Careers in Pathology: Research Administration

By Lynn McCain | March 21 2022

The Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan is home to a robust basic science and translational research engine that performs tirelessly to advance knowledge and discover new ways to diagnose and treat conditions that impact all of us in one way or another. Most of this research is undertaken through support from highly competitive federal and foundation grants. Each of these sources have their own, complex set of directions for how grants are to be funded and how the funds can be used. To assist our researchers, the Department of Pathology offers a team of Research Administrators to handle the grant submission process from before the grant application is started until the final report is submitted. This team, led by John Harris, Administrative Manager, and Brooke Dougherty-Reyes, Research Administration Manager, includes Research Administrators Helen Xu, Liz VanderElzen, and Yvonne Bidwell, Administrative Specialist Catherine Niemiec, Purchasing Clerk Tasha Thurman, and MCTP Financial Manager Becky Dresselhouse-Nauss.

John Harris / Administrative ManagerThis is a highly experienced team with 118 years focused on research administration between them. John has been involved in research administration for 25 years, Yvonne for 35 years, 6 with Pathology; Brooke for 12 years, Tasha for 14 years, Cathy for 9 years, Helen for 3 years, 2 years in Pathology, and Becky for 16 years in the University, but just joined Pathology in August 2021.  When Becky first started working with grants in 1987, graphs and figures had to be hand drawn onto the grant documents. Pages would be printed with gaps in the text to allow for the graphs to be hand drawn, and often reprinted several times to get the graphs right. She remembers getting her first Macintosh computer and thinking, “Oh my gosh! I can create a graph and put it in there myself. This is tremendous!” John and Yvonne recall the days grants were printed. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) required the original and five copies of the proposal in a box, shipped to the NIH. This required printing six sets of applications, many of which were well over 100 pages each, getting departmental signatures, running them to the medical school office of research and sponsored programs (ORSP) for signature, then packing them into the car and driving to Wolverine Tower for University sign-off, before they could finally be shipped. The Medical School eventually added a courier service to handle transporting grants between the school and Wolverine Tower. Today, this is all handled electronically.

The first thing a researcher who is interested in applying for a grant should do is contact the Research Administration Office and provide them with a copy of the grant’s RFP (request for proposal). The research administrator assigned to the faculty member will then carefully review the grant’s RFP and understand the due date, page limits, what is required, the budget limitations and other details, which they can discuss with the researcher. This is particularly helpful for postdoctoral fellows and newer faculty, who may not be familiar with the grant process. This is the first step in the “pre-award” process. “We then help them prepare their budget,” explains Brooke.  “We pull salary data, and make sure we follow specific guidelines for the budget.” This includes figuring in the fringe benefits, the indirect costs, working with other departments who may have faculty on the grant to get their salary data, ensuring appropriate effort limits are met, and adding in the specified other expenses such as supplies, animal expenses, travel, etc.

Brooke Dougherty-Reyes / Research Administration ManagerAs the researcher prepares the grant documents, the research administration team provides support and compiles all the documents for them. For NIH grants, that means uploading everything to the ASSIST system and making sure the application is completed correctly. For foundation grants, sometimes researchers do this themselves and sometimes the research administrators take care of it. For every application, “we use our PAF (proposal approval form) and that routes the application through the University. Depending on who and what is listed on the PAF, it triggers multiple layers of approvals that the grant needs to go through,” explains Brooke. “Sometimes, it needs to get approvals from a lot of departments. If there are conflicts of interest, it needs to be routed through that committee. There are a lot of details on the PAF which trigger the proper approvals.” John added, “This is why we need researchers to notify us early of their grants. We cannot get approvals signed and back in one day. It takes a minimum of 10 business days.” Once all the approvals are obtained, the ORSP submits the grants to the appropriate agency or foundation.

