Cottrell Scholars – a new generation

For the next few weeks in our funding series, we will hear from individual PIs that have succeeded in funding their research programs with undergraduates. In this post we have Dr. Silvia Ronco – program officer at the Research Corporation and one of this past year’s Cottrell Scholars doing research at a primarily undergraduate institution. Her success can teach us that you can do great things at a small, perhaps underestimated, undergraduate institution.


ronco_lgThe Cottrell Scholar class of 2016, marks a change in the history of Cottrell Scholars, a program originally aimed at research university faculty. The CS program now accepts submissions from early career faculty at both research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). ~Dr. Silvia Ronco, Senior Program Director

The Cottrell Scholar program champions outstanding early career faculty in chemistry, physics and astronomy, by providing support for their high quality research and educational activities. As part of the program,  Cottrell Scholars attend the annual Cottrell Scholar conference, a large networking event aimed at sharing insights and expertise, and benefit from a number of career advancement opportunities throughout their careers. At the CS conference, Cottrell Scholars have the opportunity to join teams to work in educational projects of national impact through the Cottrell Scholar Collaborative.  The Cottrell Scholar class of 2016, marks a change in the history of Cottrell Scholars, a program originally aimed at research university faculty. The CS program now accepts submissions from early career faculty at both research universities and primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). In 2016, there were eight newly-minted PUI Cottrell Scholars who were selected after a competitive peer-reviewed process. All eight of them attended the 2016 CS conference in Tucson and were welcomed by an energetic community that values diversity and inclusion. The fact that PUI Cottrell Scholars were as competitive as their research university counterparts is a firm testament to the quality of research conducted with undergraduates!

A story of success…

At our small school, my tenure doesn’t depend on publications or grant funding, but I believe that undergraduate research is a high-impact tool for learning.

I teach classes and manage an undergraduate research lab in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. If I had to design an ideal job for someone like me, it would be working at an undergraduate institution. I get to geek out about chemistry all day and hang out with young people who want to learn how science is applied to solve important and complicated problems. At our small school, my tenure doesn’t depend on publications or grant funding, but I believe that undergraduate research is a high-impact tool for learning. Fundamentally, my mission is to help students learn the process of research. At a women’s college, and given the historical gender disparity in STEM, I feel especially compelled to publish and apply for grants, and to become the best mentor I can be in order to set an excellent example and to empower my students’ success.

My philosophy about undergraduate STEM research is this: It’s hard, so you better be working on something that makes you so excited that you get goose bumps!

img_2811-e1429390419776My philosophy about undergraduate STEM research is this: It’s hard, so you better be working on something that makes you so excited that you get goose bumps! All of our projects involve peptides as models for studying metal-protein interactions, and we apply chemistry as a tool toward understanding and solving problems in biology. Our primary focus is on extracellular copper homeostasis and its relationship to innate immunity and neurodegenerative disease. But there is flexibility in the lab to focus on other problems that spark student interest. Some of my boldest students have developed their own research directions, and although it is a lot of work for both of us, it has yielded significant rewards in their development.

kat_haas_cs_22016-1024x910Receiving a 2016 Cottrell Scholar Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) is a dream come true. The funds from the award will enable the purchase of some critical pieces of equipment, so that we will be able to step away from the “beg, borrow, and steal” model, and focus more on our research questions and experimental design. It is a welcome change! However, the funds are only a fraction of the prize that has come with being named a Cottrell Scholar. One of the best parts of this award is the built-in connection to a vibrant group of passionate, hard-working, smart, and generous teacher-scholars. Just being in the same room with other Cottrell Scholars is energizing. I am taking that energy back to my institution, sharing it with my colleagues, and using it to power another year of challenging, exciting work.

I would be leaving out an important point if I didn’t mention how significant  the experience of writing the Cottrell Scholar Award Application was in my development as a faculty member.

I would be leaving out an important point if I didn’t mention how significant  the experience of writing the Cottrell Scholar Award Application was in my development as a faculty member. And, I’d like to share some advice about this process: First, being named as a Cottrell Scholar has taught me that you can do great things at a small, perhaps underestimated, undergraduate institution. Think positive! Don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t win just because you’re at a small school. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “well…your institution will probably be an issue”, I’d have at least $15. If I had listened to those people, I would have never  started writing the proposal.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you won’t win just because you’re at a small school. …If I had listened to those people, I would have never  started writing the proposal.

photo-3-1024x764Second, don’t write because you expect to win money. Think of proposal writing as a significant and powerful investment in your effectiveness as a research advisor, even if you don’t win. It will help you advise students on how to write proposals, and it forces you to think ahead so that the next time a student walks into your office looking for a project, you have a well laid out plan. You won’t have to think up a project mid-semester when you’re juggling three courses, four committees, and several half-written manuscripts.

Think of proposal writing as a significant and powerful investment in your effectiveness as a research advisor, even if you don’t win.

Last, but not least, ask for help and advice from mentors who know how to write grants. Proposal writing is a skill that you can learn, and the CUR proposal writing institute (PWI) is great for this. I went to the 2014 CUR PWI and it changed my life! I’m sure that the skills and strategies that I learned from the Institute enabled my success. Thank you, CUR!! (Special shout out to Roger Rowlett and Paula Dehn!)

Proposal writing is a skill that you can learn…I went to the 2014 CUR Proposal Writing Institute and it changed my life!


kathryn-haas~Dr. Kathryn Haas is a graduate of Gettysburg College (where she performed undergraduate research!) and Duke University (PhD. 2010). She is currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Physics at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN where she studies synthetic peptides as chemical tools in bioinorganic chemistry projects.

 

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