Federal stimulus grant for $1.46 million is USF's biggest yet

TAMPA — Thanks to a $1.46 million grant, the University of South Florida will boost research into ways to help people struggling with both mental illness and substance abuse.

The two-year award, announced last week, will allow USF to hire three new assistant professors, jump-start and support their research and plug them into a high-tech network of other researchers. It could yield new ways to help keep those at-risk, including veterans and women who have suffered physical or sexual trauma, out of prison.

"There's quite a large population" with the double problem of mental illness and addiction, and there's "not enough information about how to work effectively with them," said professor Roger Peters, chairman of the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy in USF's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

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The grant, from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, also is the single largest federal stimulus grant the university has received yet, and it boosts a growing portfolio of research at USF.

The university has aggressively sought stimulus funding, filing 204 applications for grants allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Most of those applications, 158, went to the National Institutes of Health. Others went to the departments of commerce, education, energy, justice, health and human services, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and National Science Foundation. In all, USF is seeking $183 million in stimulus grant funds.

With universities nationwide swamping the government with requests, USF doesn't expect to win them all. So far, however, it has won 38 grants for a total of about $9.5 million in stimulus funds. Of the dozen applications it sent to the National Science Foundation, nine have been funded.

"We're on a real positive trajectory of success, and I don't see it slowing down," said Karen Holbrook, USF's vice president for research and innovation.

USF administrators said last week they can't say yet how many jobs stand to be retained or created through the grants.

That's because even after USF receives the notice of award, professors and administrators have additional work to do before they can submit the federal government's required reports on job creation and retention, said Diego Vazquez, the university's interim associate vice president for research. Those reports could be submitted later this week, he said.

While welcome, the stimulus money is a fraction of the $380.4 million in research contracts and grants awarded to USF last year. That's $20 million more than the year before, and is the latest increase in a steady growth of research money. From 2000 to 2007, no university in the country increased its research funding as fast as USF, according to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The growth is welcome because more research money draws stronger faculty members, who, in turn, attract better students.

"The whole university rises with the success of the research program," said Holbrook, who previously built up the research portfolios at the University of Florida and Ohio State University, where she served as president from 2002 to 2007.

While USF's signature research programs focus on diabetes, neurosciences and sustainable communities, administrators are working to foster research and innovation throughout the campus.

This semester, administrators welcomed more than 100 members into the new USF Academy of Inventors. Those inductees have a wide range of patents on everything from devices that help keep track people with dementia to ocean sensors used in marine science to medical imaging technology.

One academy member, renowned Alzheimer's disease researcher Huntington Potter, holds 15 patents. Most are in medical research, but one is for a suitcase handle that lets travelers tilt their bag so it doesn't bump the ground while going up stairs.

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At the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, USF aims to use the money from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to hire three assistant professors by January. Although the grant lasts for two years, the university has committed to continuing to pay for the positions, which will be full-time and tenure-earning, after the grant expires, professor Roger Peters said.

The exact focus of each new professor's research will depend on the expertise and interests of each, Peters said. But all will help develop the USF Center on Co-Occurring Disorders, Justice and Multidisciplinary Research.

A co-occurring disorder is one in which someone suffers from a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia along with a substance abuse problem. Having such a disorder puts inmates at greater risk for rearrest, especially during the first 90 days after their release, as well as for problems with work and family, and relapse to drug or alcohol abuse.

Over the past two decades, USF has helped the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Corrections develop treatment programs for inmates. Its new initiative will build on that start, and look at doing research that can be applied by the criminal justice system for use with inmates who have the dual disorders.

"There's a great need for better identification and coordination and then placement and services before they're released," Peters said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Federal stimulus grant for $1.46 million is USF's biggest yet 10/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2009 12:20am]

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