; biologists like much more detailed and elegant prose). But we are also seeing generational shifts in biotechnologies. New Investigators bring with them postdoctoral experience in using genome-wide, system-wide research and data management methods.

The Vision & Change report predicts many of these cross-disciplinary, fast-changing aspects of biological science.  It’s not easy; a couple of our first-time reviewers had a difficult time letting go of their disciplinary expertise and learning to take a “generalist view” of the diverse seed grant proposals CSUPERB considers. However, based on the reviews and proposals I read this spring, the CSU faculty are keeping up and even leading on many new education and research frontiers. There is no greater job than investing in the CSU’s students and faculty – I can’t wait to see what they do!


*For those of you waiting for CSU I-Corps decisions – be patient, we’re wrapping up interviews and administrative i-dotting and t-crossing this week.

Thankful for True Partnerships

Yesterday we sent out award letters to the new 2015 Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholars, along with our annual program report to the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research board.

Howell Research Scholars are undergraduates who work alongside faculty researchers in biotechnology labs across the CSU.  For this program, the research projects proposed are relevant to women’s health.  The Howell Foundation defines women’s health quite broadly. As a result Howell projects range from basic research on the effects of ethanol on neurological development in fruit flies to clinical work to explore the links between sexually transmitted infections, sexual behavior and health outcomes in a campus setting.

The impact of this program is best communicated by the Scholars themselves (see page 2 of the report, linked here).  As part of their final reports, we ask Scholars to self-report on their gains as a result of the research experience (click on the image below to get the larger, visible version!).  We use David Lopatto’s SURE format (mostly) to

Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from "very small gain" (=1) to "very large gain" (=5).  The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the "large gain" to "very large gain" range!

Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from “very small gain” (=1) to “very large gain” (=5). The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the “large gain” to “very large gain” range. Interesting, the lowest self-reported gains this year related to science writing skills.

investigate learning gains as a result of the undergraduate research experience.  Even though most of the 2014 class of Howell Scholars had worked previously in a research laboratory, all of them reported large or very large overall benefits from the Howell-sponsored experience.

Most scholars work on their funded projects part-time during the spring term, then immerse themselves in the project over the summer. This kind of opportunity – to take a deep dive into a single research project – remains open to only a minority of undergraduate CSU STEM students.  In answer CSU faculty and administrators continue their work to develop new external partnerships, internship programs, and project-based learning in courses throughout the undergraduate curriculum.

Many of the Howell Scholars mentioned the importance of their faculty mentor. We know the immersive, working partnership and team-building between student, peer and faculty researchers offers a context in which students see themselves as scientists (often for the first time).  The teamwork and camaraderie students experience in working laboratories helps students persist even in the face of technical set-backs (and long experiments!).

“…there was a week in mid July; my experiment was behind schedule, and I need to report my data to my PI the next week. I therefore decided to work full time over the weekend. I told my fellow students that they didn’t have to go. However, all of them, all 3, decided that they’ll come in anyway, to help me get my work done. It was that moment that I realized how good of a team I had with me.” – Phuc Nguyen (CSU Long Beach, 2014 Howell Scholar)

True partnerships – shared goals, camaraderie, teamwork – are special things.  Our thirteen-year-long partnership with the Doris A. Howell Foundation is something we are thankful for here at CSUPERB.  Together we’ve been a good team!  The Howell donors remained committed to undergraduate researchers during the Great Recession; not all organizations were so steady in their giving during those years.  Likewise, CSUPERB was fortunate to maintain our budget for this program even in the face of deep cuts in state support for the CSU.

Both CSUPERB and the Howell Foundation have a long-view (influenced by the remarkable Dr. Howell) on educating physicians, clinicians and researchers. We know the effect of two terms spent in a research group plays out over decades and careers. We look forward to hearing from our Howell Scholar alums in February; every three years we reach out to them to find out where they are.  They often write heartfelt notes; they are still exceedingly thankful for the opportunities the Howell Foundation, its board and its donors made possible.

