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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fall Research Competition is open for research in all divisions

Since her arrival at UW–Madison as a faculty member in Fall 2001, Aparna Dharwadker, professor of English and interdisciplinary theatre studies, sees the annual Fall Research Competition as an exceptional form of support for faculty research at a public institution, especially in the humanities and arts.

“Working on book-length projects in humanities disciplines is a long-drawn out and largely self-regulated process, with limited opportunities for external grants or fellowships. For me and countless other colleagues, the Fall Research Competition has been an ongoing resource for focused summer research, fieldwork and other research travel, project assistantships and student hourly funds, and the development of competitive proposals for extramural grants,” Dharwadker says.

The 2021 Fall Research Competition application opens on Aug. 9 at 8 a.m. and closes at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 10.

This Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education annual competition is for tenured professors and associate professors, tenure-track assistant professors and permanent PIs. Submission may involve collaboration with another faculty member or permanent PI. Applicants will be notified of the outcome in December. This competition is available because of the efforts of UW–Madison faculty and staff in filing successful patents through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Dharwadker has completed four book projects with Fall Research Competition support, and in the process also received year-long fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the International Theatre Research Centre in Berlin (Germany) and the NEH.

Her most recent book, A Poetics of Modernity: Indian Theatre Theory, 1850 to the Present (Oxford UP), sustained by fall competition funds in multiple ways, received the biannual Joe Callaway Prize (announced in July 2021) for the best book on drama or theatre published in 2018-19.

Her proposal for the fall 2020 competition was for a monograph on comparative modernist drama, entitled Cosmo-Modernism, Multilingualism, and Theatre: Modernist Performance in India. This time she turned to the fall competition to complete a project begun in Spring 2017, when she was a resident fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities.

Dharwadker’s book looks at multilingual theatre in India, which after 1950 contains the largest clustering of “modernist” as well as “postcolonial” plays in non-European languages.

“Indian modernisms are unique because they involve a millennium-long history of multilingual literacy in more than 20 fully-developed languages, but also respond to the transformative modern processes of colonialism, independence, internationalization and globalization,” she says. “Support during summer 2021 has enabled me to finish a draft of the manuscript, and develop a book proposal that I will send to potential publishers. In short, I have been a beneficiary of fall competitions in the fullest sense, and having served on the research committee for three years (2018-21), have also had the opportunity to participate in the rigorous review process through which research funds are awarded in the competition.”

Edgar Spalding, professor of botany, has also served on the fall competition review committee and has reviewed dozens of proposals.

“I have seen what works and what does not. I would advise a new submitter to identify a compelling research question, one that a diverse group of reviewers can see as potentially impactful even if they are not experts in the area of scholarship,” Spalding says. “I recommend that the proposer have already worked on the topic enough to convince the committee that they understand the challenges. Otherwise, even if the idea is compelling, there will be uneasiness about how successful the person will be. Lastly, I recommend that the proposer explain the likelihood that outside support is a realistic possibility if the fall competition project is successful because the goal is to grow the university’s research impact. Ideally, that evidence will be a concrete plan to submit a larger proposal to a federal grant agency.”

Spalding has received fall competition funding to support his efforts to understand how plants use gravity to guide plant roots and shoots in the appropriate direction. Shoots and their branches do not always grow straight up, nor do roots and their branches always grow straight down. Instead, they grow at angles relative to gravity to shape the systems appropriate for that species.

“Just look at any tree or corn plant to see what I mean,” he says. “A small group of genes evolved when plants colonized land that are critical for the processes that guide growth relative to the gravity vector. They are called LAZY genes, because without them, the plants tend to sprawl aimlessly. We want to know how the proteins encoded by the LAZY genes (there are five in the model plant Arabidopsis) function in a mechanism that plants use to sense and respond to gravity.”

Spalding’s grant partially supported a postdoc and a graduate student.

“This support enabled us to obtain more data, which we used as the basis of a grant proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation. We were successful. We were awarded $918,000 to continue this research for three years, beginning in July 2021. This is a great return on the fall comp investment,” he says.

