Neuroscience fund helps faculty secure national grants

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Undergraduate and graduate students work together in psychology professor Robert Mair’s neurobiology lab in Conant Hall.

It’s one of the conundrums of academic research: To get large, national research grants, faculty members need compelling pilot data that bear out their research premises. But those data can be hard to generate without some initial funding to support the experiments underpinning the research.

In 2011, Peggy ’72 and Bob Cole established an endowed fund at UNH aimed specifically at addressing this issue. Each year, the Cole Interdisciplinary Faculty Research Fund for Neuroscience provides seed funding for faculty members conducting research in UNH’s neuroscience and behavior program, a joint initiative of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) and the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA).

One of the university’s first — and most innovative — endowed funds developed specifically to support faculty, the Cole endowment has provided a boost to eight faculty members studying scientific questions that range from the role the spinal cord plays in pain and opioid analgesia to the interplay between brain development and social behavior in bees.

UNH's Robert Mair
Robert Mair

Last year, longtime psychology professor Robert Mair received a $387,000, three-year National Institutes of Health R15 AREA grant to further his research on the neurobiology of spatial memory in rats, thanks in part to the Cole endowment, which provided materials and supplies for his pilot study.

“The Coles’ support is really the shot in the arm that lets us do experiments that lead to bigger grants,” says Mair, whose earlier research on the roles of different thalamic-related systems in remembering has contributed to work on human brain disorders including Korsakoff’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Noting that several of his colleagues have had similar success using Cole seed funding to expand their work, Mair adds, “It’s allowed us to do some state-of-the-art research that might not have been funded otherwise.”

Spurred by the success of the research their endowment has supported, the Coles increased the size of their gift in 2018. Going forward, the Cole Interdisciplinary Faculty Research Fund for Neuroscience will support two projects — one based in COLA and another in COLSA — every year.

Peggy and Bob Cole say they’re wowed by the range of ideas Cole-funded UNH neuroscientists are pursuing and excited to see the way those pursuits enhance the academic experience of the students they mentor and teach.

“We’d originally conceived of this as a student fund, but UNH helped us see that supporting faculty research elevates the educational experience for students working in these faculty members’ labs,” says Bob Cole.

Peggy Cole, who started in UNH’s occupational therapy program, returned to earn a degree in sociology after raising a family and says she would likely pursue neuroscience if she were a student today, concurs. “Support of faculty is critical,” she says. “We’ve seen it in our own grandchildren’s undergraduate experiences both at UNH and other universities, as well as in the work our gift is helping to fund."

Interested in making a difference at UNH? Find out how.