Funding renewed for statewide program that supports WKU biomedical research

For Western Kentucky University faculty who conduct biomedical and behavioral research, receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health is a significant achievement, largely for two factors — the size of the NIH’s budget and the prestige of its grant awards.

Not surprisingly, NIH funding is difficult to secure, in part because of high demand. And that’s where the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (KBRIN) comes in.

“The Institutional Development Award (IDeA) [one of KBRIN’s funding opportunities] builds research capacities in states with historically low levels of NIH funding by supporting basic, clinical and translational research, as well as faculty development and infrastructure improvements,” according to a press release from the University of Louisville. “Kentucky is one of 23 states eligible for IDeA funding.”

Western Kentucky University is one of several university members of KBRIN, along with the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky, among others. Just weeks ago, WKU found out that KBRIN secured a new five-year grant from NIH, a much-anticipated announcement that will continue to help nurture an exciting pipeline of research.

Former WKU graduate student Alyssa Olenick (right), works with Jill Maples, Ph.D., a previous recipient of KBRIN funding. Alyssa worked on KBRIN research with Dr. Maple and Dr. Tinius.

“It’s a really cool, diverse group of faculty that we’re supporting,” said Kevin Williams, Ph.D., who serves as WKU’s lead faculty member in KBRIN.

Current and past KBRIN research underway at WKU includes:

Rachel Tinius, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Kinesiology, Rec. & Sport — A multi-year KBRIN participant in previous years, Tinius’ research is focused on pregnancy, including examining the effects of various metabolic factors.

Moon-Soo Kim, Ph.D., associate professor, Chemistry — Kim, who was just renewed for another KBRIN award, is examining pathogen detection in food sources.

Simran Banga, Ph.D., assistant professor, Biology — Banga’s KBRIN research focuses on Legionnaire’s disease as a model of bacterial infections.

Diane Lickenbrock, Ph.D., associate professor, Psychological Sciences — Lickenbrock is researching the parent/infant relationship and how that affects an infant’s ability to cope emotionally.

Jenni Teeters, Ph.D., assistant professor, Psychological Sciences — A newer WKU faculty member, Teeters is examining text message intervention for college students as a way to potentially reduce substance-impaired driving.

Brian Weiler, Ph.D., assistant professor, Communication Sciences & Disorders — Wilder is researching language screenings for kindergarten children. It’s difficult to detect language development problems in this particular age population, so Wilder is working to determine if there’s a faster way to screen students and, as a result, intervene more quickly in the event of a possible language-related developmental delay.

Blairanne Williams, Ph.D., assistant professor, Chemistry — Williams is researching platinum compounds in anti-cancer drugs and how the size and shape impacts the uptake of the drug in the cell, as well as if it impacts the selectivity of cancer cells.

Michael Smith, Ph.D., professor, Biology, and Kevin Williams, Ph.D., WKU’s KBRIN faculty lead — Smith and Williams are researching possible connections between hearing loss and cancer drugs. Their research is funded both by an active NIH grant and KBRIN funding.

Noah Ashley, Ph.D., associate professor, Biology — Ashley’s sleep-related research is in a similar funding stage as Smith and Williams. KBRIN helped fund Ashley’s post-doctoral associate, and Ashley also secured an NIH grant.

In addition to funding the research itself, KBRIN also prepares faculty for NIH funding through resources like training, including providing feedback on grant proposals that researchers submit to KBRIN for funding, said Martha Bickford, Ph.D., associate program director of KBRIN, in a University of Louisville press release.

KBRIN-funded IDeA awards, the most common method of funding, are typically given for two years. Faculty can apply for a third year, but Williams said third year funding is contingent on having research published and ready for an NIH proposal.

Rachel Tinius, Ph.D., a multi-year KBRIN participant, measures infant skinfold as part of a research study.

“You have to continue to show progress,” he said.

That progress not only helps keeps faculty members on track; it also contributes to some friendly competition among KBRIN universities.

“Everybody wants their university to do well, but it’s a friendly rivalry,” Williams said. “It’s amazing for a statewide program being overseen by a major research university with several universities participating that there’s so much cooperation.”

Cooperation, in fact, is one of the primary benefits of conducting research under the KBRIN umbrella. Faculty can reach out to researchers at other universities for help or another point of view. Williams said one such resource is statistics expertise at the University of Kentucky, which helps researchers better understand the statistics perspective and identify ways to make the research more impactful and results more significant.

Cooperation and collaboration also happen at a facilities level. KBRIN’s five-year funding renewal will add an electron microscopy core to the program. As a result, researchers can now access electron microscopes at WKU, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

In addition to providing access to a powerful network of experts and facilities, KBRIN also helps researchers broaden their impact by increasing the size of their research teams. Williams cited Ashley’s sleep-related research as an example.

“Noah has an NIH award, but KBRIN has helped co-fund his post-doctoral associate,” he said.

This dual funding helps faculty leverage their NIH support while also enabling the addition of a post-doctoral fellow to the team, a benefit that also aligns with KBRIN’s primary mission.

Diane Lickenbrock, Ph.D. (center), a KBRIN funding recipient, with two of her students at a conference.

“Our goal is to enhance training in biomedical research for faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students throughout the state,” said Nigel Cooper, Ph.D., director of KBRIN, in a University of Louisville press release. “Since 2001, federal funding through the IDeA program has allowed us to work with other higher education institutions in Kentucky to build a network of resources and education.”

Many research teams include students, which means they also benefit from the KBRIN program in several ways.

“Some undergraduate or graduate students may be paid to work in a research lab that has been funded by KBRIN,” Williams said. “These students can be paid to work during the academic year and/or the summer, depending on the nature of the research. Since these students are paid to do the research, they can often spend more time in the laboratory than students who might have a part-time job that would compete with their availability.”

Williams said that students also benefit from working in what he called an “upgraded research laboratory, as KBRIN awards may allow for the purchase of new equipment, increased participation in collaborative research, interaction with KBRIN core facilities and more opportunities to travel to conferences.”

Now, with five more years of funding, the KBRIN network is poised to grow even more, an outcome that benefits more than the participating universities.

“KBRIN helps build our research infrastructure, which benefits the entire state,” Williams said.

Added Robert Keynton, Ph.D., interim executive vice president for research and innovation at the University of Louisville, “This project is an excellent example of the value of a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional program at building research infrastructure and capacity across the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”