Seed funding available to give early career faculty research a running start
Sometimes the hardest part of a new project is getting started.
Funding agencies awarding hefty grants often want to see preliminary data that lend credibility to the proposed research. But getting that data takes resources, too, and those startup funds can be hard to come by, especially for new collaborations between researchers from different fields that might not, at first glance, look like a natural fit.
That’s where the university’s investment institutes can step in.
Virginia Tech’s four investment institutes offer a range of funding programs targeting different types of projects. One of many examples is the Junior Faculty Program from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), which funds interdisciplinary collaborations led by an early career faculty member. Each year ICTAS typically awards five of these grants, which provide up to $80,000 over two years. Applications for this year’s cycle are due Feb. 1.
“We want to make it easier for new faculty members to go after big, high-impact opportunities by giving promising new projects the resources they need to get off the ground,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS’ director. “Helping new faculty build up their research programs is crucial to advancing research at the university more broadly, and these grants help do that by lowering some of the barriers to pursuing new ideas or exploring new collaborations.”
In 2020, Sanket Deshmukh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering, won a grant through the program to fund the development of modeling tools driven by machine learning that could inform the design of membrane-based materials for capturing gas molecules.
The grant allowed him to assign a graduate student and a postdoctoral researcher to the project, and the preliminary data they collected has inspired multiple subsequent proposals and a manuscript that’s currently in review. Deshmukh also believes the award strengthened his application for the NSF CAREER award he won for related work the following year.
“I honestly feel it made a huge impact to have a competitive award like that on my CV,” he said. “It shows external reviewers that there is some merit in what you’re proposing.”
And the computational framework he used the seed funding to develop has turned out to be useful for designing other classes of materials beyond membranes, generating its own set of new directions for Deshmukh’s research.
“I think it has been really helpful in many different ways,” he said. “For any young faculty member, who is always seeking some kind of support, it allows you to explore the ideas you have and generate data that you can, directly or indirectly, use to get external funding.”
The program has a strong track record of paving the way for successful grant applications. In the last three years, researchers supported by Junior Faculty Program have reported $13.5 million in external grants — more than a tenfold return to the university on the institute’s original investment.
To be eligible for the grants, the lead researcher must be a pre-tenure professor on a tenure track or an AP or research faculty member hired after 2018, working with co-investigators from different disciplines. Having a more senior researcher on the team, to serve as a mentor and anchor a new project with a connection to a well-established research program, typically leads to stronger proposals but isn’t required.
More details about the program and detailed application instructions are available here. Questions can be directed to Jon Greene, ICTAS associate director for strategic development, at 540-553-5846 or email@example.com.
A complete list of ICTAS seed funding programs is available on this page.