Webster University moved a step further in research-based education after being awarded more than $1 million in federal grants.
The Biomedical/Biobehavioral Research Administrator Development grant – also known as Building Research Across Disciplines, or “BRAD” – from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will award $449,000 over five years to expand the university’s capacity to seek research funding.
The university also was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of $647,669 over five years to attract community college transfer students pursuing degrees in biological sciences.
Carolyn Corley, Associate Vice President for Foundation and Government Relations, said both grants are a good investment for the federal government because of regional demand for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-based workforce.
“When we write grants, if we say, ‘look NIH, look at Webster, we’re educating STEM,’ they don’t find it very compelling unless we can put that within the context of a region that is desperately in need of STEM scientists and researchers,” Corley said.
St. Louis Community College’s annual Regional Workforce Report published data in 2015 demonstrating skills shortages in STEM jobs in the region. STEM employers reported skills shortages of up to 27 percent in engineering jobs, 23 percent in math-related jobs and nine percent workforce shortages in science jobs by area employers.
NIH moves research ahead
“For the NIH grant, in particular, to be able to refer to our new endowed professorship and our new building – those helped make the case that our administration and grants support team are all committed to helping our faculty,” Corley said.
Department Chair of Biological Sciences Stephanie Schroeder said the new Interdisciplinary Sciences Building will allow faculty to train undergraduates to do more research. She said the new capacity for research also ties into the NIH/NSF grants.
“I’ve written other grants in the past,” Schroeder said. “But the granting agencies did not see how we could do what we said we were going to; even though we were. They could not see past our facilities. And so this building, and the fact that it’s coming to fruition now and the plans are in place; we were able to incorporate that as we were writing these grants.”
The Interdisciplinary Science Building is under construction and is expected to be completed in late 2017.
The BRAD grant lays out three objectives Webster must achieve; the first is to establish a new Office of Research Sponsored Programs (ORSP). Corley said associate professor and Academic Director of Gerontology, Eric Goedereis, will head-up the office as faculty research director.
“One of our aims is to develop faculty research productivity. We expect the rate of research activity to be one of the more visible changes early in the grant,” Goedereis said.
Schroeder said, ultimately, the NIH grant aims to increase research across all schools at the university.
“People associate research with science,” Schroeder said. “But that’s not all there is at Webster. Our students are our partners. They’re our colleagues in research. So going across disciplines, students and faculty will see how to perform research collaboratively.”
NSF to lure transfer students
Corley said the NSF grant program will bring students in and help them transfer to Webster.
Webster worked closely with community colleges in Missouri and Illinois on the grant.
“We got in touch with a lot of their STEM departments, faculty-to-faculty, to let them know what kind of students we are looking for and we’re hoping to identify promising candidates very early on,” Corley said. “We realize here that it takes a village to help retain a student.”
In addition, the NSF grant will help transfer students gain research experience four-year students already have access to as underclassmen.
“This grant will get them plugged into faculty research from their first day as a transfer student,” Schroeder said.
Both grants aim to place Webster students in STEM jobs in the region; keeping St. Louis either in-line with, or higher, than national averages.
In light of last week’s acquisition of St. Louis-based Monsanto by Bayer, Inc., Corley said Webster hopes the region will remain in position to continue gaining employment in STEM sectors.
“Indications are, and we’re hoping, we won’t see them reducing their research endeavor here in St. Louis and, if anything, they are poised to grow it,” Corley said.