Here’s a million bucks. Now show me some results!


When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I worked in a science lab that was researching the effects of an altered gene in mice. This type of novel research is common for furthering the understanding of the biology of mice and, eventually, humans. The results of such research experiments lead to magnificent discoveries especially in the prevention and treatment of disease. But the efforts leading up to these discoveries may go unnoticed, and I want to share with you the struggle of academic/novel research.

In the world of academic research, the Principal Investigator (PI) is King (or Queen). In a biological science lab, the PI is an established PhD, or MD, or both. He or she typically works as a professor at the university in which he or she is conducting research. And, the PI is a damn good project manager.

PIs have the near impossible tasks of developing experiments, overseeing the execution of such experiments, analyzing data, publishing results, and – worst of all – submitting requests for grant money. In order to balance this workload, which is on top of teaching, PIs exemplify all the necessary characteristics of project managers.

I recall the workflow of the lab in which I worked: using a work breakdown structure, Dr. Boppart assigned three different PhD students concepts of differing experiments. She then assigned Masters students to work with the PhD students and eventually Undergrads to work with the Masters students. It was our job to perform the experiments, but it was Dr. Boppart’s job to do the “write ups”. There were ultimately two main goals: get the data published and use the data to secure more funding for future experiments. The third, and obvious, goal was to apply a discovery toward a greater good.

As I look back on my experiences in Dr. Boppart’s lab, one thing sticks out above all: we were a broke lab. And considering that our experiments failed (much) more often than not, the small amount of grant money we received always seemed to drain away quickly. When I came across this article, ( I was reminded that grant money is still one of the biggest challenges scientists face today. The article discusses how “…grant funding has created its own ecosystem…” In healthcare, hospitals are seeking grant writers and using grant management software in order to receive and effectively utilize grant money. Dr. Boppart’s experiments were small potatoes compared to the 2,000 projects (worth $300M) that University Hospitals (Cleveland, OH) oversees on its own. Yet, UH has to do all the same grant requesting tasks that Dr. Boppart had to do.

Obtaining grant money is one of the most difficult aspects of performing research. But when using project management skills effectively, labs as small as Dr. Boppart’s and systems as large as UH are much more likely to produce high quality results. Have you ever submitted a request for money? Maybe a scholarship application? Or funding for a project? How did you ensure the money you received was utilized efficiently?

4 thoughts on “Here’s a million bucks. Now show me some results!

  1. Dan,

    This is an interesting view of project management. I worked in a lab studying the genetics of pre-term labor and cleft lip and palate when I was an undergrad. Our PI was Dr. Jeffrey Murray. These studies were going to be fairly long-term and required quite a bit of manpower. We had the same work/staff structure you outlined.

    During my time as a member of the research team, one thing was always apparent to me, we all respected Dr. Murray and were passionate about our work. Dr. Murray’s passion and excitement was contagious, it made for a very positive working environment. He too was an educator, a practicing physician, and an extremely respected genetics researcher. Yet he managed to make time for each of us in the lab, his other responsibilities, and his family. I think a large key to his success, was his ability to find hardworking individuals that he could confidently delegate to. He primarily delegated the lab scheduling and grant requests. We had frequent meetings and email communications in order to keep everyone up to date, this helped keep us all engaged as well. From reading the posts of our peers, it is clear that Dr. Murray personified many of the key project manager characteristics

    As for personal funding and scholarships, I have never had to choose how to allocate the funding. My primary undergraduate scholarship was from the University of Iowa, therefore, they determined how it was used. Private scholarships I have received have all been distributed directly to the university, eliminating my role in deciding how to use it.

  2. Dan, thank you for sharing your post. I found it to be very interesting to read. As we all currently work on securing donations for our charities of choice for our Project Management class, for the very first time ever I can imagine how difficult it actually is to collect donations.
    Our team has been trying to secure donations from local businesses for a raffle that we are planning to have at our local event. We are trying to secure small donations in forms of gift cards etc, from local businesses and this task is quite challenging. I personally get more NO than YES answers from local businesses. It is quite frustrating, but instead of giving up I continue on my adventures and hope to collect great donations.
    This is a small operation that we are dealing with in our Project Management class. Now, I can only imagine how difficult it really is to secure grants for projects like the one you described.

  3. Dan this an interesting perspective on grant money. I have never found myself working on a project at work that required me to request grants because the funds were assigned to my department by upper management; to make sure that our projects were budgeted for the fiscal year. For almost a year I managed the budget of our department, and we had to make sure that the money assigned to us was used wisely across the various projects that my department was working on. This included salaries, overhead, travel, project expenses. What was interesting is that I had to manage this almost on a daily basis because things constantly changed, and the figures had to be adjusted. In regards to asking for donations, I do have some experience asking for donations for not-for-profit organizations. It is not an easy task, but if you have a good cause, businesses can be generous. Based on my experience it is better to go to the business in person and meeting with the owner or manager to present the purpose of the donation, instead of asking over the phone.

  4. Great post, Dan. The state of grant funding for biomedical research is truly a concern for the field. I worked for some time in an academic laboratory for a PI who topped her NIH study section, receiving full funding for her R01 grant. After I left academia to work in industry, I met with my former boss a few years later, and she was worried about continued funding for her laboratory and those of her peers. In industry, I’ve not yet had to experience that type of problem. Each year, we request funding for capital projects, and I’ve never been rejected when there is a high priority need for new equipment. There have even been times when lower priority projects of mine that have made the cut for funding. Of course, we are expected to spend the allocated money, or communicate the availability of it for other projects. I consider myself very fortunate to work in an environment with sufficient funding to keep our operation in existence.

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