Over the past decade, Indiana University School of Medicine doubled its NIH funding. How? A blend of investment, smart recruitment, and thoughtful mentoring.

Keeping The Momentum

NIH grant funding to IU School of Medicine has exploded in the last 10 years. How did it happen?

THE BIG NUMBERS are impressive—and seemingly simple to understand.

Ten years ago, IU School of Medicine’s annual research funding from the National Institutes of Health stood at $97 million. A decade later, that number stood at nearly $215 million.

What’s more complicated to grasp are the factors that brought about the explosive growth in research grants for the school that came as federal research spending plateaued and competition has grown fierce. Some key elements were at work.

When Dean Hess arrived in 2013, he set the priority for the school’s own investments in areas where it could be a national leader, such as research on Alzheimer’s disease and specific types of cancer, like multiple myeloma and breast cancer.

The school put money into core research facilities, such as biobanks, data science and gene sequencing tools. Enhancing these capabilities, school leaders say, is an essential aspect of recruiting scientists who may be drawn to a campus with better research tools.

Along with those tools—and robust philanthropic support—the school was able to attract even more talented researchers, many of whom have proven to be a fabulous return on the investments.

Over a decade, it came together to pay off in a huge way—with research grant totals more than doubling.

“You do everything you can to lower barriers and advise and support people because research is difficult,” said Hess. “When the culture is right, everyone in the organization sees some role in education and research and feels ‘that’s part of my job too.”

A portion of the gains were secured from scientists recruited from elsewhere, with the help of $2 million endowed chairs to support their work. A few examples include:

  • Liana Apostolova, MD, was recruited from UCLA in 2015 to become the Barbara and Peer Baekgaard Professor in Alzheimer’s Disease Research. She has subsequently received more than $78 million in NIH funding.
  • Bruce Lamb, PhD, came from Case Western Reserve University in 2016 to become the Roberts Family Professor of Alzheimer's Disease Research. He has received more than $149 million in grants.

Both were named a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University.

At the same time, the school became quite intentional in helping early and mid-career researchers grow their research portfolios and land their first grant. The School of Medicine started the Independent Investigator Incubator (I³) program, which pairs early career scientists—mostly assistant professors trying to get their first major external grant—with faculty who are passionate about mentoring and have a track record of securing funding. The early career researcher meets regularly with their mentor to put together a development plan, get guidance on research, and feedback on their grant application. The I³ program has helped faculty build better cases for funding and coached them on things such as the subtle art of grant writing.

“It’s one thing to say you’re going to write a grant,” said, Matthew Allen, PhD, who is the program’s director. “Then you hit any number of roadblocks that are so common. This program helps early-career faculty hit benchmarks and overcome many of the challenges they face when working toward their first big grant.”

Since 2014, the majority of the 140 early-career faculty in I³ have been awarded one or more extramural grants. The program has brought in more than $100 million in federal funding. “The grant process can be very intimidating and overwhelming,” Allen said. “Having a committed mentor walk alongside them can make all the difference.”



Portrait of Jay Hess


We’re teaching people to do more than practice status quo medicine. For our researchers, it’s not about the grants. It’s about having an impact on people’s lives.

Jay Hess, MD, PHD, MHSA

Dean, Indiana University School of Medicine


In 2008, the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI) was established through funding by the NIH. The Indiana CTSI is a research partnership with Purdue, Notre Dame, and IU to provide infrastructure support for all investigators and build collaborations across the school and the state. These collaborations have also built key partnerships in industry that have helped develop new therapies. “Collaboration is part of the IU culture,” said Sharon Moe, MD, CTSI’s co-director and associate dean for clinical and translational research.

“That’s very different from the cutthroat environments on the East Coast and West Coast,” she said. “Our Hoosier hospitality is a real thing.”

For example, CTSI creates project development teams for researchers composed of faculty with diverse expertise to review their potential project. After that feedback, the researcher can turn to specific research cores for services, including 40 in Indianapolis, to get their project off the ground. The advice is as important as the small pilot funding, with a return on investment of $29 in external funding for every $1 dollar spent in the program.

“The important thing is we discuss with the person on the front end on what they need and direct them to one of our many programs,” Moe said.

Wade Clapp, MD, knows what it’s like to give a hand—and to need one.

Before he became a renowned researcher and head of a program with $23.4 million in grant funding, Clapp was a young scientist who needed help just to understand some of the basic terminology.

A fellow at Case Western Reserve University, he’d been told to bring a lab notebook, with its grid lines for computations and scale drawings. Instead, he showed up with one of those English composition books with the marble cover. Great for journaling. Less helpful in a lab. His mentor was not pleased. “He looked at me like I was a hayseed from Indiana and pretty much told me the same thing,” Clapp said.

Once he arrived at IU in 1991, Clapp found a more empathetic mentor, working on a project with Hal Broxmeyer, PhD. At meetings and informal chats, Clapp soaked up everything he could from Broxmeyer and others with more experience. And he saw how distinguished faculty operate. “You learn how to do deep and impactful science,” he said.

That culture of mentoring at the School of Medicine is manifested in different ways. Some faculty members are working with colleagues in their own departments—coaching them, helping with their presentations and troubleshooting proposals, making it possible for some investigators to land their first research grants—some multimillion dollar awards.

Apostolova helps other young researchers at IU and elsewhere as a researcher mentor. From there, she advises them on career growth and navigating the academic environment. Often, she finds, the exchange is two ways: “My mentees are sometimes my mentors, too,” she said. “There’s so much we learn and it’s not always unidirectional.”

For all the work that has gone into doubling the school’s NIH awards, the numbers have real world implications, particularly in recruiting faculty and students. “People look at where you fall,” said Tatiana Foroud, PhD, executive associate dean for research affairs.
“People want to be at a place known for its success. When you have great talent, it helps our ecosystem in Indiana.”

The research expansion has been broad based, with departments across the school increasing their NIH grant funding. Pediatrics moved from 13th to 6th in NIH funding among departments of pediatrics and Medical and Molecular Genetics is now ranked 6th as well. Obstetrics and Gynecology improved from 40th to 21st in NIH funding. All told, the school has been awarded more than 2,000 (R01) project grants in the last decade worth more than $795 million.

Ultimately, though, research—and research funding—is about discoveries that can make a difference in the lives of patients. As Hess said: “We’re teaching people to do more than practice status quo medicine. For our researchers, it’s not about the grants. It’s about having an impact on people’s lives.”

Matthew Harris contributed reporting to this story.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Bobby King

Bobby King is the director of development and alumni communications in the Office of Gift Development. Before joining the IU School of Medicine in 2018, Bobby was a reporter with The Indianapolis Star. Before that he was a reporter for newspapers in Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida.