Q & A: UM-Flint Director of Research and Sponsored Programs Terry Van Allen

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Terry W. Van Allen, Ph.D., J.D. | UM-Flint Director of Research and Sponsored Programs
Terry W. Van Allen, Ph.D., J.D. | UM-Flint Director of Research and Sponsored Programs

Terry W. Van Allen, Ph.D., J.D., is the University of Michigan-Flint's director of Research and Sponsored Programs. He discusses a range of research topics in this interview with UM-Flint staff writer Robert Gold.

What role does faculty research serve at University of Michigan-Flint? What about student research?

Faculty members are the leaders of research, scholarship, and creativity on campus. Faculty members are excelling in their own fields through research projects, creative productivity, and scholarly publications; while mentoring students who work as their research assistants. Graduate and undergraduate students are mentored by faculty for individual or group research projects. Faculty excel in teaching and learning with their course loads, and research and creativity is the value-added ingredient to achieving excellence by our faculty. Students experience boundless learning beyond the classroom through their research projects under faculty mentors. In fact, a few students are contributing as secondary authors on publications, which epitomizes the academic excellence between faculty and students at UM-Flint.

What field or departments at UM-Flint are especially active in research?

Nursing is the most active in successfully obtaining large external grants from the federal government. These grants are for training and service, and evaluation and applied research are important components for measuring the success of these programs. Public health has obtained significant grants from the federal government. The sciences are obtaining significant grants in collaboration with other universities. Earth and Resource Science has been awarded federal grants with UM-Ann Arbor and Kettering University as collaborators. Biology has been awarded a significant grant from the state with Michigan State University as a collaborator. Computer Science, Engineering, and Physics have been awarded significant grants with other universities as collaborators. Physical Therapy has budding projects that could lead into major grants.

Are there emerging fields of research on campus or certain subject matter that is receiving heavy attention?

There is much more funding from agencies for healthcare disciplines and STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) than all other fields. Healthcare is a continuously growing field. Nursing is strong for instructional and service grants in healthcare. The STEM fields are funded for basic research. Biology has three field projects from external and internal awards for research for studies on feral swine, martens, and sea lamprey. Another significant biology project involves studying cancer, and another project involves studying plants and organic life. There are opportunities for earth and resource science, and especially for all engineering fields, as well as for computer and technology in software engineering.

What role does research play in furthering UM-Flint's growing reputation for expertise in "engaged learning?"

Programs such as University Outreach and EOI (Educational Opportunities Initiative) are awarded many grants from foundations and from the state. These grants are essential for UM-Flint's mission. Examples would be that EOI has grants supporting academics and diversity for college students as well as high school students, while Outreach has a grant supporting an Innovation Incubator [IN] for start-up businesses. There are other grants supporting community engagement.

What is it about UM-Flint that makes it so well-suited for engaged learning projects across all disciplines?

UM-Flint is a regional comprehensive university, so our faculty and students are engaged in many learning fields with impacts on the community. Students in different departments, disciplines, and schools on campus, such as healthcare and social work and business entrepreneurship, are engaged in different activities and practicums and projects with community agencies. As director of Research and Sponsored Programs, I  am engaged in the community on research involving economic development and federal public policy programs, and a student is working with me on analyzing information derived from a voluminous national data base.

Does research experience and propensity play a role in the hiring of faculty? How are classroom and research obligations balanced at UM-Flint?

Many new faculty have strong research agendas and backgrounds. During the interviewing and recruiting process, many departments ask their candidates to meet with the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs so that candidates can become informed of how UM-Flint is committed to supporting faculty in big and small ways. Also, the interactions help new faculty jumpstart their academic careers with research, since so many new faculty are teaching courses requiring much time with preparation. There is a strong teaching load at UM-Flint, so the Office of Research supports faculty with strategies on how to be more productive with their research agendas. Faculty incorporate their applied research into practical lessons for their classroom and online courses. Research helps to stimulate better learning plans for teachers and students.

What options are there for undergraduate students who want to develop their research skills? What is the university's approach to undergraduate education and research?

The Office of Research sponsors the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Last year, 138 undergraduate students worked on research projects under faculty mentors. This program started out with six students and has exponentially increased to over 100 per year. The undergraduate students are paid up to $500 per semester (Fall and Winter and Spring/Summer combined) per project. Many undergraduate students give us positive feedback every year that working as a research assistant under a faculty mentor is the highlight of their academic careers. The Office of Research and the Office of the Senior Vice-Provost cosponsor a Student Research Conference for undergraduate and graduate students every year, where students present papers or posters. Also, the Office of Research cosponsors a regional meeting for undergraduate students, which is called "Meeting of Minds." Undergraduate students from UM-Flint, UM-Dearborn, and Oakland University present papers and posters on research projects.

How does the university support faculty who are pursuing research?

The Office of Research provides administrative support for faculty pursing external grants, where the faculty have increased their activities with a total portfolio of $6 million for the current year. In recent years, the faculty have exponentially increased the portfolio from a historical average of about $2 million per year. The Office of Research supports faculty with funding for internal grants. These proposals are competitive and awards are made by faculty reviewers each fall and spring.  The average award is $10,000 and the maximum award is up to $20,000 per research project. The Office of Research supports each new faculty member with a small award of $2,000 to help jumpstart research activities. The Office of Research and the Faculty Mentoring Program cosponsor workshops to support faculty with their scholarly publications and grant writing. The Office of Research provides administrative support for human subjects research, statistical consultations for projects, and information for externally funded projects.

What is the university's philosophy/approach with regards to research funded by private industry? How is it beneficial to the university? To industry? What are the potential pitfalls/challenges with public universities working with the private sector in this way?

Most of the external funding for faculty grants is from public sources, i.e., federal and state government grants. Some of the funding is from private foundations and industry. Most of the projects funded by private foundations tend to be for programmatic purposes. The publicly funded grants are highly competitive and may require resubmissions upon receiving feedback. Often, the publicly funded grants have higher budgets and awards, and broader scopes for projects. The privately funded grants are often for smaller, specialized local projects, and the advantage is that our Development Office will be better able to gauge the interest in the project by the foundations. The Office of Research and Development Office work together in their distinct roles to support faculty and staff in their pursuit of private grants. Rejection is the hardest part about the grant business for faculty submitting proposals to public or private agencies, and this is the hardest part for faculty submitting proposals for internal grants, too. Learning from rejection and critical feedback is an important part of resubmissions and success. Relatively speaking, faculty tend to be skilled at learning from rejections through their resubmissions of scholarly publications and creative portfolios, and many faculty understand that the grant world is the most competitive of all worlds, but there are huge rewards for success.

Are there specific goals/plans for the future of research at UM-Flint?

The Office of Research has an ongoing goal of providing excellent quality service to every faculty member interested in research, scholarly, and creative projects.  The Office of Research seeks to excel every day in fulfilling the ultimate demands of both planned administrative processes and spontaneous urgent needs by faculty. The Office of Research is engaged in the highly competitive business of research excellence. Like all important endeavors at UM-Flint, research projects and faculty scholarship are always in need of funding. As a long-term goal, the Office of Research is hoping to provide more budget funding and administrative support to faculty and students, as the university grows in resources for supporting research excellence.

Contact University Relations staff writer Robert Gold with comments, questions, and ideas at goldr@umflint.edu, (810) 424-5596, or on Twitter, @writerobert.

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