Crowdfunding: It’s not a grant … or is it?

University research is almost exclusively funded on a “grants” model. In this model, the principle investigator (PI) sends a proposal to somewhere like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. These large funding bodies review proposals a few times a year using a peer-review process, and a small (very small!) percentage of the proposals will be granted funding. The funding body sends the money directly to the University, which takes a cut to cover “indirect” costs like facility and equipment maintenance, library access, and other things that are necessary for research but not attributable to any one specific research project. The University then puts the remainder of the money into a fund that the PI can draw from to pay personnel and buy supplies. The funding body wants to know that the research dollars are being used appropriately. Having a specific fund for each project allows the University and the PI to keep track of how the money is spent and, presumably, show that it was spent well.

In contrast, the “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” project, which officially started research this week, is a crowdfunded project. Crowdfunding currently lacks the accountability of the traditional grants system. The PI posts a proposal on-line using a crowdfunding platform that takes care of accepting money from funders and paying the PI  (the SciFund project I participated in used RocketHub). And then … nothing happens. When my research was funded, RocketHub took its cut, sent me a check, and said “congratulations”. They will not be checking up on me to make sure that I sent my funders their thank-you gifts. They will not be asking for  a progress report. If I spend the money on a vacation instead of lab supplies, they wouldn’t know and probably couldn’t do much about it even if they did.

What keeps me firmly in the Pacific Northwest, rather than Bermuda, isn’t RocketHub. Rather, it’s the contract I’ve made with the people who contributed through the RocketHub site: Take this money; make this project happen; honor your obligations with your thank-you gifts and by keeping us updated as the research progresses. If you do, we might fund another of your projects in the future. We might tell our friends and family that you’re worth supporting. If you don’t, you are losing some serious street cred. Some of us know you. Some of us are related to you. Don’t let us down.

This internal monologue, while extremely effective for me at least, does not fit into the University funding system. So, here’s what happened to the crowdfunding money: Rockethub sent me a check. I gave the money to the University. The University very kindly did NOT take a cut (no indirect costs were removed for the “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” project), and they set up a fund for me to use the money. It’s a little more complicated than paying for everything myself, especially when it comes to transportation costs. However, it means that my paid undergraduate and my two volunteers are covered for liabilities. It also means that I am setting up crowdfunding at this institution as a funding mechanism that will have accountability. I think that’s probably a good thing.

Don’t forget to feed and water your undergraduate

Back when I was a graduate student, and mentoring my very first undergraduate researcher, my advisor had this advice:

“Don’t forget to feed and water your undergraduate!”

It was meant as a humorous reminder that our role as research mentors is to help students develop the skills of a scientist. Our undergraduate students come to us, like seedlings, ready to absorb knowledge and grow into scientists with bench skills and critical thinking abilities. But it is up to us to provide assistance in learning the techniques, as well as guidance in developing the ways in which experiments are planned and results are analyzed.

Since that time, I have mentored many undergraduates both in labs and in classrooms. It is so rewarding to watch them develop as thinkers and scientists. I am very excited to have potentially three undergraduates working with me on various aspects of the Athlete’s Foot in Worms project this summer. I will do my best to remember to feed and water them.

Space, the first frontier

It’s the middle of spring quarter here, which means midterms, blossoming cherry trees, and … planning for the “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” summer research. Exciting! My first task was to figure out where the research could be done. Since we’re working with pathogens, we can’t just pitch our pipettes at any old spare counter. We need microbiology facilities with specific characteristics.

Initially I was planning to “borrow” a lab bench from a fellow faculty member. This was a very kind offer on her part, and the facilities in her lab were ideal. However, once it was determined that it might be more than just me and one student (more on that in future posts!) I thought it might be nice to have more space. The research labs here are not huge, and I didn’t want to be an imposition on my colleague.

Fortunately, I was given permission to use the microbiology teaching lab space, which is larger and also has all the facilities that I need. So, what are those facilities? At a very basic level, most microbiologists just can’t live without their bunsen burners, which hook up to gas outlets. Having gas outlets installed is therefore an important part of designing a teaching or research lab. Bunsen burners help to keep our solutions and experiments sterile in two ways: they provide a heat source that can be used to sterilize by dry heat (stick something in the flame to sterilize it), and the flame itself creates an up-draft, preventing dust in the air from falling into your solutions while you are working.

Another thing, which is more specific to working with pathogens, is a biological safety cabinet. The basic idea with these is that an airflow is created in which air is taken into the cabinet and up through a filter at the top before being released. Dust particles will not fall into your experiment but rather will be pulled up into the filter. Similarly, if your experiment contains, say, mold that could become airborne, then any airborne particles will be safely removed and caught in the filter rather than circulating in the room. Because dermatophytes are molds, it is safest to work with them in a biological safety cabinet.

