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Home U Rising The goal is $1 billion in research funding. Erin Rothwell explains how the University of Utah will get there—and why that matters for Utah


Erin Rothwell officially assumed the post of vice president for research at the University of Utah in April. She has already set in motion several initiatives aimed at helping U researchers land big, multidisciplinary grants so they can pursue groundbreaking research. In this episode of U Rising, Rothwell shares what she sees as the path to reaching $1 billion in research funding and highlights some of the projects aimed at improving lives in Utah and beyond.

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Julie Kiefer: Welcome to U Rising. I'm Julie Kiefer, associate director of science communications at University of Utah Health and host of this episode. On this podcast, we share stories about impactful research taking place at the University of Utah and my guest today, Erin Rothwell, is at the epicenter of all that work.

Erin is the vice president for research at the University of Utah. She was appointed to the position by President Taylor Randall in April after serving in the position on an interim basis since January 2022. Prior to that, Erin helped lead the U'S grant support efforts, research education expansion and environmental health and safety offices as associate vice president for research.

In sum, she has and continues to fill a pivotal role in our research enterprise. And as a researcher herself, Erin focuses on the ethical, social and legal implications of genetic and technological advancements on individuals and their families. Welcome to U Rising, Erin!

Erin Rothwell: Well, thank you for having me, Julie.

Julie Kiefer: So, recently your office, the Office of the Vice President for Research, announced that the U has achieved a new milestone of $768 million in research funding, which is phenomenal. Now, I know this is more than just about a dollar amount, so can you explain what that number represents?

Erin Rothwell: Well, yes. $768 million in research funding is very impressive and it's a testament to all of our researchers across this campus. To get to a number like that you have to submit, I think, over $2.5 billion in proposals because it is very difficult to get grants and oftentimes it takes multiple submissions in order to get it.

Erin Rothwell is the vice president for research at the University of Utah.

So when I see that number, I kind of look beyond that number into what it really took to get there. And that's all our wonderful researchers in this community identifying a problem, being passionate about it and pursuing it. And so, we've grown for the last 10 years and that is just a testament to the institution, too, as we become more of a world leader.

Julie Kiefer: And so where does this funding come from?

Erin Rothwell: Most of it comes from federal sources, about 64%, and that primarily comes from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. The rest of the funding comes from associations, foundations, local and state government, as well as industry funding.

Julie Kiefer: So, when you think about that dollar amount, what does it represent? What are some of the colleges, institutes or programs that really stand out to you?

Erin Rothwell: Obviously, the health sciences has been the backbone of our research enterprise, but we saw a lot of growth in other areas as well as the health sciences. Architecture had over a 200% growth in research funding as well as social work.

The Center for Cardiovascular Translational Research, they also had a huge growth as well as HCI, which is the Huntsman Cancer Institute. But within the School of Medicine, which is our biggest hitter, you really see the two biggest hitters are pediatrics and internal medicine, which make up almost 40% of the funding. But dermatology, OBGYN, ophthalmology and visual sciences also had huge growth years. This growth is, you know, it's consistent with our previous growth, but we're also seeing new growth in other areas, which I think is a testament to the influence of President Randall and his vision to hit $1 billion in research funding.

Julie Kiefer: Yeah, I love hearing about the different areas that you mentioned because they were so varied, going from architecture to pediatrics, I mean, how different is one from the other? Can you share a few of the big research project behind the numbers? Is there a concentration or focus area?

Erin Rothwell: Well, that's a great question, Julie. With over 3,000 different unique awards, 1,125 unique principal investigators getting awards, it's really hard to identify those. But just looking at our largest contributors, the FORGE grant by Joe Moore, over $50 million, and that grant is really focused on advancing geothermal energy and we're actually international leader in that, not just national. And so that's been one of our strongest and most amazing programs in terms of the sciences.

But Chad McDonald in social work with the Division of Child and Family Health Services, they get contracts from the state to help further develop the workforce for our state. And also just a couple other ones—Alana Welm from Huntsman Cancer Institute, she is just this phenomenal breast cancer researcher. You also have Torri Metz who just got this new NIH Center of Excellence grant to address substance abuse during pregnancy. And then, of course, Wes Sundquist, who's one of the international leaders in HIV research. So, it's hard to identify what are the most exciting, everything's exciting, but it's impressive to see just the breadth and diversity of our research.

Julie Kiefer: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you talked a little bit about workforce development. That's just one way that the U is contributing to our state as a major economic engine. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How can we understand the impact of the U’s research funding on Utah's economy?

Erin Rothwell: That is a great question. I think one of the things we're trying to do is improve our messaging. With $768 million in research awards, that's resulting in almost over 10,000 individuals who are employed from indirect and direct funding sources from research. We have over $126 million in research-related expenses across the country, as well as almost $30 million within the state. And this is not even including the direct and indirect labor income and taxes. So, when you think about the University of Utah and the economic relationship to the state, I mean, we are a big driver.

Julie Kiefer: Spin out companies, too, right? I mean, there must be a lot of really innovative technology that's coming out that's spinning off companies that are doing good things.