A New Part of NSF’s Innovation Corps

While it’s been quiet here on the CSUPERB blog, we’ve been travelling, consulting, building relationships and developing programming for a new NSF-supported Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Biological Site for the CSU!

icorpsAll the leg-work led to today’s system-wide call for Teams and Applications for CSU I-Corps opportunities this fall.  Contact CSUPERB, find an FCG member or ask at your campus research office to get details about our first CSU I-Corps informational webinar at noon on Friday, June 20th (sent out as part of a system-wide email today).

The last time CSUPERB formulated a strategic plan,* we decided to add an emphasis on entrepreneurship education.  Our simple aim is to teach CSU researchers about “what is needed to take a life sciences idea to a commercial product.”  In 2012 we organized the CSUPERB-I2P Early-stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge – an immersive entrepreneurship experience for CSU science, engineering and business students. Based on our experience with that program and the CSUPERB Entrepreneurial Joint Venture grant program, we submitted a grant proposal to NSF’s I-Corps Site program last May.

Due to the government shut-down and other federal budget wrangling, NSF didn’t make I-Corps Site awards until this May – but we did win an award! As a result we now have NSF backing to expand and institutionalize our biological sciences entrepreneurship educational programming.

The CSU I-Corps will:

This I-Corps Award is significant for the CSU.  Recipients of CSU I-Corps microgrants will be eligible to apply for NSF’s I-Corp Team grants.  Until the Site awards were granted, only NSF PIs had access to this program.

CSU I-Corps programming will help CSU researchers build teams and the skills to compete for follow-on funding from NSF, but also SBIR/STTRNCIIA E-Team and on-ramping opportunities at incubators and accelerators.  I should also note that NIH is embracing the I-Corps program** so soon there may be follow-on funding opportunities from that agency as well.

Our status as an I-Corps Site also gives us access to cutting-edge curriculum and resources of the National Innovation Network (NIN) that NSF has created, in addition to the life science entrepreneurship curriculum we’re developing with San Diego State University’s Lavin Entrepreneurship Center (Alex DeNoble, co-PI), Zahn Center (Cathy Pucher) and College of Sciences (Stanley Maloy, Dean & SPC member).  I attended the NIN meeting in April and brought home to the CSU many of the ideas and approaches I heard about there. The nationwide network of PIs continues to meet by videocon monthly – we have much to learn from each other about commercializing federally funded ideas!

Recognizing the work needed to build a solid and responsive network of alumni and partners, we also wrote a proposal to the CSU’s STEM VISTA program.  We are fortunate that not one, but two, VISTA members will be joining the CSUPERB program office in July to help us with organizational capacity building, student outreach and matching mechanisms for teams and mentors!  We are really looking forward to working with the AmeriCorps VISTA organization – you can imagine the energy and can-do effectiveness “domestic” Peace Corp members will bring with them to CSU I-Corps!  We hope their enthusiasm and talents will engage students enrolled at urban and rural, biotech hub-based and far-flung campuses across California in biological sciences entrepreneurship. I learned at the NIN meeting that NCIIA has a similar cadre of NSF-funded Epicenter innovation fellows (watch the cool ~1 minute video here). In fact the Spring 2014 cohort of University Innovation Fellows includes a Cal Poly alum! We plan to share notes on effective outreach and student engagement with the Epicenter program as well going forward.

After we submitted the I-Corps proposal in May 2013, Steve Blank and UCSF offered a LeanLaunch Pad course for life sciences (lessons learned can be found on his blog!)  Blank’s team discovered what we did running the I2P Challenge: it is critical for researchers to get out of the lab and off campus to talk with potential customers and industry experts about product development concepts, customer channels and regulatory affairs.  We partnered with an amazing array of campus innovation centers and biotechnology industry associations to organize meetings and workshops for curious academic researchers statewide – we have a partnership meeting in a couple of weeks to start scheduling!

We all hope that these immersive experiences will set researchers up for future success – whether it’s licensing out a promising idea, finding additional financing, taking a job at a start-up company or deciding more research and development is needed to commercialize a biotechnology idea.  At minimum – students say the team-based entrepreneurship experiences are eye-opening and lead to valued, real-world skills.   I found out this week that Warren Smith and Manmeet Singh (Sac State’s 2014 I2P first place finishers) won an NSF I-Corps Team grant, suggesting CSUPERB’s biological sciences entrepreneurship pipeline is primed!

