by Jenna Somers and Jane Hirtle
The Vanderbilt University research community is now more than two months into the phased soft launch of the new Vanderbilt Electronic Research Administration system to replace the university’s outdated Coeus and PEER systems. To launch VERA, the implementation team—led by Sponsored Programs Administration within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Process Solution Implementations in the Office of the Vice Provost for Enrollment Affairs—has collaborated for the past two years across all schools and colleges and between research administrators and faculty.
“I’d like to thank our research administrators, faculty and leadership, including the Leadership Advisory Committee and our deans, for collaborating tirelessly to implement this new, state-of-the-art system over the course of nearly two years,” Vice Provost for Research Padma Raghavan said. “With your commitment, we have been able to engage in the open ongoing conversations that were needed to make such a huge, complex project a success, all while continuing to manage the daily challenges of proposal submissions and incoming awards amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to enhance VERA moving forward, but let’s take this moment to celebrate how far we’ve come—congratulations.”
Some of the most notable milestones of the VERA implementation have occurred during the two phases of soft launch. In phase one, which launched Oct. 1, faculty and administrators began managing awards and agreements in VERA. In phase two, which launched Nov. 1, VU Coeus moved to a read-only format and end-users began routing all proposals for administrative review and approval through VERA. Additionally in phase two, end-users can now save time by submitting proposals directly to the National Institutes of Health in VERA.
Allison Varble, administrative officer in the School of Nursing and member of the VERA Research Administrator Working Group and Onboarding Group, submitted the first proposal to NIH using VERA’s system-to-system capabilities. “Honestly, that felt like a victory,” Varble said. “After a year and a half of hard work, it felt great to cross that milestone: a fully submitted, error-free proposal through VERA. We have faced a lot of challenges and worked closely with the big research departments and central offices to determine best practices, and I’m optimistic that we are heading toward streamlined processes that will maintain the high-quality proposal submissions that Vanderbilt is known for.”
Robert Webster, the Richard A. Schroeder Professor of Mechanical Engineering, submitted his first proposal through VERA at the start of November. “I was initially worried about having to submit the proposal so soon after the transition to VERA, but the entire process ended up being a breeze from the PI perspective,” he said. “As a member of the Vanderbilt University Research Council, I have followed the VERA transition process for more than a year and really appreciate the attention to detail, the engagement of so many stakeholders and the incorporation of everyone’s feedback.”
Some of that feedback came in the form of a recent survey that gauged research administrators’ comfort level in using VERA as well as usage of VERA educational resources. The survey revealed areas for further enhancement that the VERA implementation team is focused on now.
For instance, many end-users expressed a need for clarified workflow paths. “I have found VERA pretty easy to learn, but it’s not always clear who has been notified of next steps to take in the proposal submission process,” said Daniel Quimby, grants manager in the School of Medicine Basic Sciences. “I understand, though, that the VERA implementation team is working to improve the notifications. They also have done a great job of communicating with the research administrator community and have been very accessible through office hours to address our concerns.”
The SPA team continues to work through the nuances of converting data from three systems—Coeus, Oracle and PEER—into VERA. With phase one of soft launch, there was a mass conversion of all active awards and agreements. As conversion errors or omissions are discovered, SPA administrators and the VERA analysts work in close coordination to make corrections through manual data entry and will continue to do so as necessary.
Likewise, research administrators across the schools and colleges have collaborated to enhance VERA. For example, Varble; Emma Pacilli and Beth Rivas, administrative officers in the School of Medicine Basic Sciences; and Tania Carter, grants manager in the Divinity School, Blair School of Music and Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries, teamed up to improve the default “help text” boxes to make the guidance Vanderbilt-specific.
“Participating in the Research Administrator Working Group gave me a great opportunity to become familiar with VERA in advance of the conversion, and it was helpful to hear the suggestions and concerns from team members that needed to be addressed,” Carter said. “It was a huge benefit to work with the amazing team of Allison Varble, Emma Pacilli and Beth Rivas to clarify and improve the default “help text” in VERA, and I hope that it will make grant processing more efficient for everyone.”
More milestones and challenges lie ahead in the VERA transition process, and end-users should feel confident in knowing they have the full support of the VERA implementation team, which is accessible through VERAHelp@vanderbilt.edu, daily and weekly office hours, and faculty trainings.
Now that the VERA grants and agreements functions are becoming routine, the VERA implementation team is increasing its focus on developing the post-award technical integration with Oracle. Another next step for continuous improvement will be a follow-up survey to assess the progress of the research administrator community in using VERA and to further understand how the implementation team can support end-users even more throughout the transition. The SPA and PSI teams are deeply grateful for the feedback and support of all stakeholders as everyone works together to implement best practices for VERA and ensure a smooth transition.
For more information about VERA, please consult the VERA website as well as SPA’s FAQs, or contact Hilda McMackin, director of research administration systems and reporting, and Laurel Duncan Biqiku, training and policy manager in SPA.