Unsung Heroes of KU Research
Behind every successful award are teams of KU research development and administration staff who help investigators identify opportunities, prepare and submit complicated proposals under strict deadlines, and then help manage finances and compliance for funded projects. They are the unsung heroes of KU research, greasing the wheels of innovation and discovery.
In each issue of KU Discoveries, we shine a spotlight on a KU staff member deemed particularly outstanding by colleagues.
Research institute assistant director leads with diligence
Jena Gunter brings a calm, reassuring presence to her role as assistant director of KU's Institute for Policy & Social Research, where she has earned the trust of the entire staff.
“She is the glue that holds IPSR together,” said Donna Ginther, director of the institute and Dean's Professor of Eeconomics.
Gunter manages more than $11 million in funded research, oversees a staff of 14, interacts with other KU offices, manages daily operations and more. Outside of IPSR, she serves on KU Staff Senate and KU Research committees.
Gunter has an “encyclopedic knowledge” of IPSR’s activities and works tirelessly to find solutions, Ginther said.
Once, a researcher conducting fieldwork abroad needed help compensating research subjects but didn’t have access to electronic payments or other standard protocols. Gunter navigated the process, helping the researcher conduct the work, pay the research subjects and satisfy agency and institutional regulations.
Gunter is detail-oriented and understands the complex operations of IPSR — catching the smallest of mistakes while staying attuned to the big picture. Last year, Gunter took on the responsibility of conceiving and producing the first annual report of IPSR’s activities in 15 years.
“Jena loves her job,” Ginther said, “and everyone who works with her knows that."
Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender and sexuality studies, has worked with Gunter on many research projects. Britton said Gunter is an advocate for researchers' projects, ideas and teams. She thinks ahead to anticipate reporting and assessment needs in all steps of the research process.
“When budgets are tight and the work gets long and difficult, she works countless hours at night and on the weekends to make sure everyone has what they need to keep our research moving,” Britton said.
Research, facilities staff minimize building water damage from cold snap
This winter’s extreme cold weather tested several buildings across campus, damaging pipes and causing flooding in the Shankel Structural Biology Center and Dyche Hall.
But a group of research and facilities staff quickly discovered the compromised pipes — and their actions averted significant water damage to the research buildings.
Carla Ramirez, facilities manager, found a broken water pipe in Shankel Structural Biology Center and alerted facilities and emergency personnel. She checked the extent of the damage, notified others in the building and coordinated the clean-up effort.
“Her efforts minimized the damage that could have been done by this water pipe break,” said Erik Lundquist, associate vice chancellor for research. “Her care and hard work for SBC and its occupant researchers is remarkable.”
The SBC, in KU’s West District, houses the Specialized Chemistry Center.
In Dyche Hall, home of KU’s Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum, custodian James Kemerling discovered a frozen humidification line that caused flooding in the early morning hours on Feb. 16. Lori Schlenker, collections and facilities manager, and the staff of the exhibits team, including Greg Ornay and Laura Mohr, supervised the drying of water pools and helped assess damage.
Schlenker stayed late that night, photographing damage, writing reports and notifying offices across KU. Ornay assessed damage to exhibits and moved some specimens as needed. Ornay and Mohr also removed art from wet walls.
Together, the team worked to minimize damage on a day when campus was closed due to weather-related rolling blackouts.
Schlenker, Ornay and Mohr aren’t “emergency personnel,” said Jorge Soberón, director of the Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
“They all did this on their own time out of their commitment for the museum,” Soberón said. “We are extremely grateful to them.”
Coordinator's ‘meticulous’ work eases research grant process
Robin Hinman | Grant Coordinator | Eaton Hall Shared Service Center
Robin Hinman makes Perry Alexander’s job less stressful.
Hinman will track down a 5-cent budget mistake, drive to campus at the last minute, and locate hard-to-find contracts to support research awards for KU’s Information & Telecommunication Technology Center.
She works meticulously and is exactly the person Alexander wants handling grants.
“She will do just about anything necessary,” said Alexander, AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and ITTC director. “She always gets it done.”
Hinman is a grant coordinator in the Eaton Hall Shared Service Center, which supports ITTC, EECS and other engineering departments. She works in post-award grant administration, overseeing award portfolios, handling grant issues and communicating with the Office of Research.
She has worked at the University of Kansas since 1992, serving in roles at central offices and research centers before joining the Eaton Hall SSC.
Jennifer Holladay, Eaton Hall SSC research manager and Hinman’s supervisor, said Hinman’s wealth of experience helps make her so effective.
“I can see the trust she’s earned from years of building strong relationships and successfully managing ITTC’s sponsored awards,” Holladay said. “She is personally invested in her work.”
Hinman also reconciles student and staff appointments with research budgets — an intricate feat that involves locating student and staff contracts, finding sponsor budget requests and more.
“It’s almost impossible to track, and we’re not sure how she does it,” Alexander said.
Hinman focuses on the details — resolving grant issues, tracking overhead rates, handling fees and overseeing payroll — so the 42 researchers and staff at ITTC don't have to.
