Research Development and Support aids researchers seeking to diversify sponsorship funding

by Jenna Somers

Jenny Schafer, research associate professor of cell and developmental biology and managing director of the Vanderbilt Cell Imaging Shared Resource, is always searching for opportunities to diversify CISR’s equipment grants portfolio to ensure that Vanderbilt researchers continue to have access to state-of-the-art microscopes. Her search led her to Research Development and Support, whose tailored services for developing and broadening sponsorship funding are part of a cohesive strategy within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research to support faculty pursuing competitive research proposals from a range of external sponsors, including federal, state and local governments, industry partners and nonprofits.

“We would like to ensure Vanderbilt researchers have the resources they need to tackle larger projects that will catalyze a new wave of impact from research and scholarship,” Vice Provost for Research Padma Raghavan said. “With leadership from Joanne Spitz, director of Research Development, our RDS staff support researchers in all career phases to secure grants from federal and foundation sponsors—whether they have received a range of funding or are pursuing their first grants—so that each researcher can achieve new levels of excellence.”

Earlier this year, RDS placed a new emphasis on securing funding from foundations and other private sponsors. As part of that effort, Janice Ascano, an associate director of RDS who assists faculty in identifying potential funding opportunities that match their research interests, discovered and alerted Schafer to a grant opportunity with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. They collaborated on a proposal to MDA for a confocal microscope to support researchers studying mitochondrial and neuromuscular diseases including Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Ascano liaised with the MDA to clarify key details and ensure Schafer had all the necessary documents completed. Ascano, who has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and biochemistry, reviewed the scientific content of the proposal, not just as a proposal development professional, but as a trained scientist who could bring a fresh perspective to the content.

Other faculty and staff have similar stories about collaborating with RDS to submit new proposals to sponsors, including Sara Manus, music librarian for education and outreach at the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library, and Douglas Shadle, associate professor of musicology and area coordinator of musicology and ethnomusicology. To maximize their chances of securing funding, they explored various opportunities for support by working with RDS, who assisted them through the process of submitting proposals to new funding agencies.

For Manus, the experience was entirely new, as she had never written a grant proposal before. RDS originally contacted the Music Library about the Library of Congress’ funding opportunity “LOC of the People: Widening the Path: Connecting Communities Digital Initiative–Libraries, Archives and Museums.”

Research development specialist Catalin Cristoloveanu then guided Manus through drafting the proposal, “From Swing to Modern Jazz: A Story in Photographs,” for support to create a digital exhibit combining Vanderbilt’s John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie Collection—the first archival collection purchased as part of Vanderbilt’s partnership with the National Museum of African American Music—and the Library of Congress’ William P. Gottlieb Collection of jazz photographs. Together, these collections would tell a story of American jazz in the mid- to late-20th century and establish connections between archives and the Black community.

“As we continue to bring in special collections and create digital archives that are interdisciplinary, it’s important for librarians to become skilled in grant writing,” Manus said. “I learned so much from working with Catalin on drafting this grant. He reviewed my drafts extensively and provided constructive feedback that improved the proposal and allowed me to further develop my grant-writing skills. I couldn’t have done it without his help.”

Like Ascano, Cristoloveanu’s guidance to Manus was informed by his specialized academic background, as he holds a Ph.D. in history. He was able to review Manus’ proposal as a research development specialist but from the perspective of a trained historian. Additionally, he verified that the proposal contained all the required documents and institutional information needed to complete the submission.

Shadle’s project shares a similar focus on African American music, particularly on celebrating the contributions of renowned composer Florence Price. With RDS’ support, Shadle submitted Blair School of Music’s first grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant would fund an interdisciplinary, community-based series of events and performances that would bring together Blair School faculty, Nashville institutional collaborators, national and international artists and musicians and researchers in musicology and English to share expertise on African American music and poetry, respectively.

“As a humanist, I’m mostly accustomed to writing grants that specifically feed my own personal research, but this proposal required leveraging many Vanderbilt and non-Vanderbilt contributors, so it was great to have RDS’ support in putting all the pieces together,” Shadle said. “I could focus on the content and discipline-specific aspects of the grant while they were able to help shape my content to address the NEA’s goals. They were also available to help me think about things like budget, audience and marketing aspects, as well as offer several rounds of reviews and feedback.”

RDS takes a tailored approach to supporting researchers throughout all stages of proposal development, including locating diverse sponsors and funding opportunities that align with specific research interests. While many RDS staff are trained researchers in academic disciplines, the entire team is cross-trained to support faculty in any field so that faculty benefit from the complementary strengths of the whole team. They work with faculty and grants managers to ensure that all components of a proposal are accurate and speak to the mission and goals of a sponsor. Additionally, they build relationships among faculty, sponsors and other partners to strengthen Vanderbilt’s culture of collaboration and drive transformative impact locally, regionally and around the world.

To learn more about the wide range of services provided by Research Development and Support, please contact