CSUPERB gets glee in breaking down barriers between scientists, engineers and business folks.  We are grateful that NSF and AmeriCorps have provided fuel to continue our work for the next three years!


*During the Fall 2014 CSUPERB will embark on new strategic planning discussions for 2015-2018.  If you have ideas, suggestions or quibbles – contact us or your FCG and SPC representatives!

**I linked to the Science article about I-Corps above, but I do recommend reading it for background strategies and outcomes expected for this type of an entrepreneurship education program.  For more scholarly background, I also suggest Roman Lubynsky’s Kauffman Foundation article. From it you’ll get a very good sense of how long it really takes to commercialize research-based ideas as compared to technology-based ideas (and why many of us think researchers have perverse incentives – SBIR grants – to form bioscience companies too early)!  As I crafted the I-Corps proposal last spring, I collected these and other biotechnology entrepreneurship education resources at our Scoop.it site.

Spring Grant Announcements

We’re almost done with this year’s grant-making here at CSUPERB.  We just announced recipients of the Presidents’ Commission Scholars awards, as well as our “Major” Grant programs.  The Travel Grants committee is still working on their reviews – but we’ll announce those grants well before the end of the fiscal year.

These announcements usually mark our transition from grant-making to report-writing here in the program office; our annual report should come out in late July. It’s my favorite part of the year because we get to read Final Reports from the students and faculty members we’ve funded in previous years.  Even in these tough funding times, CSU faculty continue to win follow-on funding, broker partnerships and design curriculum to inspire and support teams of student researchers. Each year I pledge to myself to tell more of their stories and so the font size in the annual report gets smaller and smaller! Now that we’re down to 9-point font, I’m hoping public affairs staffers across the system might help out and will choose to feature some of the new awardees’ stories in campus publications, websites and blogs. The range and scope of science and engineering projects CSUPERB funds makes for fascinating reading!

I also want to take the opportunity to give a shout-out to some of our Genomic Analysis and Technologies Committee (the GATC task-force, of course!) members.  Anya Goodman (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), Aparna Sreenivasan (CSU Monterey Bay) and Jim Youngblom (CSU Stanislaus) have worked with the Genomics Education Partnership (GEP) for the last handful of years. The national network of genomics educators, led by Sarah Elgin at Washington University, brings research experiences into the classroom and involves a virtual “army” of undergraduates in an ongoing fly genome annotation research program. In fact the GATC organized a workshop in July 2011 to develop curriculum modules for genomics education and invited Dr. Elgin to participate. The resulting modules were presented to CSU faculty at the 2012 CSU Biotech Symposium.  Last month the GEP network published a paper assessing the effectiveness of these course-based research experiences.  I won’t spoil the take-home messages because I think it’s good reading for all student-centered educators and administrators.*  It’s very good to see CSUPERB’s faculty researchers taking part in the ongoing national conversation about effective STEM education!


*I’ll add that the March 2014 issue of CBE Life Sciences Education is chock-full of interesting articles for mentors, educators and researchers interested in assessing how effective they are using “high-impact” practices.

Program Update: New CSYou Submission System

As Howell and Travel Grant applicants are finding out, CSUPERB is shifting our proposal submission, application and review systems over to a whole new system.

Our Online Application and Review System (OARS) system has been robust; in fact it’s accepting hundreds of symposium poster abstract submissions today!  But for a variety of reasons including the fact that none of us in the program office are really card-carrying software engineers, web designers or security experts, we plan to shift operations over to the CSYou system.

The CSYou system is open to all CSU faculty and staff.*  It serves as a system-wide intranet; its content ranges from collaborative project portals and Cal State news items to the handy-dandy “Find People” button that we use all the time here at CSUPERB.  To gain access to CSYou, point your browser to csyou.calstate.edu. Things seem to work best when using Microsoft Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.  First thing you’ll see is a drop down menu; select your campus home.  You’ll be sent to your campus email portal, where you’ll enter your campus email username or ID number and password to gain entry to CSYou (today’s screen shot below). Thanks to some middleware magic, your campus credentials gain you access to the shared intranet resources.


