UK iMERS Program Helps Level the Playing Field in Research

Grant writing is a competitive process. Without the proper resources, staff, or expertise, faculty may struggle in gathering key funding that could benefit future research projects, and ultimately, promote innovative health discoveries.

University of Kentucky alumnus David Hongo, PhD, said grant writing can be particularly intimidating as an early-career investigator. He currently serves as faculty at Savannah State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), and possesses a strong interest in expanding his research capabilities so he can eventually lead his own laboratory and educate future scientists. To hone his grant-writing skills, he signed up for a workshop at UK.

Little did he know, his former mentor would be leading the call.

Brett Spear, PhD, professor of microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics, co-directs a free program that aims to level the playing field by sharing UK’s strong research infrastructure with faculty at minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The program, called Interactive Mentoring to Enhance Research Skills (iMERS), provides virtual training, in-person workshops on UK’s campus and at outside institutions, and individual mentoring opportunities in which UK faculty help MSI faculty navigate the complex grant-writing process.

iMERS is an extension of the work started 20 years ago by Donald Frazier, PhD, professor of physiology and iMERS co-director. In 2018, UK received a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue this initiative.

Dr. Spear said the main goal of iMERS is to help faculty earn research funding, but the benefits stretch beyond that immediate objective. It could eventually lead to a diversified biomedical workforce.

“We have the resources here at UK that can help faculty at minority-serving institutions put a research grant together, put a budget together, know what is allowed, and what’s not allowed,” Dr. Spear said. “By having this research support, faculty can then provide their students with research opportunities. So it really is a feed-forward mechanism by giving these research opportunities to students. Then that might get them interested and excited about a career path that’s more research-oriented.”

Minority-serving institutions in higher education include HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities. So far, iMERS leadership has traveled to MSIs like Florida A&M, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the City University of New York, University of the Pacific, and the University of Puerto Rico to provide in-person mentoring. In response to COVID-19, the program also has hosted multiple-day virtual workshops involving participants from across the nation, including Dr. Hongo.

The iMERS program receives support from the UK Proposal Development Office (PDO). PDO staff hold key roles as iMERS workshop trainers and serve as proposal specialists available for guidance. The PDO has provided leadership and active support to numerous complex grant-funded programs, including some of UK’s largest and most prominent awards.

PDO Executive Director Kathy Grzech, MA, says the outreach focus of iMERS is “at the heart of the work” that PDO does at UK for the research community.

“One of the things that makes this such an enjoyable experience is to get to work with investigators and to be a small part of moving the research forward,” Grzech said. “All of us are excited. We know research succeeds by including all different perspectives.”

Dr. Hongo said that after attending his first virtual iMERS workshop, he feels more prepared to frame his research statements and effectively collaborate with peers and mentors. Through their surprise reconnection, he and Dr. Spear also have restored their mentor/mentee partnership, so Dr. Hongo knows he has someone to rely on.

“iMERS is a great resource for helping new, upcoming faculty,” Dr. Hongo said.

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For more information about iMERS, visit: https://research.med.uky.edu/research-imers

For more information about the PDO, visit: https://www.research.uky.edu/proposal-development-office

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For faculty at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) challenged to find the time, staff, or expertise to pursue NIH funding for their scientific research, iMERS offers a path toward grant writing success. Our free program shortens the learning curve by sharing best practices through presentations, workshops, and faculty mentoring that guide participants step-by-step through the complex NIH funding process. Encouraging faculty to actively engage in research enriches the curriculum and motivates minority students to pursue careers in science for a more diversified biomedical workforce.

Located at the University of Kentucky, iMERS is NIH-funded and supported by a team of industry experts who have served underrepresented students and institutions nationwide since 1998.