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Ohio State researchers crush average with 19 first-time funding recipients

The Ohio State College of Medicine and Wexner Medical Center have 19 people who received project grants from the National Institutes of Health this year. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

In an average year, the Ohio State College of Medicine and Wexner Medical Center have four or five people who receive project grants from the National Institutes of Health for the first time. This year, they have 19.

The impressive number of recipients resulted in a nearly 20-percent increase in total funding.

Peter Mohler, vice dean for research at the College of Medicine, attributes the success to the culture at the medical center and its incoming talent.

“If you don’t have great people with great ideas and people who are creative, then the organization is difficult to grow,” Mohler said. “If you get the right environment, you get the right mentoring and you get really creative people, then that’s when really breakthrough science can happen.”

Not only is the number of recipients this year far above the national average, but the average age of the 19 recipients is 37, which is six years less than the national average.

“It is one thing for me to get a grant, and I am an old guy. It is a lot of fun,” Mohler said. “To see someone who has been working their whole life to get their first big break and to get their first big grant from the National Institutes of Health is a life-changing moment.”

With the current funding climate in the U.S., only about 10 percent of the applicants to the NIH receive a grant, Mohler said.

Research funding has fallen across the country, and Ohio State has been hit hard. Its research and development expenditures, which are the total amount the university spends on research, hit a five-year low in 2016 of $847 million, after peaking two years prior at $983 million.

The university has consistently ranked in the top 20 among universities in total research expenditures, but fell to 22nd in the National Science Foundation rankings in 2016.

To see someone who has been working their whole life to get their first big break and to get their first big grant from the National Institutes of Health is a life-changing moment. —Peter Mohler, vice dean of research, Ohio State’s College of Medicine

With 19 NIH recipients in 2018, Ohio State is competing on a higher level than it is used to.

“We are competing with places, not only the Michigans and the Wisconsins of the world, but the Columbias and the Stanfords. So what does that mean?” Mohler said. “It means that our people are not just as good but are even better than the people at a lot of these places.”

Mohler said there is an environment that promotes the advancement of researchers throughout the medical center and in the College of Medicine.

“It is not just in one area. It is spread across a number of different areas,” Mohler said. “When you look back from 50,000 feet, we are taking care of all the people in all of the different areas.”

The environment the medical center created has brought improvements to how proposals are written, said Leah Pyter, assistant professor in psychiatry and neuroscience and one of the 19 recipients. Those available resources, she said, yielded the interdisciplinary, innovative proposals that have earned recognition.

“The medical center has made it very clear that expectations are high, and they have adjusted the infrastructure to improve the chances of getting funding for new investigators through mentoring, grant-writing seminars and a third party that assists in grant writing,” Pyter said.

An investigation into Ohio State’s research practices related to the medical center concluded in early March. New procedures will be finalized in the coming months, based off recommendations from the law firm that conducted the investigation, as a preventive response to national research trends showing an increase of misconduct and data misrepresentation.

Regardless of misconduct shortcomings at the university, the grant milestone will have lasting impacts for generations to come and show young researchers that getting funding is possible, Pyter said.

“It shows that Ohio State has the resources that it takes to help people with grant writing, but also have the intellectual, the technical resources to convince the NIH that we can do this work,” Pyter said.

The future is very bright, Mohler said. Comparing university researchers to the football team, he said it would be similar to all of Ohio State’s best players being freshmen.

“When you have success, it really breeds success,” Mohler said.

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