Education

University of Iowa professor generates millions by taking a semester off

'These kinds of assignments really give people a chance to make big changes'

The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa is seen in 2014 in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
The Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa is seen in 2014 in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

Iowa’s public universities want regents to let 134 faculty members next year take paid leaves of absence to home in on research, scholarship or other professional activities meant to better their university, state or even world — among the highest annual request totals in a decade.

That 134 — just one fewer than last year, which was the highest total since 2011 — includes 14 from the University of Northern Iowa, 48 from Iowa State University and 72 from the University of Iowa, marking the most UI requests since it sought “professional development” leave for 82 faculty in 2010.

And while the 111 professional development assignments approved for the 2019 budget year cost the schools $557,069 — according to a newly released regents report — they generated nearly $21 million in grants, with more than $70 million in applications pending. That, according to the Board of Regents, is more than 37 times the initial investment and could produce a return 125 times the cost.

That strong 2019 return beat the 2018 return — which topped $4.7 million in grants, with more than $42 million pending, according to last year’s regents report.

Next year’s professional development assignments, which can last for one or two semesters, are expected to cost a net $400,938 — with salary savings factored in.

On top of the money, faculty members say time away from their regular duties gives them space to make significant and consequential progress on scholarly work meant to treat disease, cure social ills and make change. Those who took 2019 assignments engaged in research, wrote books and articles, composed art, developed course material, and worked in industry in a range of areas from mathematics, social work and creative writing to medicine and neurophysiology — as was the case with UI associate professor Ryan Lalumiere’s work.

Having spent nearly a decade at Iowa studying the psychological and brain sciences, Lalumiere in spring 2019 took his first semester-long professional development assignment to — among other things — push forward his research on what happens in the brain when heroin and cocaine users relapse.

Q: What did you plan to do with your assignment?

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A: Things kind of shifted … Originally I planned to work on learning more about how to perform electrophysiology, which is a way of recording neurons’ activity in the brain. I was going to learn, really, the nuts and bolts of how to do that and do it well.

But what happened is I ended up spending a lot of time on writing new grants to fund the lab, and I was quite productive in doing that.

Q: How productive?

A: Across the semester, I submitted three major grants where I was the principal investigator … and then I also served as a co-investigator on a colleague’s major grant to (the National Institutes of Health.) In total, four grants were submitted.

And we actually did some more studies to help support those grants, including new data that we put in those grants.

Q: Tell me more about the research these grants will support.

A: A major focus of our laboratory is looking at heroin-seeking behavior and cocaine-seeking behavior, which we use as models of relapse. In drug addiction, the big problem is relapse to drug use, and so our laboratory is trying to tackle the neurobiology of that phenomenon — trying to understand what happens in the brain that does this.

What we’re really interested in is, what are the mechanisms that enable the inhibition — the stopping or suppression of that behavior. And so we we’re working in the lab at looking more at some of those neurocircuits, in part to go with these grant submissions to get additional funding.

Q: How much are you going for?

A: We just received one at the end of September, and that one was $2.14 million over five years.

“The other ones were worth about $2.5 million each over five years. There were two of those, and the one I did with a colleague was worth over $3 million over five years.

Q: Those others are pending?

A: That’s how much they would be worth if they get funded. These decisions take a long time.

Q: Is your research especially important right now with the country in an opioid crisis?

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A: Absolutely. But we always need to remember that even though right now we may be having serious opioid issues, there has been opioid addiction long before it hit the headlines. And so, the fact is, that drug addiction — whether it’s opioids or other drugs of abuse — is always having a significant impact on this country and communities and families.

Q: Does this university investment — on professional development assignments — have an impact on helping the larger community, country or world?

A: Across the board these kinds of assignments really give people a chance to make big changes or big advances in whatever they’re doing, and that absolutely has an impact, not just on the university, not just in the local community, but the world at large.

I hope that the research we produce with this really does have that kind of impact — a larger impact.

Q: How does this affect faculty morale?

A: The kind of time that the (professional development assignment) award affords faculty is critical for giving them a chance to rejuvenate their intellectual juices if you will … it’s what keeps them going.

You need that set aside time every now and then to be able to do this kind of work. To really keep their research or scholarship at the top of their class.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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