Pitt Research helping create connections and clarity


It’s been two and a half years since Rob Rutenbar was named Pitt’s first senior vice chancellor for Research.

Rob RutenbarWhen he came to Pitt from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rutenbar found that many of the essential activities for researchers existed here but were very decentralized and reported to different members of senior administration. Now those services and others are all coordinated under one umbrella — Pitt Research.

Rutenbar’s team handles all the “operations compliance; keeping the trains running on time” and “the care and nurturing of the research enterprise at an institutional scale.”

That care and nurturing was on public display Feb. 24 at the first-ever Internal Funding Showcase: Funding Our Future, where the first Pitt Momentum grants were handed out (see related story). Those seed grants, funded by Rutenbar’s office and the Office of the Provost, require a multidisciplinary team effort and will help University researchers go after bigger collaborative grants, which he says is the trend in the “research funding ecosystem.”

“The funding world is moving in directions from big, deep projects to big, wide projects,” he said.

Pitt has excelled, Rutenbar said, in getting funding for research projects organized by one or two people who are experts on one topic, who do focused work for two or three years.

“Where Pitt is not as well represented yet are some of the big team enterprises where you go to bat with a proposal that has 15 investigators on it from a wider set of disciplines,” he said. “The National Science Foundation calls this convergence research.”

Using cancer research as an example, he said, a team might need a chemist, a biologist and a clinician, but it also could include a public health expert, someone from the nursing school, a statistician to collect data and someone from computer science to handle the data.

If you’re tackling the opioid crisis, “You may need bioengineers and chemical engineers. You almost certainly need the law school because there’s a landscape of regulation. … You may need the business school because whatever your solution is may need an economic model.”

These large research projects also often ask for a K-12 engagement, serious technology transfer, a pre-competitive corporate ecosystem and a diversity and inclusion component.

“What you find when proposals get big and when topics get big is that you need a lot more skills, you need a lot more engagement from different ends of the University,” Rutenbar said. “The really cool part of this job is I get to be a hub. … What I tell people when we have these kinds of meetings is, you’re not supposed to know how to do this. The fact that you don’t know how to do this, please don’t think that means that you can blow this off. Your job is to know that you don’t know this and say, ‘Hey, Rob’s team, who knows how to do this?’ Because the thing that’s great about being in a comprehensive university, is that for every one of these adjacent areas of focus they really don’t know anything about, there’s another school or department, and it’s right in the middle of their strategic roadmap.”

To be able to be this hub for University researchers, Rutenbar has been building up the team in his office, including a communications person to reach out to the different departments and a vice chancellor for science policy and research strategies to guide people on how to go after federal funding and partnering with national labs.

When researchers are seeking funding on smaller, one- or two-person projects, often the person you send your proposal to “is kind of a copy of you,” he said. But with the convergence projects, the applications could be reviewed by an assistant director of the National Science Foundation running a $1 billion research proposal or a political appointee focused on a national agenda.

“You’re not being judged on the technical stuff anymore. You’re being judged on how good is your outreach, how good is your diversity … the totality of it,” he said. “That’s the place where it gets hard, because suddenly you have to talk to people who don’t look like you. One of the fun things that I get to do is basically bring people together.”

Focus on humanities

One of the ways he’s bringing people together is by adding a person to his office to focus on humanities-related grants. Shelome Gooden, former chair of the linguistics department in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, started Jan. 1 as Pitt’s first-ever assistant vice chancellor for research for the humanities, arts, social sciences, and related fields.

Shelome Gooden“If you look at people with my job, … they pretty much always look like me. They’re STEM people or medical people with a lot of experience on big research contracts,” Rutenbar said. “They never look like a working artist, a writer, social scientists, a historian. And that creates a completely unintended perception, which is that this office is not interested in that side of the campus, and that the resources of this office are not available to that side of the campus.”

While the half a billion dollars Pitt receives in funding for STEM and health sciences research needs a lot of care and feeding, Rutenbar said, a great book or great philosophy paper is no less exciting, “It just didn’t cost a million-dollar piece of equipment. The idea is that the way to get better connected to that side of the university is to hire an ambassador.”

Gooden, who has been at Pitt for more than 16 years, said her background played right into this new position — one that is pretty rare in academia, she said.

“Reflecting on my path, as department chair but also as an academic in a small field, I realized that a lot of what I ended up doing is problem solving,” said Gooden, who also wants to make sure that other people don’t go through some of the same problems she did.

“A lot of the research emphasized for the larger universities has not necessarily been focused primarily on … what are the research needs for humanities, social sciences, arts disciplines,” she said. “The tide is turning, and people are beginning to put more muscle behind that, more research dollars, and people at the higher-level positions to look more closely at these areas.”

Research in the humanities has often focused on one or two researchers where, “you get a couple of researchers, you get a nice quiet space and you write your book,” she said.

But, as Rutenbar said, collaboration is now the priority in many funding opportunities. “What we’re doing is opening up the possibility that the kinds of research that you’re doing could involve collaboration and could involve a different level of funding,” Gooden said.

She has first-hand experience with multi-disciplinary collaborative teams. Gooden is part of a group — Humanities at Work — created by a former student who is now a colleague, Abdesalam Soudi, to devise an internship course that matches linguistics students with businesses.

They found that the jobs being marketed to linguistics students were very limited, but Soudi, who had come from the business world, felt there were many more applications for a linguistic education. The team working on Humanities at Work and also Humanities in Health ended up including faculty from the College of Business Administration, the School of Pharmacy, the School of Medicine and even a professor of computer science from Carnegie Mellon University.

One of the projects they’ve collaborated on is a course on cultural competence for physicians in family medicine, “to teach them about linguistic and cultural competence that they can then better interact with their patients in the medical setting,” she said.

Right now, Gooden is planning and fact finding. In one of her first meetings with faculty, she told them, “I don’t know what I don’t know yet, but I’m going to find out.”

Faculty in the humanities and social sciences, she said, are “very, very excited; they’re salivating and saying ‘finally, finally.’ ”

All under one umbrella

In realigning all the research services jobs under Pitt Research, Rutenbar had to develop a leadership team and rename some of the offices that are now under him.

“I had the operating units, … what I didn’t have was that small tight leadership team up at the top to do strategy stuff and budget stuff and communications stuff and connections stuff,” he said.

“Building the team at the top level took longer than I had anticipated,” he said. “The fact that we didn’t have any team at all at the executive level here meant that we had to spend a lot of time just figuring out what we need.”

The new team includes Michael Holland, who started as Pitt’s first-ever vice chancellor for science policy and research strategies in October 2018. Holland oversees the creation of major research initiatives; maintains and increases University research funding; and shapes Pitt’s response to changing research opportunities.

Rutenbar said there are still a few more hires he’s trying to complete for the executive team.

The trick with naming the overall organization was that Office of Research had been used for years by the contracts team that deals with proposals (now the Office of Sponsored Projects).

“It’s a two-way problem. It means … if I use it, I’m just going to confuse the heck out of everybody,” he said. “And it also means that Jennifer Woodward who is the vice chancellor who manages that staff gets all kinds of inquiries from outside … that have to go to someplace else.”

They settled on Pitt Research (there’s even a logo in the new Pitt colors), and the offices under Rutenbar were all tasked with finding names that “all need to start ‘Office of’ something and they should all fit on one line.”

The results were:

At one point, there were plans to move most of these offices to the new Murdoch Building on Forbes Avenue, but Rutenbar said that other than the Office of Sponsored Projects, everyone else is staying put. OSP will move to the Murdoch Building because something else is moving into their current space in the basement of the University Club.

What’s next?

Beyond handing out the Momentum Grants last month, Pitt Research has other programs in the works.

One that has been very well received, Rutenbar said, is the Big Proposal Boot Camp, which helps people develop teams and ideas that will be read by a diverse group of people who aren’t necessarily experts in your field.

Last year, deans were invited to send a couple “rising stars” from their schools, who learned about how budgets, intellectual property, patents and development work. This year’s class is slightly larger and includes people from some of the research centers on campus and from the University Library System. The program is one day a week for 11 weeks.

Another initiative has been streamlining the seed grant application process. Rutenbar said the applications for even the smallest amount of seed money were longer than the maximum documents allowed by the National Science Foundation.

Shortly after coming to Pitt, Rutenbar and others worked to update the University’s conflict of interest policy (see story on new streamlined Conflicts Disclosure System), so that it would be more conducive to entrepreneurship. Now, they’re tackling Pitt’s intellectual property policy.

“We have one policy on patents. We have a separate policy on copyrights. We have no policy on trademarks,” he said. “The landscape of ownership, who owns what when, is just really confusing.”

Working with the Office of Policy Development and Management, they’ve written a very early draft of an intellectual property policy that Rutenbar hopes will be presented later this semester and start going through the review process.

Pitt Research also will be looking at other policies to update, including the policy on outside consulting, which Rutenbar said is 32 years old.

With all the changes in the office, Rutenbar said, “We’re trying to build opportunities to highlight cool new ideas at all scales.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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