March 23, 2016

Making strides in funding research activities, improving training programs and infrastructure

Written by
First of all, I'd like to say thank you to each of our faculty members for their efforts and engagement in the strengthening of research in the School of Medicine over the past year. We have a lot to be proud of, and I want to use this opportunity to highlight the investments and early outcomes of the past year and tell you about the plan for the current year.

Coming off the heels of the selection of the Five Research Focus Areas for the School of Medicine in October 2014, we received twelve recommendations from research leadership during our annual research retreat in December 2014 with respect to funding research activities, improving training programs and infrastructure issues. Substantial progress has been made on many of the recommendations.

Investment in Faculty

  • Building Research Teams to Submit Multi-PI Grants, P01 and U Grants. We issued the first Multi-PI RFA on January 16, 2015, to enable SOM faculty to organize and integrate multi-disciplinary teams of accomplished investigators that will compete successfully for long-term support from funding agencies. We received forty-five applications and sent twenty-five out for review. Of these, six were selected for presentation, and four were given three-year awards of $112,500 per year each on May 4, 2015.
  • Innovator Awards to Reward Our Most Accomplished Faculty to Pursue High-Risk Ideas with Flexible Dollars. In April 2015 we released the Blue Sky Innovator RFA. Twenty-four applications were received, and twelve were sent out for review. Four applications were selected for presentation, and in September 2015 two faculty were given two-year awards of $100,000 per year each.
  • Incentive for 1 R01 Investigators to Submit 2nd R01. In October 2015 we issued an RFA to support investigators with novel ideas, preliminary data and/or publications. Forty letters of intent were received, and twenty-two were invited to submit full applications, which are currently being reviewed. We hope to fund 7-10 two-year awards at $50,000 per year each by May 1, 2016.
  • Focus Area: Personalized Medicine and Genomics. Both the Personalized Medicine Institute (PMI), led by interim director Dr. Nita Limdi, and the Center for Genomic Medicine, co-directed by Drs. Bruce Korf and Rick Myers, released RFAs for research projects. The PMI received six applications and funded two projects: “Personalized Medicine Project in Recurrent Ovarian Cancer Patients” led by Drs. Rebecca Arend and Warner Huh and “Pharmacogenetic Guidance to Optimize Safety and Efficacy of Psychotropic Drug Use in Treatment of Behavioral and Psychiatric Symptoms in Dementia” led by Dr. David Geldmacher. The Center for Genomic Medicine received 22 applications and funded three projects: Dr. Sunil Sudarshan’s project titled “Identifying Epigenetic Targets of Oncometabolite-Driven Kidney Cancers,” Dr. Anita Hjelmeland’s project titled “Integrated Transcriptomic and Metabolic Profiling of Glioblastoma for Development of Novel Treatment Strategies” and Dr. Donald Rokosh’s project titled “Stromal Cell Derived Factor-1α and Casein Kinase-1α Epigenomic Regulation of Postnatal Cardiac Development.”

Investment in Infrastructure

  • Need to Establish Better Oversight, Uniformity, Sustainability, New Technologies, etc. for Cores. We partnered with the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development to establish UAB Institutional Core Facilities. Twenty applications were received, and ten were funded.
  • Need to Address the Quality of Existing Research Space. Research space is a top priority for the School of Medicine in 2016. This effort was begun in 2015 with the hiring of Dr. Chad Steele as Assistant Dean for Research Administration who, as an early task in his tenure, led an ad hoc committee of faculty and staff to make recommendations for School space utilization guidelines for management and allocation of space. Additionally, new staff leadership in the School has been charged to drive this initiative. Kevin Bell was promoted to lead space management in the dean’s office, and he is driving an initiative to create a master space plan for the School of Medicine. This will be an engaged and transparent process, and you will continue to hear more regularly about the development of this plan through frequent town hall meetings.
  • Need for Improvements in Central Research Administrative Units. As Assistant Dean for Research Administration, Dr. Chad Steele developed a research faculty onboarding plan that includes a comprehensive guidebook and half-day workshop. The workshop, held in September 2015, included presentations by UAB research administration entities (IACUC, IRB, OSP, etc.). During the first six months of his tenure, Dr. Steele has supporting onboarding of more than 60 new faculty.