“All of us are able to spend more time on what we’re good at,” Alexander said. “She makes us all better.”
IT pro rescues research project with care, persistence
Leland Wilson | IT Support Technician Senior | KU Information Technology
Kathleen Lynne Lane’s research relies on massive datasets.
Through a system called the Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-Tiered Model of Prevention (Ci3T), Lane and her team help schools across the country support students’ multifaceted needs to optimize academic, behavioral and social performance. When a recent technology challenge threatened to negatively — and dramatically — impact the team’s research plans, heroic intervention was required.
And Leland Wilson answered the call with grace.
“Leland was not only available, but also patient, collaborative and solutions-based,” said Lane, Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor in the Department of Special Education and associate vice chancellor for research. “I am beyond thankful to have such talented professionals to work with at KU.”
As IT support technician senior in KU IT’s Workstation Support group, Wilson works on complex issues that are escalated from the Customer Service Center because they demand a high level of expertise. In Lane’s case, there was a challenge that resulted in data changing locations.
“There was so much data that it took Leland two days to recover her files and get them back in the place that they belonged,” said Aaron Carver, IT technology coordinator and Wilson’s supervisor. “He kept her calm and aware that she was not losing any of her information, just losing the time that it took restore it where it needed to be.”
The research community presents unique IT needs, including support for large datasets, data security and specialized equipment.
“Leland has a very wide knowledge base for the needs of the university as a whole,” Carver said. “And I can’t think of a case where he’s ever lost user data.”
Lane, for one, appreciates Wilson’s pristine record.
“I know these are indeed challenging times, but the highlight of challenging times is the opportunity to work with people who care deeply about the mission of the work and remain committed to finding solutions kindly. Leland Wilson exemplifies what it means to be a Jayhawk.”
Negotiating research agreements, relationships with grace
Laura Irick | Contract Officer | Office of Research
Laura Irick is not easily intimidated.
As an Office of Research contract officer, she’s part of a small team that reviews more than 1,000 documents a year, ensuring compliance with university, agency, state and federal regulations and policies; obtaining authorized signatures for agreements; and issuing subaward agreements. It’s a complex task, and no project ever looks exactly the same.
But Irick tackles those challenges with curiosity, creativity, care and charm. This year she successfully negotiated an agreement with a pharmaceutical company to obtain thousands of chemical compounds for a KU researcher at no cost to the university.
“Her perseverance to resolve the complexity of the language in the agreement and find a middle ground for a win-win deal between KU and the company was exceptional,” a colleague said.
Negotiating contracts is both a science and an art. Irick is “extremely diligent in researching laws, rules and regulations pertinent to research at the state and federal level.” At the same time, she employs nuance, personability and expert timing to achieve successful outcomes.
“She recently completed a very long negotiation with an industry partner. She persisted for almost nine months,” a colleague reported. “When it went dormant on the industry side, she kept it on the table and knew when to prod. Personality-wise, that requires acuity in reading an exchange.”
That power of perception extends to Irick’s interpersonal relationships with coworkers, who describe her as an empathetic, approachable, helpful team player. When KU Research staff dispersed this spring to work remotely, Irick sensed the need for connection and composed a song to “make people smile and lift spirits.” She sang and played ukulele in the recording, which celebrates the work that goes into supporting the KU research community. As one peer noted, “She never forgets to give credit to a colleague who deserves it.”
Sustaining KU research momentum with creativity, initiative and thoughtfulness
Carolyn Caine | Research Development & Administrative Specialist | IPSR
Imagine KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research as a well-balanced bicycle wheel. If scholars from a range of disciplines are the spokes that help propel the wheel beyond the boundaries of current knowledge, then Carolyn Caine is among the staff at the wheel’s hub – bringing researchers together and facilitating connections that sustain momentum.
“As a collaborator, Carrie is well-informed, generous and creative,” a colleague said. “Above all, she has a passion for learning and is committed to stepping up and providing what a group needs to succeed in a thoughtful way, even when that means she learns a new skill in order to do it.”
As the research development and administrative specialist for IPSR – a research center for social scientists who focus on social problems and policy-relevant questions – Caine handles a range of detail-oriented responsibilities, often under tight deadlines, while never losing sight of the big picture.
“Her flexibility, positive attitude, initiative, team focus and ability to relate well to whomever she’s working with make her a great asset to the center,” a co-worker said.
And to the entire university. When a multi-institution proposal for a million-dollar National Science Foundation grant led by KU was reviewed as highly favorable, Caine worked with the project team to quickly clarify items so the NSF program officer could make a final decision. Despite her hustle, the project was not funded, and the principal investigator was hesitant to resubmit the following year.
“I believe because of Carrie’s excellent work on the first round and the strong relationship she built with the PI and her team, the PI decided to resubmit and the project was ultimately funded for $1.4 million,” a co-worker recalled. “Since then, Carrie has helped secure additional funds for this project and remains in close contact with the PI.”
She also expanded IPSR’s public relations presence, created a marketing piece that communicates the IPSR story to the center’s affiliated faculty, and played a major role in producing the first IPSR annual report in 15 years.