Then it becomes a waiting game. If an NIH grant was submitted, after their review process, researchers will get a Just in Time (JIT) notification, at which time additional information needs to be submitted. This could include Internal Review Board (IRB) protocols, animal protocols, other support to ensure there is no overlap with other funding, and any additional documents they may request. The research administrators help get all these documents compiled and submitted. Eventually, if all goes well, a notice of award is sent directly to the researcher. “Many times, the researcher will hear before the University, depending on their relationship with their sponsor,” said John. “But until the University accepts the award, it doesn’t become active and come into our hands.”

Once awarded, the research administration team helps with the “post-award” process. “We go through various processes to open accounts, appoint people to the project, and communicate account numbers the lab can use,” explains Brooke.  Throughout this process, the budget created in the pre-award process is the starting point. “Our group used to be split between pre-award and post-award. One person was dedicated to pre-award and then we handled post-award. We do both now. There are so many guidelines that you learn during the pre-award proposal process that you need to know in the post-award period, so it makes it easier if you have done the pre-award proposal yourself.” This also allows the research administrators to gain a broader skillset, learn more, and become more versatile employees. In addition, it provides redundancy of skillsets so that cross-coverage is easier for vacations.

Tasha Thurman / Purchasing ClerkAs soon as the funds arrive, researchers begin spending money and that is when Tasha shines. Tasha handles all the procurement for research faculty and staff, as well as all procurement for Pathology staff as a whole. Since grants are quite particular about how funds can be spent, “I have to go into M-Reports and make sure that what they are ordering is allowed on the grant. For example, on Federal accounts, office supplies are not allowed. "I also check to be sure they have funds available.” If there is an issue, Tasha brings it to the assigned grant administrator for review. However, ultimately, researchers are responsible for making sure their orders fit within the grant’s parameters.

As the grant proceeds, the research administrators meet with the researchers monthly or bi-monthly, to review the progress, budget, and to ensure everything is on track. As the grant’s end is approaching, they take a more in-depth look at the progress and discuss whether or not a no-cost extension will need to be requested to complete the research project. If everything is on track, then “we have to decide where we will pay all the people appointed to the grant, make effort changes, make sure all the supplies they purchased on the grant have been delivered and invoiced,” explains Brooke. “This has been a huge challenge during COVID with supply chain issues. We also have to be sure all the sponsor’s deliverables have been met.”

If one is interested in a career as a research administrator, there are a few college programs available in research administration. However, for the most part, it tends to be an on-the-job training process. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a research administrator before getting this job,” exclaimed Brooke. Having a background in accounting or finance is helpful, but not required.  Many come to research administration through Sponsored Programs on the Central Campus where they have worked in accounting, submitting financial reports to sponsors. This gives them a bit of background to move into this role. Helen came to Pathology via this route, and it is a great way to get started at the University. However, the rest of the team transferred in from other positions, either within the department or elsewhere, and were trained on the job.

While deadlines are the most challenging aspect of the job, the reward is knowing that you are helping advance research that could result in life-saving or life-changing treatments for patients – even for members of your own family or circle of friends. John stated, “I have always liked that the work we help facilitate isn’t based on profit, the bottom line. Many times, the department chooses to support work that you can’t put a dollar value on. It isn’t about the bottom line, but rather, it is about adding to the base of knowledge and, hopefully, to help people’s lives.”

Helen Xu / Research AdministratorTo be successful in this career, you need to be detail oriented with excellent organizational skills. “You have to be able to use Excel,” said Yvonne. “And you have to be able to use different computer programs.” “Yes,” Helen agreed, “You need to be familiar with the different UM systems.  There are a lot of them!” While newcomers won’t know these systems upfront, being able to learn quickly is essential.  Brooke added, “There is a steep learning curve! Also, communication is very important. How you send an email, making sure you get your point across and are asking the right questions. We have to communicate directly with the faculty and we need to be sure we are effective in our communications so that they can respond in the right way.” "You also have to be able to multi-task,” Tasha added. “That was not one of my best characteristics at first, but I have finally gotten it.”

Thank you, Research Administration Team, for all you do to ensure our research scientists are able to continue to advance knowledge and make breakthrough discoveries that will benefit generations to come.