Investment in Trainees

  • Graduate Student Support. The School of Medicine provided substantial support in 2015 to the GBS Program to help off-set departmental finder’s fees.
  • Encourage Faculty to Submit T32, K and F Awards. The School increased its supplement from $10,000 to $30,000 to T32 directors upon new award or competitively renewed award for enhancement of programmatic activities. Also in 2015 the School of Medicine established the Physician-Scientist Office and promoted Dr. Robin Lorenz as director and Associate Dean for Physician-Scientist Development. We also supported and invested in the Graduate School with Dean Lori McMahon and Associate Dean Lisa Schweibert for the support of T32 application development and submissions.

Investment in Emerging Science

  • Consider Emerging Areas such as Microbiome, Cancer Immunotherapy and Autism Spectrum Disorders for Investment. The School of Medicine led and/or participated in recruitment in these areas. Specific examples include Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine, a significant recruit in the area of the Microbiome; Drs. Ravi Bhatia and Herb Chen actively recruiting in the area of Cancer Immunotherapy; and Dr. Mitch Cohen actively recruiting in Developmental Disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In January 2016 we invited all School of Medicine faculty to provide input on how we should use our resources to support research. To do this we used a process that was developed for the UAB Medicine Innovation Challenge. Despite being open for only one week, we received nineteen ideas for consideration, sixteen of those new ideas. The challenge generated 15 percent engagement of our faculty through submission of, voting for and commenting on ideas as well as general viewing during the challenge.

On January 29, 2016, the research leadership in the School of Medicine gathered for a retreat to hear about the successes in the prior year and to review ideas submitted through the challenge. Those in attendance participated in a “head to head” live and anonymous review using Imaginatik, a web-based system used by the UAB Medicine Innovation Challenge. They rated randomly paired ideas on objective criteria; during the session 1,045 paired reviews were quantitatively ranked. The results were used to guide a group discussion and prioritization of the ideas. The group decided collectively to weight ideas on return on investment and broad impact. This resulted in three primary buckets of priority ideas:

  • Faculty Investment
  • Graduate Student Support
  • Accountability of Leadership

Since the retreat, we have discussed these three priority ideas, understanding our investment to date and opportunities for this year either in new investment or redirection of existing investment.

  • Faculty Investment. Based on the rankings during the review and feedback during the retreat, we will continue to award Pittman Scholars, Multi-PI grants and Second R01 grants in 2016. Both in the rankings and in discussion it was the feeling of the research leadership that the Blue Sky RFA did not have the same opportunity for broad impact as the other RFAs, so we have decided to hold off issuing the Blue Sky RFA for 2016. The two recipients from 2016 will receive their second year of funding, pending appropriate progress and achieving benchmarks. We will reevaluate this award for possible reissuance in 2017. There was strong interest among research leadership in junior faculty development / mentoring following the ideas submitted by faculty in this area. We will engage Dr. David Rogers, Sr. Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Professional Development, to understand what currently exists at the department and institutional levels and identify the gaps.
  • Graduate Student Support. A continuation from the prior year, we received a number of ideas from faculty related to support for graduate students. The research leadership also identified this as a priority area for the School of Medicine. Therefore we will continue the school’s existing support of the graduate school. The School of Medicine has a standing annual budget contribution of $2.2M to the Graduate School for student stipends, tuition and fees, and health insurance. In FY15 we invested an additional $100,000 for offset of departmental finder’s fees and will continue this in 2016. We will explore other opportunities for supporting scholarly efforts of meritorious GBS students in the current year.
  • Accountability of Leadership. As supported by research leadership, we will continue our current efforts in enhanced accountability for leadership. The School will continue annual department reviews across all mission areas including performance in research, education and clinical service as well as space utilization and faculty and staff engagement and promotion, development, retention and recruitment of faculty. Working with the dean’s office we will seek to enhance the quarterly dean:department chair meetings. In 2016 UAB Medicine has sought to support alignment of goals for clinical departments with value-based metrics (also known as funds flow at risk) where 10% of at risk funds are connected to organizational performance on UAB Medicine AMC21 pillar goals and 10% of at risk is department-level research goal performance.

We are very eager to build on the momentum and enthusiasm generated in the last year, and again thank you for your participation thus far.