It is often said that graduate students are the backbone of universities. Many of them invest hundreds of hours and immeasurable energy in teaching, laboratory research, faculty support and other activities vital to the university community, in addition to completing their own academic requirements. With dedication like that, it’s no wonder that investing in USC’s graduate student researchers garners reliable returns.
Each year since 2012, the Office of the Vice President for Research has given graduate student scholars from every discipline an opportunity to submit competitive grant proposals to the Support to Promote Advancement of Research and Creativity, or SPARC, graduate research grant program. Through this program, graduate students develop research, creative or scholarly project proposals that include the same components required by external funding agencies. By developing proposal elements like a detailed budget, budget justification and comprehensive proposal narrative, then submitting the package for evaluation by a committee of faculty reviewers, graduate students gain valuable experience in planning and competing for sponsored awards. Students whose projects are funded receive up to $5,000 to complete their proposed work, and those whose projects aren’t funded receive valuable comments from the faculty reviewers, which can set them up for success with a subsequent proposal.
For many students, this is a great way to gain experience with proposal development and to garner the funding they need to make that project idea that’s been simmering in the back of their minds into a reality. For some, it’s also a proving ground where they gather the experience and data needed to seek and receive external grant funding.
My SPARC Grant was really about me going into the literature and putting pieces of the puzzle together and asking the question does protein succination alter this mechanism. We didn’t really have much preliminary data on it because it was all something new for our laboratory that I wanted to investigate. The SPARC Grant allowed me to do that.... — Allison Manuel
This is the case for two 2016 Breakthrough Graduate Scholars, Allison Manuel and Aaron Provence. Both completed their undergraduate degrees at USC, and both are studying for Ph.D.s in health science fields. Despite the similarities, when it came to their SPARC research journey, Allison and Aaron took their own unique paths to external funding success.
As an undergraduate student, Allison Manuel was already accumulating research experience, taking advantage of the Office of Undergraduate Research’s Magellan Programs, and working with faculty mentor Norma Frizzell, whose lab she still works in today. “Going into my senior year of college, I applied for graduate school here to keep working with Dr. Frizzell because of her exciting and innovative research and our wonderful mentor-mentee relationship,” Manuel says. “I knew I was going to learn a lot working for her, and be very prepared for a postdoc position and a research career.”
As a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical Sciences program at the School of Medicine, Allison has enjoyed a unique opportunity to help pioneer a relatively new line of diabetes research known as succination, which started gaining traction around 2006. “I’m studying the post-translational modification of succination. What this is is a reaction of fumarate, which is a Krebs cycle intermediate, with the amino acid cysteine in proteins. We see this dramatic increase in the amount of succinated proteins in the adipose tissue of diabetic mice.” Manuel compares this succinated tissue with models of non-diabetic tissue, “looking at specific proteins and where they’re modified by fumarate and how succination affects their activity.”
Manuel capitalized on this unique opportunity, and created her 2014 SPARC project to examine succination further, gathering preliminary results that would ultimately serve as the foundation for subsequent, externally funded research.
Manuel explains, “My SPARC Grant was really about me going into the literature and putting pieces of the puzzle together and asking the question does protein succination alter this mechanism. We didn’t really have much preliminary data on it because it was all something new for our laboratory that I wanted to investigate. The SPARC Grant allowed me to do that, it allowed me to get the data I would need to then expand on that research in my F31.”
In 2015, Manuel put all of her SPARC experience to work, developing and successfully applying for a three-year National Institutes of Health F31 Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Grant. With this funding, Manuel is continuing her investigation of succination’s role in diabetes. She credits her experience developing the proposal and carrying out her SPARC research with helping her to prepare for this important next step. “The SPARC Grant, I think, is a great program. It was really about the experience of being able to practice writing a grant. The more practice you can get, the better,” she says.
Like Manuel, SC College of Pharmacy Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences program Ph.D. student Aaron Provence has segued research completed with SPARC funding into an NIH F31 grant. Aaron started his research exploration as a graduate student in the Integrated Biomedical Science Graduate Program, which provides students an opportunity to try out different kinds of biomedical research during their first year of study. Provence says, “I was always drawn to science. It’s a field that’s constantly evolving.... It was the curiosity that drew me to science, that is, the ability to ask questions and formulate new ideas. That’s what drew me to it.”
It gave me a great opportunity to get feedback from reviewers from the university and gave me good experience in going back to the drawing board and trying to improve my proposal. That led to it subsequently being accepted, in a re-submission. And, in the year after that, it led to my NIH fellowship. — Aaron Provence
Aaron eventually landed in the lab of Dr. Georgi Petkov where he is helping to investigate the role of membrane ion channels in the smooth muscle of the urinary bladder [read more]. The goal is to find novel drug targets for therapy to treat overactive bladder, a condition that impacts about 50 million people in the United States alone.
Aaron’s SPARC proposal expanded on his research into the bladder while providing an opportunity to begin thinking of other possible applications. “My particular interest is not specifically with the bladder, however, studying the role ion channels as novel therapeutic targets in the bladder provides training that can later extend beyond the urinary system. This research is potentially applicable to other tissue systems and conditions including hypertension, cerebral vasospasm and epilepsy. That is the underlying reason that I came into ion channel research,” Provence says.
One step in Provence’s path to SPARC included a somewhat disappointing, but not uncommon initial result. “That was really my first experience in developing a research proposal, and actually the first submission I completed for SPARC was rejected.” But, Provence continues, this was only a minor, temporary setback. “It was actually a good thing. It gave me a great opportunity to get feedback from reviewers from the university and gave me good experience in going back to the drawing board and trying to improve my proposal. That led to it subsequently being accepted, in a re-submission. And, in the year after that, it led to my NIH fellowship.”
Both Manuel and Provence agree that SPARC is a helpful program for graduate students who want to build experience with writing sponsored award proposals. Provence notes “The SPARC grant got my research started…. It gave me great practice with writing and to lay the groundwork for my long-term doctoral research. I was able to gather a lot of preliminary data that I was able to use in the [subsequent NIH F31] fellowship.”
Both of these successful SPARC recipients would encourage graduate students with interest in research careers to apply for SPARC grants. “I highly recommend applying. Even if you don’t get it, the experience is fantastic. Being able to learn the process of writing a grant is as valuable as actually getting it at our level,” Manuel says.
Allison Manuel advises potential SPARC applicants to pay close attention in the required pre-application workshop. “There is a required course each student must participate in before applying for the SPARC fellowship, where they teach you how to write a grant, what they’re looking for and how the process should go. That was very helpful. And then, really learning about how to word your research and what information should be emphasized in all the different sections. You have an introduction section, for the background information, and then you actually talk about the research and what you’re going to do, and another section where future aims, other studies that could come from this, and the importance of the study are highlighted. And so, it was really nice to practice the writing organization and to have the opportunity for that experience at USC before actually writing my NIH Grant.”
Provence encourages students considering a SPARC Grant to think ahead and reach out to advisors and others who can help. “Make the proposal on a project that will be the center of [your] dissertation or piece of work. Writing a proposal on the work you’re going to be doing is only going to help later on with writing your dissertation and manuscripts. It’s also important to work with your advisor in writing [the proposal]... to start early, and work on it consistently. One thing I did was I sought out other individuals who were successful in obtaining [SPARC] funding previously and asked who would be willing to [let me] see other applications, what they look like, not to copy them—most were in other research fields—but to write a successful research proposal, it helps to understand what constitutes a great proposal and one way to do this is read proposals and get advice from those who have already had success.”
Read more about the SPARC Graduate Research Grant.
1 June 2016