Public health research surges as school hits its stride

Media Credit: Anna McGarrigle | Hatchet Designer

Faculty in the Milken Institute School of Public Health have brought in dozens of new grants in the past two years, upping its research profile as it looks to break into the top tier.

The school won 21 new grants from the National Institutes of Health during the last fiscal year, three times as many as it won in 2009, according to NIH’s website. That surge comes as the school has made several new hires and emphasized research in areas other than health policy, which has historically been the school’s strength.

Researchers at the school used funds from 323 total grants last year. Many were awarded in previous years, but must be distributed over the course of several years. The roughly $20 million increase in grants from the NIH since 2009 has helped the school spend about $387 million on research this year.

“That’s a pretty good pace of build-up, but that is also related to the fact that we’ve been recruiting new faculty members who are able to go out and gather those grants,” Dean Lynn Goldman said.

Goldman said when new professors join the school, they go through faculty bootcamp, in which they learn how to use technology like Blackboard and what is offered inside the school’s classrooms, as well as the school’s process for grant applications.

Since she started at the school’s helm in 2010, Goldman has also emphasized faculty mentoring. Often, mentors can show newer researchers how to prepare to describe the goals of a proposed project, she said.

“These grants usually start out with an extremely succinct statement about your specific aims,” Goldman said. “It’s really important that those aims are sound and that the way you write them is compelling. That’s half a page, and you need to spend as much time on that as the whole rest of it.”

As the school’s enrollment has grown about 12.8 percent since 2009, it has increased the number of faculty to provide enough support to students, which has also translated to more professors bringing in grants.

The public health school received an $80 million donation from billionaire philanthropists Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone last spring, which renamed the school at about the same time it moved into a new $75 million building on Washington Circle.

It has also brought in larger grants this year, with Freya Spielberg, an associate professor of prevention and community health, winning a $23.8 million grant last month to find a way to combine primary care for HIV with prevention.

She’ll work with professors in the Rodham Institute within GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, as well as organizations in D.C. to complete the project, which she had to prove she could organize while applying for the grant.

To do that, she pointed to other work she’d completed across the country, she said, and touted the relationships she had with local organizations. She spent about three months working intensively on the grant application.

“The only reason honestly that I was able to be successful with this is because I had great collaboration and relationships already set up with 15-plus community organizations that really jumped on board and assisted, and were excited about it,” Spielberg said.

Ellen Lawton, a lead research scientist in the school, and Joel Teitelbaum, an associate professor of health policy, won a $300,000 grant this summer from the U.S. Human Resources Services Administration to bring legal aid to community health organizations.

Lawton said she spent about two years learning what the federal organization was looking for in a project.

Lawton and Teitelbaum had just four months to write their application, and she said it was important to have support from both the University’s and school’s research offices.

She added that the two approached those responsible for the grant as partners in their research process, which she said was key to winning the funds.

“That was, again, a long process of really seeing what their focus was, what their needs were, meeting with them both in conferences and in other settings where they would be talking about what their needs were, and then they really started to understand the work that we were doing and how it was related to their goals and perspective,” she said.

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