Erin Rothwell: Yeah, it's amazing. And it's interesting that you asked that question. So, we're actually revamping our technology transfer program to maximize and bring out more of those companies so we should have a podcast on that on itself. So we're splitting our tech transfer office into two units, one that will solely focus on spin-out companies and commercialization. That's going to be led by Jim Hotaling, who's our newest associate vice president for research. And then Bruce Hunter is really going to focus on improving our administrative structure for supporting those types of disclosures and really focusing on customer service. We're such a big enterprise now, we need to specialize in how we're providing service to our researchers.

Julie Kiefer: Yeah, and that's one of the big changes under your leadership. Another are these new hubs, these hubs for research, and the two newest ones are the One U Data Hub and the One U Energy Hub. So can you talk a little bit about those? What is a hub and what need are you trying to fill here?

Erin Rothwell: That's a great question. So, when I was the interim, one of the most, I think, common complaints I heard is that we're siloed on this campus. And so we wanted to create a mechanism that wasn't tied to any type of return on funding, but really focused on community-building around, I would say, federal priorities, state needs, that really was trying to bring societal impact. And so we launched the One U Data Science Hub because if you think about data science, that's at the core and foundation of a lot of our research. Research computing infrastructure is critical to growth, and that has been just a phenomenal success, a great partnership between the health sciences and main campus. And, in fact, I don't even want to separate anything more between health sciences and main campus. I think we're a One U research community, and that's the same with the Energy Hub.

The Energy Hub, which is technically called the Energy Futures Engine Hub, that's a mouthful. It's not so much about writing grant proposals, it's about community building and also working with the state. Right now, we are close to submitting a $400 million grant for Solar for All to help support the Office of Energy Development.

So these hubs are designed not only to create communities around important issues, but they're also to help work more directly with the state. We just launched the STEM Education Hub under Nancy Songer and we have 12 working groups who are in line to try to become a hub. It's been a humbling but rewarding experience and Jake Jensen is leading that effort and he's doing a phenomenal job.

Julie Kiefer: That sounds really exciting. I mean, when you think about these hubs or maybe beyond these hubs, is there a particular project that really gets you excited that you want to talk about?

Erin Rothwell: Actually, we created the LIFT Office, which is the Large Infrastructure Funding Team, and that is to better support large interdisciplinary research teams going for bigger types of grants that have greater societal impact. And one of the projects we supported last year was Masood Parvania, and he just got a NSF climate award, and it's actually a US-Canada partnership looking at the entire Western interconnectivity of our grid and how do we secure and better support energy so we don't have blackouts or we don't create wildfires.

It has just been such an exciting project because that really is a critical need not only for the state of Utah, but for the Western United States. And so that's one of the most exciting projects that's come out.

And, of course, I mentioned Torri Metz, but the leading cause of maternal death during pregnancy is substance abuse, and that's a $14 million project in partnership with clinical partners as well as state partners to address that huge need.

So I know we started off with $768 million and myself as an NIH-funded investigator, no one's writing these grants just to bring in dollars. I mean, it is so much work. It consumes so much of your time. That's what really excites me about this is the passion that our researchers have to try to solve problems and improve the life and well-being of all Utahns.

Julie Kiefer: Yeah, no, I love hearing how the expertise here can be so important, not only in this state, but even in the region. And if you're talking about things like substance use in pregnancy, I mean, that has national implications, too, right? So great, great work.

So, Erin, there's so much research going on here, and a lot of it is having real world impact on our own community. Can you talk about some of that work?

Erin Rothwell: Yeah, Julie, that's a great question. I think I'm going to talk about it in generalities. I think sometimes people think, oh, research, it stays up within the institution, within the walls of the University of Utah. But that's absolutely not why we're doing research.

When you think about the challenges we have around energy, the creation of new renewable energies, we are working hard to advance geothermal technology so that we can sustain the growing population here in the state of Utah. Then you think about maternal morbidity, mortality, right? We're developing interventions that are actually implemented within communities and clinics to prevent those types of, I would say, incidents.

And then I also think about, it's not just about interventions, it's also about studying the contextual factors that our citizens in the state of Utah live in, right? Like Andrea Wallace is studying the social determinants of health. So, taking into consideration access to food, transportation, feeling safe in a home and how does that relate to discharging someone at the hospital? Are we releasing them back into an environment? Can we create a process where we're setting up services so that they do have transportation and set up access to basic services that can address quality of life, but also the health and well-being? I can go on a couple more if you would like. Those are just some off the top of my head.

Julie Kiefer: Well, and air quality is a big one that is on a lot of people's minds, climate change.

Erin Rothwell: Climate change and air quality. We have this amazing program where we have sensors around the valley and as, let's say, potential pollution increases, we're able to monitor how is that affecting children with asthma? How does that affect inpatient outpatient emissions? There's such a wide breadth and diversity of research that is directly related to improving the health and well-being of our communities.

Julie Kiefer: I think one of the exciting things is that undergraduate students have the opportunity to tap into some of this, and I know that's a big priority here at the U. So can you talk about that a little bit? Why does that matter?

