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Propel mentorship makes grant writing tools accessible to early career faculty across the USC system

For early career faculty at R1 institutions like the University of South Carolina, securing grants from outside the university can be a daunting task. The prevailing expectation for new faculty and postdoctoral researchers is often “you’ll figure it out” when it comes to navigating the world of highly competitive federal grant processes. 

In the 2021-2022 academic year, a new program was instituted at USC to help early career faculty adjust to the demands of writing successful grant proposals for major awards—that program is Propel, a workshop and mentorship program. Propel is designed to foster intellectual community and provide a toolbox for researchers to draw upon as they apply for funding from two major federal agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In 2017, Dr. Michael Beets from the Arnold School of Public Health began a similar program to serve early career faulty in his school. Originally, the program was designed to help onboard new faculty in the school of public health.

“I think a lot of universities treat grant writing as something you should already know how to do as a new faculty member,” said Beets, “What we're demonstrating here is that we recognize it’s a struggle. We recognize it will take a while, but we want to equip new faculty with the skills to pursue grants successfully.” 

Since Propel’s inception, mentees have submitted over 175 grant applications and brought in more than $18 million in awards.

When Dr. Julius Fridriksson, also from the Arnold School of Public Health, assumed the role of the Vice President for Research in 2021 he worked with Beets and Associate Vice President for Research Operations Dr. Lumi Bakos to make the program accessible across the USC system. Propel officially took shape as a cornerstone of USC research development in the fall of 2021. 

Comprised of eight in-person sessions throughout the academic year and monthly one-on-one meetings with an assigned mentor, Propel gives structure to the federal grant application process. Propel mentors are primarily senior faculty with a strong history of successful grant proposals, or mid-career faculty with similar experience – including some who have completed Propel already. By the end of the program, mentees will have planned, developed, and submitted a competitive grant proposal to their chosen funding agency. 

Since Propel’s inception, mentees have submitted over 175 grant applications and brought in more than $18 million in awards. The success of the program is reflective of its primary goal: to equip faculty with the skills to secure competitive funding for their research within the USC system. The funding they have received represents the quality of the program and the level of research excellence that USC faculty are capable of upholding.

The 2023-2024 cohort boasts 64 mentees and 23 mentors, from 35 disciplines across the USC system. The Office of the Vice President for Research is hopeful to see this cohort continue to bring in highly impactful funding, building off of the past two years of successful submissions. 

As Propel enters its third year, mentors are excited to share their expertise and guidance. Dr. Glenn Weaver, a former Propel mentee, looks forward to coaching the 2023-2024 cohort as they develop their proposal crafting skillset. Weaver’s own proposals developed through Propel in 2021-2022 garnered over $3 million in research funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases for his work tracking fitness in children through emerging consumer-based technologies, like Fitbits and Apple Watches. He is enthusiastic about shifting his role to serve as a mentor to other faculty pursuing grants in public health. 

“By being a mentor, you get to be stimulated and hear about new ideas and see things from different perspectives,” said Weaver, “It’s very beneficial just to stay engaged and hear what other people are working on.”

Weaver noted the mock review panels towards the end of the program as especially helpful to him when he was a mentee. These mock reviews help to illustrate where a proposal needs to be strengthened, and gives the mentee a chance to seek crucial feedback which could determine the success of their submission. 

Since the first 2023-2024 Propel session in late August, mentees have already connected over their research interests. 

“It’s definitely a community building tool,” Weaver observed, “When we were in the first session the other week, and everybody was talking about what they do, there were at least four people that were like ‘Wait! I do that too!’”

Not only does Propel train early career faculty but it presents opportunities for collaboration, connection and community—which are crucial attributes to building a successful network of researchers.  

If you want to get high quality grants, then you’ve got to submit high quality grants. And Propel helps you do that. 

- Dr. Glenn Weaver, 2021-2022 Propel Mentee, Breakthrough Star 2021

Dr. Sanaz Sadati, a 2021 NSF Career Award recipient, alongside her husband and fellow researcher, Dr. Nader Taheri Qazvini, were members of the first Propel cohort. Sadati works in anisotropic molecules and colloidal particle self-assembly, learning from nature about how molecules can be directed to build specific structures and functions, like photonic characteristics and mechanical resilience. Taheri works in chemical and biomedical engineering as well, and gave a presentation about his NSF grant proposal process at the first session of Propel 2023-2024. He won an NSF Career Award in 2023 for his work in molecular interaction of functional materials and their impact on electromagnetic wave absorption. 

“We learned the difference between NSF and other organizations,” noted Sadati, “Some of the mentors shared their experiences, even a failure that they had. The NSF structure is different from other agencies, because they are very concerned about the fundamental science.”

Propel helped Sadati and Taheri narrow down their ideas and write more specifically about the fundamentals of their work. Successful NSF grant projects tend to focus on science that is foundational to a field and will move the discipline forward, and are not solely based in applied merit. 

Being able to summarize the research down to its most vital components is a crucial skill in crafting an outstanding grant proposal—so is being patient with the process. Going through Propel helps faculty develop not just their writing but allows time for research to develop and ideas to mature. 

“I think that the most important part of Propel is where you talk about your ideas and hypothesis,” Taheri said, “You can finalize your research questions through interactions with colleagues or working with your mentor,”

“Keep bugging the mentors, right?” Sadati added, “Ask them to look at your draft, ask them for opinions and get as much as you can, because they are giving you their time, and that is a great opportunity to learn.”

Both mentorship and increased colleague-to-colleague discussions allow Propel mentees to add interdisciplinary elements to their research and build connections across campus. Sadati said that getting to know faculty from chemistry, physics, law, and other departments within engineering helped to make her feel more connected to the USC research network. 

Across the USC system there are early career faculty working tirelessly to fulfill their goals and visions for research innovation, and many of them are in the 2023-2024 Propel cohort. In the coming months, the Office of the Vice President for Research seeks to elevate the stories of early career faculty in research from a variety disciplines and backgrounds. The Office of the Vice President for Research looks forward to highlighting their journeys and supporting them on the path to research funding success. 


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