Houston voices

UH experts weigh in on the funding gap for female researchers

Universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

The researchers had a hypothesis. Women faculty, they predicted, would be more successful than their male counterparts at earning private funding – from industry, from nonprofit groups, from charitable endowments. That was about relationships, after all, an area where the popular literature suggests women excel.

The numbers told a different story.

A review of faculty research funding conducted by the Center for ADVANCING Faculty Success at the University of Houston – funded by the National Science Foundation to help recruit and retain female faculty, and especially women of color, in STEM fields – found that women and men had similar success rates when competing for funding from federal agencies. With industry funding, however, the disparities were greater.

"It's about networking," says Christiane Spitzmueller, an industrial psychologist and managing director of the UH center. "Men do more of that. Women aren't primed as much for networking and self-marketing."

No one tracks the numbers nationally, and not all universities report a gender disparity. What is clear is that working with industry and nonprofit groups has drawn new attention in academia amid concerns about stagnant or dropping levels of federal research funding and increasing academic interest in finding solutions to some of society's thorniest problems. To take full advantage of the opportunities, universities need to make sure all faculty who want to work with the private sector have a chance to succeed, regardless of their gender or discipline.

Opportunity knocks

Industry needs these partnerships, too.

"Companies are realizing to be competitive, particularly in high-tech domains, they can't rely on only their internal resources," says Jeff Fortin, associate vice president for research and director of Research and Industrial Partnerships at Pennsylvania State University. "They have to look to universities and other external sources to fill that pipeline of innovation."

Some researchers are already fully engaged with industry. Others aren't interested.

Then there is the middle group. "They would like to engage more with companies," Fortin says. "They haven't done it much, and they need more help, explaining how the process works, the contracting."

His office – and those at other universities seeking to increase their interactions with the private sector – can help.

How to approach industry

Research administrators can help by developing policies for intellectual property, licensing and royalty issues that arise from academic-industry partnerships. Companies want to know how those issues will be handled upfront.

Ultimately, however, it's about the individual faculty member. And it requires persistence.

"The big thing is not to sell yourself short," says Rebecca Carrier, professor of chemical engineering at Northeastern University. "Maybe they're not going to be interested in precisely what you want to work on, but they might be interested in a variation of it."

Look for common goals. And prepare for a different type of relationship.

What to expect

Federal funding agencies generally require an annual report, with little or no interaction at other times. Not so with industry funding.

"When you're working on a project industry cares about, you may report in every six months, or conduct monthly or biweekly teleconferences. You may collaborate with their researchers. You may send your students to their site," says Elyse Rosenbaum, Melvin and Anne Louise Hassebrock Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Rosenbaum also is director of the Center for Advanced Electronics through Machine Learning, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center.

Sometimes the work is about solving a specific industry problem, whether that's high workforce turnover or limiting methane emissions on oilfield drilling rigs. Sometimes, as Samira Ali, an assistant professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered with her first industry grant, the goal is more global.

Ali is directing one of three centers that are part of a $100 million, 10-year initiative from Gilead Sciences Inc. to address HIV/AIDS in the southern United States.

The payoff

Ali had never worked with industry funding, but the project was a good fit with her research interests. It also wasn't something the federal government would be likely to fund, making the partnership a pragmatic choice.

Another benefit? Carrier, who is director of the Advanced Drug Delivery Lab at Northeastern, says connecting with industry ensures she remains focused on real-world problems.

Working with the private sector is a constant reminder of the end goal – in Carrier's case, finding answers to questions about the mucosal barrier in the intestine, with an eye toward enhancing the absorption of medications and nutrients, as well as understanding links between the gut and overall health.

"It's important to stay in touch and in tune with people who are trying to make a product so that I know what I'm doing matters," she says.

The 411 in industry funding

What type of projects?

  • Short-term, often for a period of one year
  • Practical, focused on a specific product or project
  • Industry support for basic science is unusual but not unheard of

How is it different for government funding?

  • Generally less money, for a shorter period of time
  • Fewer restrictions but can require more flexibility
  • More contact, from biannual or monthly conference calls to sending researchers to work at the company, or having their researchers come to your lab
  • A new vocabulary. Terms understood to mean one thing by researchers and federal funding agencies may be used differently by industry

How to connect?

  • Network. Attend conferences that are important to the industry with which you'd like to work.
  • Educate yourself about the problems a particular industry needs to solve, and think about what solutions you may be able to offer
  • Be persistent and don't be afraid of rejection
  • Take advantage of personal connections – friends, neighbors and former classmates who work in industry may help you connect on specific projects

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Jeannie Kever works with the UH division of research as a senior media relations specialist.

UH's business school just received its second largest gift ever. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business has received its second largest donation to benefit its entrepreneurship program.

The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, which was recently ranked the top undergraduate entrepreneurship program in the country, received the $13 million gift from its namesake foundation — The Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation — and the state of Texas is expected to match an additional $2 million, bringing the total impact to $15 million.

"Our family is deeply committed to the ideals of entrepreneurship," says Cyvia Wolff in a news release. "Our business personified everything that it means to be an entrepreneur. The skills, the thinking, the mindset are fundamental to success for business leaders today and in the future. On behalf of my late husband, we are truly honored to ensure the entrepreneurial legacy not only endures but remains accessible for students. We are truly honored to be part of this program and university."

The money will be used to create three endowments for the program. The Dave Cook Leadership Endowment, named for the center's director, Dave Cook, will be created and funded with $7 million of the donation to support leadership within the organization. For $4 million, the center will create the Wolff Legacy Endowment, which aims to increase students involved in the center, as well as the companies coming out of the program. The last $2 million will be used to create the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Endowed Chair(s)/Professorship(s) in Entrepreneurship. This initiative will support research and community outreach.

"We are passionate about entrepreneurship and how it can forever change students' lives," says Bauer Dean Paul A. Pavlou in the release. "We seek to further promote entrepreneurship as a university-wide, even citywide effort, by collaborating within and across the university in a multitude of areas, such as technology, health care, arts and sports."

The program was created in the mid '90s and was later renamed after Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff in 2007, and has seen great success over the past decade. In that time, Wolff students have created 1,270 businesses, with identified funding of just over $268 million. According to the release, the program has been ranked in the top two spots of the Princeton Review's top undergraduate entrepreneurship programs for nine of the past 12 years.

"Entrepreneurship is crucial for the future of our country, as well as our city and state," says UH President Renu Khator in the release. "We are proud to be at the forefront of work around entrepreneurial training and research. The uniqueness of our program has and continues to make it the model program. This extraordinary gift ensures our leadership in this space will continue and will support the creation of businesses, change communities and impact our students' lives."

At UH, 2,500 students take at least one entrepreneurship course a year, and more than 700 students complete certificate programs.

"What we are doing is transformative in the lives of students, mentors and stakeholders in a way that elevates everyone towards excellence," Cook, who was named the director of the program in 2017, says in the release. "The impact of this gift allows us to remain the leader and to move forward with confidence, purpose and permanence."