Erin Rothwell: Well, first of all, I think we have an amazing undergraduate researcher program. Annie Fukushima is doing a phenomenal job. When you send your kids to the University of Utah, it's an R1 institution. And so if you're really going to have, I think, a high-quality student experience, the integration with research allows our undergraduate students to have a real world experience studying something or innovating something or creating something that could have direct impact on their future. And so my kids who are teenagers, I've told them, you don't have to go to the University of Utah just because mom’s there, but you have to go to an R1 institution because those types of research experiences, the data's quite clear. You're more likely to graduate, you're more likely to also go to graduate school and if you go to graduate school, you're more likely to graduate. So, it's creating a passion and a drive that is so unique to research.

Julie Kiefer: And by R1, what we're talking about is a Tier 1 research institution. So that's sort of the top of the top of the research institutions in the country.

Erin Rothwell: And we are part of the Association of American Universities, which you have to be an R1 institution. You have to have so much activity and research funding, which tends to be measured in dollar amounts. And so because research is so impactful and when you hit a certain level, your impact is national.

Julie Kiefer: And so these opportunities for undergraduates, the work that's going on here, the research that's going on here, is kind of at the beginning stages in some ways, and part of that's because of President Randall's lofty goals. So what is that goal and how are we going to get there?

Erin Rothwell: Yes, President Randall is quite visionary, but I think he is forcing us to see us for who we really are. I think the University of Utah, sometimes the state of Utah, is not as recognized as it should be. I have a little slogan in our office, “Keep expecting the unexpected” because we are reaching new heights in research. So, when President Randall announced at his inauguration a goal of $1 billion in research, I mean, we're going to hit that if we just keep growing. It's just such an amazing momentum we have. But I really think the goal should be even bigger than that. I think we should be trying to go for $1.5 billion in research, and because we haven't done as well as we could with large interdisciplinary center grants, where a lot of our success has been individual grants, going for NSF or NIH.

But once we form these larger teams, like with the Maternal Health Center in Excellence and Maternal health and this NSF climate award, you really have to pull together a lot of stakeholders. So how do we support our researchers to go for those larger grants? We have the expertise. And so that is something that I think the LIFT Office, the large infrastructure funding team, was designed to do. So if that is, and it's going quite well, right? We're submitting a $400 million EPA grant, Solar for All, but with that type of infrastructure, I do think hitting $1.5 billion is realistic.

Julie Kiefer: That's exciting. Beyond that goal, I mean, where do you see the U being in five years? What would you think that's going to look like?

Erin Rothwell: Well, in five years, Julie, I think we will be fulfilling the vision that President Randall laid out, right? 40,000 students, over a $1 billion in research growth, and then touching the lives of every Utahn. So, I'm excited to be part of this team and help us to reach those goals.

Julie Kiefer: So Erin, I have a question for you. You started as a researcher and now you're a top research administrator. Did you ever expect that you'd go that direction and what do you love about this job?

Erin Rothwell: You know what? No. I actually got my Ph.D. in Parks, Recreation and Tourism. I really wanted to run a college student development program or a campus recreation program. When I attended undergraduate college, getting involved and being part of those student development programs, it really helped me to stay focused. And I left not only with a degree, but I thought as a better person.

So when I came to the University of Utah for my Ph.D., that was my goal and really focusing on teaching and potentially college student administration. And then I just fell in love with research. It was challenging. I loved writing grants and figuring out the best way to position why this proposal should be funded, why this question is an interesting question. And, of course, that led to a postdoc in the College of Nursing under Kathi Mooney. And I also ended up getting a position with the Department of Health helping evaluate their tobacco sensation program.

And that just changed the entire direction. It was basically a postdoctoral research experience. And from there, I went to the Medical College of Wisconsin and I completed a bioethics fellowship. Again, I love questions that don't have one answer, right? So when you think about genomics and the interface potentially with reproductive health, like newborn screening or prenatal screening or even genetic embryo testing, asking those ethical, legal and social implications, I loved it.

And then from there, because of ethics, I got involved in the IRB conflict of interest and was lucky enough to be mentored by Jeff Botkin and became associate vice president of integrity and compliance. And then Andy Weyrich was the previous vice president of research and he was an incredible mentor and moved me over to help improve the grant pipeline as the associate vice president research. And when I got the opportunity to be interim, I said, I never thought I would have that opportunity.

So I treated it as, alright, this is my interview. The interview lasted a year and a half, but I said, this is who I'd be if I was chosen for the VPR, this is what you would expect out of me. So the most exciting satisfaction I find with this job is the strategic development and also creating infrastructure that better supports researchers who are passionate. Sometimes I didn't have that in my career. And so finding ways to help people just focus on the science so they can get a stronger grant in versus dealing with all the other administrative work, right, that's very exciting.

Julie Kiefer: That's great. Well, we look forward to seeing what's next from you and your office and the research enterprise at the University of Utah. Erin, thank you so much for being my guest on U Rising.

Erin Rothwell: Thank you, Julie.

Julie Kiefer: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is Robert Nelson.

I'm Julie Kiefer. Thanks for listening.