CSYou is built on top of a Microsoft SharePoint database; that’s what got us interested here in the program office.  Relational databases make all of us really happy here in the program office (it’s true). But more importantly, even us non-software-engineers can create familiar-looking, web-based forms to capture applications and reviews.  Since Tyson Gadd joined the CSUPERB office, he’s been working with Ronnie Phipps at the Chancellor’s Office building forms and web pages for our grants programs.  We’re piloting the new CSYou system with the Howell-CSUPERB Student Research Scholars program.  During the next year we expect to migrate all our programs to CSYou, culminating with the complex 2015 symposium poster abstract submissions systems next fall.

When you use the link listed at the Howell Scholars application submission website, you’ll be taken directly to the submission webform (screen shot below). If you haven’t logged into CSYou yet that day (or have an open browser session already), you’ll have to log in using your campus user name and password before landing on the webform. Again, things seem to work best when using Microsoft Explorer or Mozilla Firefox.  Be warned: auto-fill entries aren’t captured properly by the system (if you see a yellow box, you’ll need to type your content to enter data).  You can upload proposals and supporting documents in Adobe PDF or Microsoft Word formats.


We expect some technical glitches and bumps as we bring these new systems online. As always, if you have difficulties, call the program office (619-594-2822) before the deadline and we’ll help you out.  Hopefully the majority of applicants will find the CSYou system intuitive and easy-to-use; if not, please let us know how we can improve it!


* For a variety of reasons – including mentoring, financial aid and privacy reasons – CSU students cannot submit applications and proposals directly to CSUPERB.  All our grant, award and symposium programs require the support of a CSU faculty or staff mentor. As a result we accept applications, nominations and proposals from CSU administrators, faculty or staff only.

Howell Foundation Board Meeting

Each summer I meet with the board at the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health (DAHF, http://www.howellfoundation.org/).  Since 2001 CSUPERB has partnered with the DAHF to jointly fund undergraduate researchers.  In total we’ve supported 129 undergraduates at 20 different CSU campuses! During the summer we meet to plan the next Request for Applications (RFA) and smooth out the administrative wrinkles that come with partnerships.

For the last three years we’ve tried to assess the impact of the Howell-CSUPERB Awards on our scholars and track their career paths.   We now have OK, but spotty, data on the scholars funded between 2006-2012.  I’ve reported on student outcomes here before; the Howell Scholars data is a subset of the data presented in our annual reports. We extracted some of that data to report to the Howell Board on the program overall; here’s our 2013 Howell Board report (with photos, of course!).

Annual reporting is always tough on us data geeks – there is so much good stuff that never makes it into a report.  Like – did you know that 90% of the 2012 Howell Scholars had previous research experience? Most worked ~10 hours/week in an academic lab before becoming Howell-CSUPERB Scholars. Interestingly 90% of them are first-in-their-family to prepare for a biomedical research career. 38% of the 2012 Scholars report they “thought the research experience might help me get a job or into graduate school.”*  54% report they selected their faculty mentors based on faculty research pages at campus websites (31% did it the old-fashioned way – they took a class their mentor taught).  Bottom line, 100% of the 2012 Scholars thought the experience was (1) overall a good one, that the experience helped them (2) decide on what career path to follow, and that they (2) plan to pursue research opportunities in women’s health in the future.

It’s hard to decide how to tweak a program when the student-reported outcomes are that good!  As a result the Howell Board agreed to keep the RFA pretty much the same as last year.  That is – we plan to make up to 12 awards ($3500 each) to CSU undergraduate researchers interested in studying problems related to women’s health. We hope to see applications involving student-faculty teams “from life, physical, computer and clinical sciences, engineering, agriculture, math and entrepreneurship or business departments” (and, yes, that includes public health studies and medical device development!).  Look for the 2014 RFA to issue later in August after the SPC signs off August 6th (applications usually due the first week in October)!

We can not thank the Howell Foundation donors enough – they’ve chosen to support undergraduates and as a result have had incredible impact on students’ trajectories and career paths.  What a great way to give back!



*31% said the reason they became Howell Scholars was that “I thought having time with my mentor in lab would help me with my academic and career goals.”  The third most popular response (16%) was “I wanted to find out if a career in biotechnology might be something I’d like.”