Michael Oglesbee, professor of veterinary biosciences and director of the Infectious Diseases Institute at The Ohio State University, remembers when he had to defend his proposal to make infectious diseases part of the university’s interdisciplinary Discovery Themes Initiative nearly four years ago. “Our proposal was almost entirely focused on hiring new faculty members,” recalls Oglesbee. “A panel of approximately 20 reviewers grilled me, including one external reviewer who said, ‘This is nice, but I don't see what's innovative.’ I remember pausing and thinking ‘To some degree you're right.’”
Though the university was in strong support of a Discovery Theme investment in infectious diseases, the reviewer’s comment stayed with Oglesbee and inspired a more transformative approach to how the theme—which has since evolved into the Infectious Diseases Institute—connects faculty members to opportunities. “We’re much more focused on the operations piece now, and the manner in which the operations impact the researchers, clinicians, graduate students and post docs who are already here. We’re looking at our networks and communities and thinking about how we can help them achieve what they previously couldn’t.”
A critical part of changing the operations? Bringing in expertise from industry, like through the hiring of Cathie Smith, former life sciences R&D director at Battelle, who now serves as the institute’s chief operating officer. Smith spearheads business development, which aims to flip the traditional research fund-seeking model to a more forward-thinking approach.
Typically, faculty wait until major funding agencies release RFPs and then scramble to submit their proposals. “We’re trying to shift that behavior upstream so that we’re assessing who our target sponsors are, positioning ourselves to ensure that we’re strategically aligned, developing and strengthening relationships with the sponsors, and developing a capture strategy,” says Smith. “This way, when the RFP is released, we’re ahead of the curve.” The institute has hired a proposal development specialist to assist faculty through a capture planning process that allows time for red team reviews from subject matter experts to increase the likelihood of winning funding.
The institute is also strengthening team science for Ohio State’s wide breadth of faculty, students and post docs in the infectious diseases space with things like seed grants that enable interdisciplinary risk-taking, targeted investments in areas that spur new opportunities, sponsored workshops and TED-style speaker training that helps researchers communicate the value of their work. And as the original Infectious Diseases Discovery Themes proposal first articulated, that community has grown; the institute has hired 13 new faculty within six thematic areas: antimicrobial resistance; ecology, epidemiology and population health; host defense and microbial biology; microbial communities; prevention, detection and therapies; and viruses and emerging pathogens.
At 382 members and counting, the institute is helping to establish Ohio State as an innovative research powerhouse. Says Oglesbee, “My aspirational goal is that when someone at the Centers for Disease Control or National Institutes of Health says, ‘Here is this problem that needs to be stamped out,’ I want Ohio State to be on the short list of universities they call.”