A man in a coat and tie speaks and gestures with his right hand while standing in front of a video screen.
P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation, drew a detailed picture of VCU’s growing stature during his 2024 State of the Research presentation. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU celebrates ‘one of the best’ years for its growing and renowned research enterprise

At annual State of the Research address, Vice President P. Srirama Rao details recent record accomplishments – and the goals and challenges that await.

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Research and innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University across all its campuses – including VCUarts Qatar – is having a huge impact not only on students, faculty, researchers and staff but also the patients and communities VCU serves locally, regionally – and now nationally and internationally.

With compelling numbers and unique stories, P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation at VCU, delivered the 2024 State of the Research presentation Monday and drew a detailed picture of the university’s growing stature in the quest for discovery – as well as the goals and challenges surrounding VCU’s research enterprise.

“The last year has truly been one of the best for VCU,” Rao said, noting record enrollment, high research rankings and inclusion among the nation’s top 20 public universities for innovation. “Our Blue Ridge [medical research] rankings have improved. Our rankings of several schools and colleges are up. The number of graduate programs that are in the top 50 are up. All in all, we are really doing incredibly well and there is so much to be proud of.”

Rao’s presentation detailed how VCU research is innovative, collaborative, ambitious and impactful. He praised the growth of undergraduate students in research as well as the investment in shared facilities that propel research. He highlighted many achieving faculty by name. He noted how the number of VCU startups exceeds the national average for universities, with startup accelerators giving faculty and students a leg up in research and business creation, along with real-world experience.

The State of the Research address launched this year’s Research Weeks programming, which includes more than 50 events around campus and features a keynote address April 15 by Rochelle Walensky, M.D., 19th director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Monday, Rao cited VCU research highlights from fiscal year 2023 that include:

  • 72% growth in awards from 2018, from $271 million to $464 million, driven in part by the increased number of grants that faculty have submitted (50% increase).
  • A national top 50 ranking of 47 for public research universities based on research expenditures ($406 million in FY22), up from a ranking in the high 60s in 2018.
  • External sponsored awards increasing 20% from state and industry sources, as well as federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the departments of defense, energy, justice and education.
  • Campuswide increases in sponsored awards, with direct and indirect costs at the MCV Campus totaling $257 million and at the Monroe Park Campus totaling $149 million.
  • Innovations leading to Tech Transfers, including $3 million in licensing revenue and 25 patents issued.

Rao outlined VCU’s impact in four key research initiatives: enriching the human experience, achieving a just and equitable society, optimizing health, and supporting sustainable energy and environments. Those impacts are felt across campuses in research related to addiction, cancer, chronic diseases, health disparities, climate change, social equity, K-12 education, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and energy.

A man in a coat and tie stands and speaks in front of audience.
P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., vice president for research and innovation, outlined VCU’s impact in four key research initiatives: enriching the human experience, achieving a just and equitable society, optimizing health and supporting sustainable energy and environments. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

One factor in VCU’s growing research success is its investment in facilities, including for a dozen Core Labs in fields such as microscopy, computing, nanomaterials and genomics. Rao also noted the $5.2 million invested into VCU’s transdisciplinary research institutes and centers such as the Institute for Women’s Health, Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, Humanities Research Center and Medicines for All Institute, with more investment needed.

“Some of these societally important issues – for example, women’s health, addiction or research in the humanities areas, or rehabilitation – are areas of research that cannot be solved by any one discipline,” Rao said. “You really need to bring people from different disciplines together, and that is what our research institutes and centers do.”

Other investments include faculty-led projects, funded studies and teams, proof of concept commercialization funds and state-of-the-art research equipment.

“We have been investing,” Rao said. “I will be the first to say, although [a total of] $30 million seems to be a lot of money in the last two fiscal cycles, that it is not sufficient for a university our size.”

He also noted that while the almost 700 undergraduate students involved in research reflects a doubling since 2020, more are needed. These students, along with graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows, are “the creative and highly skilled future workforce for the region and beyond,” Rao said.

He mentioned additional needs and challenges. Prioritizing diverse faculty and staff hires, reducing administrative burden, community engagement, along with the increased need for state-of-the-art research space, are key to VCU’s success. So is the speed of approval for research studies and trials, and he detailed efforts to diminish impediments and address the trend of a declining number of postdoctoral fellows. 

Most notably, he said, VCU must remain committed to exploration.

“As this research enterprise grows and is growing at this exponential rate, we have to be really nimble,” Rao said. “We have to look at our strategic plan and the investment strategy and reimagine and recalibrate it based on the growth that we are seeing. If we don’t, we will slip. We can’t just be doing the same.”