This week in our funding series CUR Chemistry is delighted to welcome guest bloggers Dr. Chriss McDonald and Dr. Holly Bendorf of Lycoming College – the pair has won a total of seven successful ACS PRF proposals! Let’s learn from their words of wisdom.
Prior to our arrival at Lycoming, Chriss in 1987 and Holly in 1995, we each held visiting positions, Chriss at Berea College and Holly at Bowdoin College, where we saw excellent examples of how research can be an integral part of the education of an undergraduate chemist. To support our own efforts in this respect, we sought out grant programs that were aimed at funding undergraduate research. The Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) – administered by the ACS – is one such program and has been a significant source of support for our respective research groups over the years. Between us, we have been awarded seven grants from PRF, and we have also served as reviewers for proposals submitted to PRF. In this post, we’ll provide a bit of background on PRF programs and share some of what we’ve learned over the years.
Between us, we have been awarded seven grants from PRF, and we have also served as reviewers for proposals submitted to PRF. In this post, we’ll provide a bit of background on PRF programs and share some of what we’ve learned over the years.
The ABC’s on PRF
PRF offers four classes of grants, two of which are restricted to non-doctoral departments: the Undergraduate Research Grant (UR) and the Undergraduate New Investigator Grant (UNI). The latter is limited to PIs who are in the first three years of their first academic appointment. Both provide funds (70k over 3 years for UR, 55k over 2 years for UNI grants) for undergraduate student stipends, research expenses, and the PI’s summer salary.
To be eligible, the proposed work must be basic research in an area that represents a new research direction for the PI. The research must also be relevant to the petroleum field.
PRF traces its roots to a trust established by several oil companies in 1944. Funds from that trust are designated “for advanced scientific education and fundamental research in the petroleum field.” This directive informs how the fund is administered today. To be eligible, the proposed work must be basic research in an area that represents a new research direction for the PI. The research must also be relevant to the petroleum field. None-the-less, the scope of PRF funded projects is broad and encompasses fields as diverse as organic chemistry, physical chemistry and materials science. It is up to the PI, in a 100-word statement, to make the case for how his or her work is “petroleum relevant.” An example of an (apparently) acceptable statement is below.
Petroleum is a non-renewable resource of which limited known reserves exist. Acquisition of these known reserves is proving increasingly difficult, as the easily accessible portion of the reserves have already been captured. This limited resource must be used for both chemical feedstock and for energy generation. It is incumbent upon the synthetic chemist to design new processes which allow for the efficient use of this increasingly scarce hydrocarbon resource. In that vein, this proposal describes new approaches to the activation of an important reductant, samarium diiodide, for the use with new substrates for efficient radical reactions.
We recommend checking the PRF website (www.acs.org/content/acs/en/funding-and-awards/grants/prf.html) for a list of supported research areas. The website also has a wealth of information on preparing proposals, including important dos and don’ts.
Words of Wisdom
Based on our experience of writing and reviewing PRF proposals, we have several pieces of “wisdom” to offer. Start by making the goals of your project clear – make sure this is stated up-front along with the significance the work. Keep in mind that the UR and UNI programs are intended to support the “advanced scientific education” of undergraduate students. Is the proposed work divisible into sub-projects that will provide students with meaningful research experiences? A proposal that includes a clear plan for how the research will be pursued – and how undergraduates will contribute – will be more favorably received than one that is broader in scope but lacking in detail.
Seed results, while not an absolute necessity in our experience, will help to demonstrate that the project has a reasonable chance of success, which is always an important consideration from the perspective of a reviewer. Also, make sure that your proposal is grounded in the primary literature; include a thorough (but concise!), well-referenced review. Emphasize how your work will represent a significant addition to the current body of knowledge. If there is work that is similar to your own, don’t try to minimize its importance or hide it. Rather, use it as precedent that supports your proposed research (think of it as a literature version of seed results!). One thing that we’ve found over the years is that there are typically as many reviewers for a PRF proposal as there are for an ACS publication. In our experience, the reviewers are thorough and often generous with helpful suggestions and ideas. Given the rigor of the review process, we’ve made the argument within our institution that an externally funded scientific proposal should be equated to a publication in terms of scholarly accomplishment.
A proposal that includes a clear plan for how the research will be pursued – and how undergraduates will contribute – will be more favorably received than one that is broader in scope but lacking in detail.
In short, the quality of the proposal is what really matters and other factors, such as the academic pedigree of the PI, are much less important. PRF does ask the PI to provide information on the percentage of majors that go on to graduate programs in chemistry. At Lycoming, we see a mix of outcomes for our chemistry graduates: some head-off to grad school, some go to industry, and a few enter medical school. To emphasize the College’s commitment to our program, we’ve always included a statement describing the support that we were receiving from within the institution (new facilities, new instrumentation, student housing, departmental endowed research fund, etc.) in the closing paragraphs of the proposals.
To emphasize the College’s commitment to our program, we’ve always included a statement describing the support that we were receiving …in the closing paragraphs of the proposals.
We are appreciative of the support that we’ve received from PRF; it has been instrumental in our work to build and sustain an active undergraduate research program. Over the years, there have certainly been dry periods where things weren’t working and our stuff wasn’t deemed fundable or publishable. There are a couple of times where we felt like we needed to “up our respective games” to continue to have any sort of impact. Understand that for a myriad of reasons things won’t always go smoothly in the research lab and in the grant-writing process. In order to have long term success at funding a research program what matters is how an individual responds to these challenges.
ACS PRF Proposal Submission
Chriss McDonald is a Professor of Chemistry and Holly Bendorf is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Lycoming College.