Researchers receive NSF CAREER awards

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Two Virginia Commonwealth University faculty members have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for their innovative proposals to integrate research and education.

The NSF announced that Amanda Dickinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and Rebecca Heise, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, VCU School of Engineering, both have been awarded NSF CAREER grant awards.

The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program “offers the foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and their integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations,” according to the NSF website.

Since 2006, six VCU faculty members have received CAREER awards, and the university having two awardees in a single year is a testament to both the researchers and VCU’s continued growth as a premier urban research university.  

Jim Coleman, Ph.D., dean of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, is a former program officer at NSF.

“CAREER awards are the most prestigious awards a young investigator can win at NSF, and they are a great demonstration that peer scientists respect the work an investigator has conducted to date and believe that continued work as proposed will make a very significant contribution to their field,” he said. “Additionally, it is impossible to win a CAREER award if reviewers do not believe that the proposed activities truly integrate research with education in innovative and meaningful ways.”

Seven directorates award these grants at the NSF. Grant areas range from mathematics and physical sciences to education and human resources.

Dickinson’s award came from the Directorate for Biological Sciences and will total $700,000 over several years.

Her research seeks to define how the animal mouth is formed and how its development is intimately tied to the formation of surrounding facial structures. She writes in her abstract that despite the mouth’s obvious importance as the digestive system’s connection to the external environment, there have been remarkably few studies that address its formation.

“[Mouth formation] is also not often considered in studies of orofacial evolution, development and birth defects, and is rarely mentioned in developmental or anatomical textbooks,” Dickinson wrote.

The research will contribute to both ends of the educational spectrum by allowing students in graduate- and undergraduate-level lab courses to conduct contributing experiments and by presenting preschoolers with living frogs at various life stages combined with art, math and reading activities.

The Directorate for Engineering awarded Heise her grant, which totals $400,000.

The research she proposed for the award aims to understand how mechanical forces within the lungs can cause epithelial cell injury that leads to pulmonary fibrosis, or scar tissue formation, within the lung.

She will also develop a related hands-on learning platform as an outreach tool to teach under-represented middle-school students. As an extension, the project will develop course materials for high school education and provide a basis for new undergraduate and graduate course offerings.

In reaching out to middle and high school students, Heise draws on her memories of when  she was a young science student who didn’t have much exposure to engineering but had teachers who encouraged her to look into the field.

“We hope that by exposing young students to research in biomedical engineering we can encourage them to pursue engineering as a college major and eventual career choice,” she said. “Young students, particularly under-represented groups, need exposure and encouragement early on in their schooling.”

VCU hopes to maintain this year’s level of success as it launches the VCU CAREER Academy for faculty from across the university who are interested in applying to the NSF CAREER Program in 2014 or 2015.

Funded by the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research, and supported by the College for Humanities and Sciences and School of Education, the CAREER academy will provide portfolio support, guidance on developing more competitive CAREER proposals, group and one-on-one mentoring and mock review panels.

The VCU CAREER Academy was not established when Heise and Dickinson applied for their awards, but the same supportive VCU atmosphere also contributed to this year’s awards.

“Although this is not a collaborative award, the collaborative environment at VCU really helped me frame the scientific questions and educational components of the award,” Heise said. “I am happy to be here to conduct this research.”


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