For Pavana Prabhakar, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering, a fall competition grant in 2019 allowed her to fund graduate student support and generate preliminary data for writing a robust and well-thought-out NSF proposal.

The project, “CAREER: Diffusion driven Degradation and Failure Mechanics of Architected Composites,” has since received external funding from the NSF CAREER – Mechanics of Materials and Structures (MOMS) Program through 2026.

To make the best use of the funds available to the Committee, it is critical for applicants to seek and obtain other funds. Information about the granting procedures of various federal and non-federal agencies is available from the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs website.

Prabhakar’s research project supports fundamental research towards elucidating how fiber architecture/placement within fiber-reinforced polymer composite (FRPC) materials influences moisture ingression, and consequent degradation and failure when used in service.

“FRPC materials have tremendous promise for lightweight structural applications within the aerospace, automotive and marine industries, as well as civil infrastructure due to their high strength-to-weight ratios which result in significant energy savings,” Prabhakar says. “However, they are inevitably exposed to moisture in the environment including humidity in the air or water from lakes/oceans, making them vulnerable to degradation and damage, thereby, severely limiting their use in critical applications.”

Prabhakar’s research will establish new knowledge that can provide essential guidance for designing and fabricating future FRPCs by considering interactions between architected fibers and moisture ingression, which have direct implications on how these materials fail.

“This is vital for improving the durability of these materials such that they have longer utility and do not fail catastrophically, “she says. “Thus, this research will advance the field of composite materials, contribute to the national prosperity, and secure the national defense by enabling the design and implementation of next-generation structural materials.”

Prabhakar’s research activities will be complemented with a series of outreach activities that will focus on educating and training the next-generation workforce of engineers and scientists that the U.S. composites industry critically needs to be globally competitive.

“The fall competition is a great opportunity to get support for a researcher (graduate student) for a year that can be used for generating adequate preliminary data for writing an external grant,” she says. “From my experience, I believe preliminary data is key for the success of any extramural grant. My advice for a first-time applicant is that this proposal is read and discussed by faculty/researchers far from your area of research. Hence, it is best to minimize using too much technical jargon and write it such that it is easily understandable by researchers outside your field.”

Alejandra Ros Pilarz and Jessica Pac, assistant professors of social work, agree that using understandable language is key in writing a successful fall competition proposal.

“Because the social sciences are so broad, it is important to be able to explain the relevance of the project and the methods you are using, to people who might not be familiar with those methods or are not subject matter experts in the area you are researching,” Pac says. “It’s important to be able to explain very clearly what you are doing and why for people from various fields.”

Their fall competition grant supports a research assistant for one year to help with quantitative analyses of longitudinal, survey data to provide evidence on the effects of the state pregnancy accommodation laws on maternal employment and economic wellbeing.

To date, 31 states have passed laws that require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women. By enabling pregnant women to remain employed under safe working conditions, these laws have the potential to ensure earnings and retention of health insurance and maternity leave eligibility.

“We applied for the fall competition grant as back-up for a grant that we submitted to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth,” Pilarz says.

The project will study inequalities in the labor market and women’s employment in jobs that are more difficult to continue doing when pregnant such as service jobs in which women of color are more likely to work.

“We think this is important because we know that family income takes a dip around a time of a birth in part because mothers take a break from the labor market,” Pilarz says. “And there are higher rates of poverty around the time of a birth. So are there ways to help these mothers stay employed and have access to protected time off through the Family Medical Leave Act?”

Had Pilarz and Pac not received a fall competition award, they agree that the project would take longer and might have been put on hold until they found other sources of funding for a student research assistant. This project is part of bigger project looking at the effects of state pregnancy accommodation laws on maternal and child health outcomes.

“We had to be strategic in figuring out how to leverage all the different types of grants in order to get the entire project funded,” Pilarz says. “This piece fit well for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth program and made it a good candidate for the fall research competition. The fall competition support allows us to look at first stage effects of pregnancy accommodation laws on employment, enabling us to look at other outcomes such as infant and maternal health.”

“For this piece, we are able to move more quickly by having the support from the fall competition,” Pac says. “Otherwise, it can sometimes be difficult to find good funding streams to support this kind of work.”