Finding Funding in Vermont
Huey and I traveled from New Hampshire to Vermont. Our drive wove through scenic small towns and stretches of unbroken trees, which were starting to become tinted with fall colors. Instead of driving on I-89, part of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, we drove on the older U.S. Route 2, which mirrors 89 in places but takes detours through towns and allows for driving at slower speeds. We arrived on the shore of Lake Champlain in Burlington, VT.
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Huey surveys Lake Champlain.
We had some trouble connecting with federal offices in the area. I tried to set up a visit to the White River Junction VA Medical Center. The Public Affairs Office phone number listed on their website seemed to be disconnected. I tried calling in through the main number, and when I asked to be transferred to the Public Affairs Office, the friendly operator asked “What trouble are you trying to stir up?” I left a message but never heard back.
I also tried to set up a visit to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Human Resources Operations Center in South Burlington, VT. Calls went unanswered and unreturned, and I could not find an email address to contact. We even tried to reach out via Twitter, although the media account for the office did not accept direct messages. Huey and I drove by the facility, but we were deterred by the many ‘No Trespassing’ signs and the gate.
Huey plays police dog near the airport instead.
I admit that I was a bit frustrated by these failures. The goal of this column is to shine a positive light on the hard work of civil servants, not to stir up any trouble. I was able to find publically available information for people looking for help with the services provided by the respective agencies. Alas, I decided to put my energy into other pursuits, as my ear was growing tired of listening to extensive phone directories with no results.
Luckily, although the VA and CIS are the two largest civilian federal employers in the state, federal influence and funding reach far beyond the confines of these two agencies. My strikeouts at those agencies offered me the opportunity to explore an aspect of federal government influence that I had not yet looked into: federal funding of non-government projects.
Through a fortuitous meeting with a PhD student studying chemistry at the University of Vermont, I arranged to speak with Severin Schneebeli, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry. He explained the basics of his research and provided an outside-of government perspective on the federal grant process.
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UVM's Discovery Hall, photo courtesy of the University of Vermont.
Schneebeli’s research group focuses on creating synthetic polymers with possible medical applications. The goal of his work is to create new materials with specific properties. For example, a new synthetic polymer might bind exclusively to a given biomolecule, meaning it could be used to test the levels of a given hormone in an at-home test (like the currently available glucose tests for diabetics.) I also learned from Schneebeli that synthetic polymers could also be useful in improving diagnostic tests for cancer molecules. These potential uses represent the outcomes made possible by the federal funding Schneebeli receives.
Schneebeli has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Army Research Office, and the USDA. He was recently awarded a prestigious CAREER grant from the NSF. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program “offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF website.
Schneebeli described sleepless nights preparing his grant proposals, time he believed was well spent because of the helpful and fair review each proposal receives. Schneebeli himself has been on a panel to review NSF grant proposals, and explained that the panel deeply reviewed and discussed each proposal. Additionally, NSF panels provide detailed feedback on unsuccessful proposals, meaning that even those who do not receive funding still get something valuable out of the process.
Severin Schneebeli, photo courtesy of the University of Vermont.
I learned at the University of Vermont that the federal government directly contributes to the innovative work taking place in their chemistry department, as well as scientific inquiry across the country. Despite our early struggles, Huey and I enjoyed Vermont’s autumnal charms. We left prepared to talk to federal employees in person in Massachusetts. Stay tuned!
Posted in The Federal Fifty