Finally, it’s important to have a place where your microorganisms can grow, called an incubator. The temperature of the incubator should mimic the natural environment of the microbe. For example, human intestinal bacteria would be grown at body temperature, which is 37C. Dermatophytes grow best at about 30C, which is about the temperature of skin.

A Foot in the Door for Dermatophyte Research

My review article is now available on-line at the PLoS Pathogens website:

A Foot in the Door for Dermatophyte Research

This was a really fun article to write because the PLoS Pearls format encourages scientists to write about big questions in their field, but to target the articles to a non-specialized audience. It’s great to have a chance to step back from specific research details and think about things like “why do so many people get athlete’s foot more than once”? I like knowing that people who are experiencing a dermatophyte infection, or who just have a general interest in pathogenic fungi (and who doesn’t!?), will be able to read and understand my article.

My co-author, Dr. Ted White, was my post-doctoral research mentor while I was at Seattle BioMed. I’m really glad we’re still collaborating!

A Quick Update

Things have been quite hectic here with the middle of the quarter approaching (already? how did that happen!) and some family things going on. However, I do have two pieces of good news to share with you:

First, I am pleased to report that my review article has officially been accepted! I’ll post a link as soon as it’s on-line.

The other news is that the dermatophyte thank-you postcards have arrived from the printer. They look great, and I’ll be sending them out this week.

Another Paper Submitted

This weekend my co-author and I sent in the final submission of our “PLoS Pearls” review article. The review is about dermatophyte virulence, and the “pearls” format encourages authors to focus on the essential questions in the field and to engage the non-specialist. I enjoy this type of writing, because I like sharing my work with a general audience. When I speak informally with friends about what I do, I often find that people have a personal connection to dermatophytes – either a friend or a family member that they know has had an experience with athlete’s foot, ringworm, or some other dermatophyte infection.  I’m not surprised, since dermatophytes are predicted to infect up to 20% of the population! People in high-risk groups, such as runners and professional dancers, often impress me with their knowledge of dermatophytes. It is a nice reminder that research, even at a “basic” level, is connected to people’s everyday experiences, hobbies, and professions. So, I am excited to have a review “in the works” that will be accessible to anyone with an interest in these fungi.

I am also particularly fond of the PLoS journals as a whole because they are open access. Articles are published on-line and are free to everyone. Major universities often have library systems that purchase access to nearly all the journals researchers would need. The rest of us – scientists at smaller universities, less funded institutions, or non-scientists interested in learning more about a subject – can find it difficult to get access to articles. The university that I work at currently has limited library access to microbiology journals. They can purchase individual articles, but it takes time and often I am working right up to the deadline and do not wish to wait.

Open-access journals have been a huge help, and I credit the PLoS journals for being one of the first high-quality open-access journals. Their success provided a model for others to follow suit, and I for one hope that the trend of open-access journals continues. I believe that we all benefit when knowledge is available to everyone.

The Artist Behind the Worm

Several people have told me how much they like the logo for my “Athlete’s Foot in Worms?” project. There’s something adorable and captivating about the worm in a shoe and the horrified expression it wears. The image was done by artist Katy Hargrove. My husband met her when they both worked at the game company ArenaNet, and we immediately thought of her when I needed an image for my research project. If you like her work, I encourage you to check out her website. I recently had a chance to communicate with Katy about her work:

When did you start drawing, and how did you become involved in game art?
I’ve been drawing since I was very young, three or so. As I got a bit older I really fell in love with animation and thought for the longest time I’d get into that. My interest in games came later from Earthworm Jim. It was a game that connected high quality 2D animation and a bizarre sense of humor to videogames that I hadn’t thought about before. I got very very excited about making video games after that!

What are some of your favorite things to draw?
I’ve always been big into zoology and mythology. I really enjoy drawing animals and then combining them into new things by blending structures together. There is endless fun taking abstract shapes and applying real anatomy to it. Dragons always end up being a favorite because they are so versatile and can have very elaborate, quickly changing textures.

What do you find the most challenging to draw?
I tend to not enjoy drawing buildings very much. It’s not that they are more difficult than other things, as I simply have a hard time finding the energy in a structure. I like twisting deliberate motions, which animals have lots of, and picking up on that motion helps me draw with fun energy. Buildings are much more subtle creations than animals.

Have you ever been involved in crowdfunding before?
No, though I really love the idea. Seems like a great opportunity to drum up funds for important projects that might go without otherwise.

What are some of the similarities that you see between art and science?
Art incorporates a lot of science into it. I think a good artist has a taste for understanding how things work. The way that light functions, how chemicals react, psychology, math, really anything physical and emotional in the world are important to understand. The deeper this understanding, the more armed an artist is to make a work that other people can respond to emotionally. You can’t do that very well without knowing how the properties you are trying to replicate function.

You can find Katy selling sketchbooks and prints at conventions like Sakuracon and Emerald City Comicon, or you can visit her virtually at her website:
http://tangrala.blogspot.com/