Research funding skyrockets at veterinary college in recent years
January 26, 2023
S. Ansar Ahmed can see the mountains climbing on his computer monitor as surely as those on many horizons from Blacksburg.
The lines reaching a peak on a slide represent a sharp increase in annual research funding awarded to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, which greatly pleases Ahmed, associate dean of research and graduate studies for the college.
Research funding awarded to the veterinary college has tripled in a decade, with most of that growth – from roughly $7 million to over $18 million – occurring in the past five years.
Research funding jumped 80 percent, from $10 million to $18 million, between fiscal years 2021 and 2022 alone.
The veterinary college’s research growth is aligned with Virginia Tech’s focus on becoming a top-100 global research university, reiterated in President Tim Sands’ recent “State of the University” speech.
In November, Virginia Tech Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation Dan Sui reported to the Board of Visitors that university research expenditures, in preliminary figures, had increased by 9 percent to nearly $600 million for fiscal year 2022.
“It is exciting for our college’s research program to be on an upward trajectory,” Ahmed said. “The next goal would be to build on this solid foundation to attain a higher level in coming years.”
The veterinary college’s research expenditures have more than doubled in five years from $6.2 million to just over $12.9 million, including a greater than 30 percent jump from $9.8 million in the past year.
The five-year spike roughly coincides with Ahmed’s tenure in the associate dean position, though he is quick to defer credit to colleagues and faculty members of the college. He did, however, note some refocusing his office has helped guide.
“We made our office more resource friendly, we helped them with submission of proposals, any kind of opportunities we saw,” said Ahmed, who was promoted to the associate dean role six years ago. That assistance includes providing information on grant opportunities, preparation of budgets, submission of proposals and award management.
“Slowly we got more research-focused faculty, we started doing some analytics that show that we really need research-focused faculty to grow these numbers,” Ahmed said.
Newer research hires build on the foundation established by several senior faculty members already in place in the college, even dating back to Ahmed’s prior stint before becoming associate dean.
“I was a department head of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and then I was selected for this position,” Ahmed said. “At that time, I was fortunate to recruit six research-focused faculty. So, as they mature, they started getting grants because it takes about three, four years for them to just sort of settle in and apply for big grants.”
Specifically, Ahmed has focused on five research areas for the college: infectious diseases, immune-mediated/inflammatory diseases, neuropathobiology, public health, and translational and comparative medicine.
“We now have established and rising stars in all these five areas,” Ahmed said.
“The addition of public health research faculty has added a unique advantage to our research portfolio, Ahmed said. “In particular, there have been notable research awards in the area of public health infectious and non-infectious conditions and health education. Our clinical research has also grown notably in the last five years or so. Neurology, oncology, cardiology, internal medicine, diagnostic medicine and other clinical specialties have all attracted extramural funding.”
The vast majority of the funding is in grants from the federal government – 85%, including 72% directly to the college and another 13% “flow-through” from grants to other universities in which a veterinary college faculty member collaborates in the research.
Since 2016, those grants have included some from sources that had not previously provided research money for the college, including the Department of Defense, NASA, Department of Energy, Department of Interior and the National Science Foundation.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, was the primary source for veterinary college awards in fiscal year 2022, providing nearly $10 million.
The college has obtained research training grants from NIH and Boehringer Ingelheim to train Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) students and post-DVM students in research. These grants have fostered collaboration with other colleges and research offices on campus.
“Our faculty are actively participating in university-wide research initiatives at the Center for Emerging, Zoonotic, and Arthropod-borne Pathogens (CeZAP), with X.J. Meng as a founding director and member of the National Academy of Sciences; Global Change Center at Virginia Tech; Fralin Life Sciences Institute; and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute among others,” Ahmed said. “ These interactions have attracted research collaborations.”
Clinical trials more tightly focused on companion and food animal health, both at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg and the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center in Roanoke, are also significant contributors to the research funding increase.
At the nexus of infectious diseases and food animal treatment, Kevin Lahmers was named the 2022 winner of the Zoetis Award for Veterinary Research Excellence for guiding research on Theileria, a disease transmitted to cattle by the exotic Asian longhorned tick.
Lahmers, clinical associate professor of anatomic pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology says one factor is ViTALS, or Virginia Tech Animal Laboratory Services, which is accredited by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians and part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN).
“ViTALS has started bringing in funding,” Lahmers said. “Through the FDA, we have twice gotten $100,000 for methods development. So, like with highly pathogenic avian influenza, 40 NAHLN labs are activated and they’re doing testing and sending results to the USDA, and we have become one of these NAHLN laboratories and are ramping up to start being able to do African swine fever, foot and mouth disease, and Newcastle disease testing.”
“And so, yes, there’s more NIH funding, but we have started getting USDA and FDA funding, because of our accreditation and recognition of the strength of our lab.”
Ahmed said improving research infrastructure, such as renovating and equipping laboratories and providing internal seed grants and more technical service support, has gone a long way toward the research funding increase.
Jessica Crawford, grants and contracts administrator, plays a significant role in the search for and acquisition of research funding. Crawford, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, joined the Office of Research and Graduate Studies of the veterinary college in 2016.
“I assist in finding opportunities, preparing applications, making them as competitive as we possibly can, putting together teams for larger proposals, completing administrative paperwork, among other tasks,” Crawford said. “We give all the assistance we can to principal investigators who are not as versed in financial administration.”
Crawford notices dramatic growth not in just what is received, but what is being asked for.
“A few years ago, investigators were applying for tens of millions a year,” Crawford said. “Now it’s well over $100 million. Last year we reached over $200 million requested. The proposals are becoming bigger and more complex. Instead of just including investigators here at Virginia Tech, we routinely included other institutions and commercial entities. We've moved to more global collaboration by including people in different time zones and on different continents.
“We are now performing research on a much broader scale, which speaks to the fact that we are becoming well-known in the research world for our services, models, and researchers. Our ability to collaborate is expanding hugely. We’re now at that level of becoming competitive for center or program grants, allowing the college to become the place for a specific type of research.”