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Research Fellows Program Helps COHPA Secure Increasing Number of Federal Grants

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Professor Jennifer Kent-Walsh envisions a day when children who cannot rely on natural speech will be able to communicate and fully participate in their schools, homes and communities. She's not simply dreaming about it - the communication sciences and disorders faculty member is conducting groundbreaking research using technological innovations while teaching language and grammar skills to preschoolers, funded by a National Institutes of Health R15 grant.

Winning federal and national grants from agencies such as NIH is a highly competitive process. According to Associate Dean for Research Thomas T.H. Wan of UCF's College of Health and Public Affairs, only about 10 percent of all proposals submitted are funded. UCF faculty members compete against applicants from top universities, many of whom have strong name recognition and therefore have a natural advantage.

In 2009, COHPA developed the COHPA Research Fellowship program to improve those odds and build a strong sponsored research infrastructure within the college. Kent-Walsh was part of the program's first cohort, where she prepared a grant proposal for a pilot project that received the largest financial award given by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation. Her long-term goal was obtaining findings from that project to use when submitting her proposal to the NIH, and she achieved it.

Today, the program's sixth cohort is now undergoing its own academic year-long series of monthly workshops and seminars relevant to grant application and review. Under the guidance of mentors, fellows prepare assignments each month and submit them online. Among other specifics, they learn from senior faculty members about national funding agencies such as the NIH, National Institute of Justice and National Science Foundation, how to prepare budgets, where to find funding resources and how to select the funding agencies that are the best fit for them.

The program culminates with a presentation and mock review of the proposals, giving them a stronger chance of securing funding. Once the proposals are submitted, fellows receive $2,500 in research seed funding from the college's overhead generated from sponsored research that they can use in support of their research.

"We want to give them the right tools and every possible resource for success," said COHPA Budget and Research Administration Director Kerry Gajewski. "The designation as research fellow demonstrates that they went the extra mile."

An additional benefit is the collegiality that develops among the fellows. COHPA's departments range from criminal justice to health management and informatics to communication sciences and disorders, and the fellowship program brings together faculty members who might never have collaborated under other circumstances.

"In order to develop grantsmanship, particularly related to federal or national grants from agencies such as NIH, NIJ and NSF, it is imperative to work collaboratively with faculty members from multiple disciplines," said Wan.

Associate Professor Anthony Pak Hin Kong had an NIH R01 grant when he applied to the 2011-2012 fellows program. As a junior faculty member, he wanted to learn from more experienced researchers who were successful in obtaining federal funding. He especially appreciated the opportunity to get feedback on his Chinese aphasia project not only from mentors, but also from his peers in other departments.

"In order to get funding from federal agencies, you have to be able to explain your story in a way those outside your discipline would understand," Kong said. "In the fellows program, you are able to explain your research in layman's terms, yet also in a scientific way that allows others to appreciate the theoretical and clinical value of your project."

Kong, with the communication sciences and disorders department, recently submitted a renewal of the grant to the NIH, with plans to expand from monolingual to bilingual aphasia (a language disorder induced by a stroke or brain injury in adults) research among speakers of Cantonese and English, in collaboration with colleagues at universities in the United States, Ireland and Hong Kong.

Since the fellows program began, COHPA research activity has continued at an upward trajectory. Researchers are winning awards, including multiple NIH and NSF grants, in support of their regional, national and international research interests.

Criminal justice Assistant Professor Kristina Childs, part of the 2013-2014 cohort, is the principal investigator in a project with Brevard County Public Schools funded by the NIJ. "I gained valuable knowledge about the grant writing and review process," she said. "I would certainly recommend it to junior faculty interested in applying for federal grants."

Success often builds on success, which Kent-Walsh has learned firsthand since her days in the initial fellows' cohort.

"There's great value in working with mentors and those who have more experience," she said. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Take time to learn from more senior colleagues and put into practice what is relevant to you from their experience."

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