The Power of Collaboration

Tufts seed grant program encourages interdisciplinary work and bolsters external funding
illustration of globe and many cogs
“We’re seeing great ideas, allowing people to follow their passions, and empowering them to work collaboratively,” says Diane Souvaine, vice provost for research. Illustration: Depositphotos
March 4, 2016

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The Tufts Collaborates seed grant program, which has funded 115 projects since its inception in 2011, has generated a 200 percent return on investment. Projects are now set to receive some $11 million from external sources, including the National Institutes of Health and private foundations.

The $5 million in seed funding the university has awarded could end up being just a “fraction of an extraordinary return on investment” as more projects reach maturity and researchers begin to parlay their findings into applications for external funding, says Kirby L. Johnson, director of research integrity and facilitation in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. “The bottom line is that we will see at least a doubling of our investment,” he says. “A three-fold, four-fold or even greater return on the program investment is not only possible, but almost a certainty.”

The Tufts Collaborates program was designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration across the university’s three campuses, as well as bolster external funding. It already has met some of those goals, says Diane Souvaine, vice provost for research. “We’re seeing great ideas, allowing people to follow their passions, and empowering them to work collaboratively,” says Souvaine, who is also a professor of computer science and an adjunct professor of mathematics.

The 22 awardees of Tufts Collaborates grants for the current academic year work in a range of disciplines. For one project, a veterinarian is working with a geospatial specialist from Tufts Technology Services and an acquisitions and cataloging expert from Tisch Library to establish a wildlife tissue bank at Cummings School. In another, a geneticist and a specialist in reproductive medicine are trying to understand how psychiatric disorders span the generations. And a psychologist is collaborating with a theater studies professor to understand how race, color and culture affect the performing arts.

The yearlong grant awards range from $500 to $50,000. Projects are selected through a peer review process and evaluated for their innovation, degree of collaboration and potential to make an impact on society, among other criteria.

Researchers apply as teams, ideally from a mix of Tufts campuses or schools, or, at a minimum, of departments, Johnson says. Teams may include Tufts staff as well as faculty from other institutions, as long as the principal investigator is a member of the Tufts faculty. Researchers proposing projects ideally will not have collaborated previously with other team members; the idea is to look at old problems with fresh eyes.

“It’s about intellectual community as much as it is about collaboration and thinking across disciplines to a space that is shared,” Souvaine says.

By the time a particular project is completed, researchers often have enough substantive data and findings to apply for external funding. That has led to about a dozen successful grant applications over the past several years.

For example, Elizabeth Byrnes, an associate professor of neuroscience and reproductive biology at Cummings School, was awarded more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse for her research on the generational effects of opioid abuse. The Mellon Foundation awarded $600,000 to Gregory Crane, Winnick Family Chair in Technology and Entrepreneurship in the classics department and editor of the Perseus Digital Library Project, for his work using collaborative editing platforms. Matt Panzer at the School of Engineering was awarded $360,000 by the National Science Foundation for his work with solid-state lighting, and the National Cancer Institute awarded Daniel Jay, professor of developmental, molecular and chemical biology at the School of Medicine, $321,833 to investigate cancer drug resistance genes.

“The outcomes don’t have to be just money,” Johnson says. “Student involvement in Tufts Collaborates projects at all levels has doubled, and we’ve really encouraged collaboration across schools and campuses.”

Among the projects students have worked on, Johnson cites undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry and biology who helped evaluate a new method of restoring oil- and tar-contaminated soils with Albert Robbat Jr., an associate professor of chemistry; psychology and cognitive science graduate students who studied an emerging local sign language in a village in Turkey with Ray Jackendoff, the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies; and urban and environmental planning graduate students who collaborated with veterinary students and Chris Whittier, V97, a research assistant professor of conservation medicine at Cummings School, as he investigated the link between abandoned buildings and animal health.

Another benefit of the program is that more members of the Tufts community are doing research, says Jennifer Towers, director of research affairs at the School of Dental Medicine. Towers herself is among them.

With a Tufts Collaborates grant for the 2014-15 academic year, she and Margie Skeer, an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the School of Medicine, continued work that Towers had done for her master’s thesis in health communication—a public health project to develop a methamphetamine-abuse intervention protocol for dental hygienists. “The grant really allowed me to take my own research to a different level,” says Towers.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.