Caine’s reliable excellence and good humor make her “such an important part of research activity at KU,” colleagues said. “She is fun to be around while always getting the job done and exceeding expectations. We are lucky to have her.”
'Incredibly reliable' grant coordinator instrumental to success of countless KU researchers
Ashly LoBurgio Basgall | Grant Coordinator | Life Span Institute
Richard Yi described it as “the highest level of research support I’ve experienced in my entire 15 years of submitting extramural grants.”
That’s high praise, and it’s aimed at one person’s Herculean effort: Ashly LoBurgio Basgall.
As a grant coordinator at KU’s Life Span Institute, Basgall has been instrumental in nearly every grant Yi has submitted through the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research & Treatment in the past two years. But his most recent grant proposal — an $11.4 million project that would form the Center for Behavioral & Psychosocial Health — presented the most significant challenge yet.
“It ended up being 821 pages and included a large number of subcontracts and coordination across countless KU units,” said Yi, professor of psychology and director of the Cofrin Logan Center. “Ashly worked nights and weekends, and was as responsible as anyone for getting the application ready for submission.”
The team won’t know the outcome of the grant application for a few months, but Basgall’s colleagues aren’t surprised that she stepped up in such a big way.
“Ashly is incredibly focused but can still keep 10 to 15 proposals moving forward at the same time,” a co-worker said. “She is conscientious, responsible and incredibly reliable.”
If funded, the Center for Behavioral & Psychosocial Health would seek to become a multidisciplinary and translational research center at KU focused on developing new insights and disseminating knowledge on the role of interpersonal, familial, neighborhood, sociocultural and physical environments impacting health-relevant behaviors.
And Basgall, who has worked at the Life Span Institute for five years, will have been instrumental in its formation.
“The only people aware of Ashly’s extraordinary effort on this project are me and her colleagues in the Life Span Institute,” Yi said. “She deserves broader recognition.”
Getting by with a little help from our friends
KU research administration community
Across the University of Kansas, people are rising to new challenges every day as we navigate a world and workplace jarred by the 2019 novel coronavirus. The research administration community is no exception.
Staff powering every facet of research administration have been working tirelessly to support KU’s research mission during this unprecedented time:
- Beyond sustaining their normal level of service to KU researchers and scholars, they have become overnight experts on new policies and procedures and provided related guidance to their customers.
- They have kept deadline-sensitive projects on track in the midst of moving their workstations home with little advance notice.
- They have carried computer equipment for colleagues and offered peer tutorials on telework resources like Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
- They have checked in on one another to keep morale high – even organizing virtual social events where teams can see each other’s remote work setups, meet pets and children, and bond over new, shared realities.
- Building managers have left no stone unturned to ensure everyone has the resources they need to work remotely, and custodial crews have shown incredible care in adding extra cleaning practices to optimize community health and safety.
So rather than single out one individual as the Unsung Hero for March 2020 – which feels, to many, like the longest month in recorded history – we want to acknowledge the entire research administration community. Thank you for supporting one another and this university while quickly adapting to change.
Tackling research administration with a 'bring it on' attitude
Jennifer Myers | Associate Director, Finance & Planning | Life Span Institute
In the fluctuating landscape of research administration, Jennifer Myers keeps KU’s Life Span Institute on its toes.
“Jen always approaches change with a ‘bring it on’ attitude,” a co-worker said. “She is the ultimate problem solver.”
As associate director of finance and planning, Myers manages LSI’s budget and finances, supervises grant managers and addresses any fiscal issues that arise.
“Jen is the subject matter expert on all things finance,” a colleague said. “If she does not know an answer offhand, she always knows where to look or who to consult.”
Myers brings a team approach to her work at LSI, making staff and faculty feel welcome and supported. One investigator recalled a time when Myers, still fairly new to her role, assembled an entire system within a few days to support a $24.5 million grant project. She was not funded for this work, but she completed it for the betterment of LSI.
“She manages way too much for one human being and does so with grace and humility,” the investigator said.
Other colleagues echoed that sentiment, noting that Myers nurtures a collaborative environment and handles pressure with humor and kindness.
“Jen is very approachable. Anyone is welcome to come to her with a question or just needing a second set of eyes,” a co-worker said. “She has a great sense of humor, which carries her through the ups and downs of research administration.”
'Indispensable' grant coordinator helps KU researchers shine
Beth Benfield | Grant Coordinator Senior | Strong Hall Shared Service Center
Maggie Witek’s Ph.D. in analytical chemistry serves her well as an associate research professor in the Soper Research Group at KU, where she develops micro- and nano-scale lab-on-a-chip devices for biomedical applications.
But she occasionally feels clueless about Excel spreadsheets containing project budgets.
That’s why Beth Benfield is her hero. Benfield, grant coordinator senior in the Strong Hall Shared Service Center, expertly monitors accounts and approves spending on complex sponsored projects so that Witek and other investigators in the Department of Chemistry can focus on their research.
“Beth has a huge amount of patience for us as PIs,” Witek said. “She comes to our building every month, holds our hands and explains whether we’re in the red or in the black and how to fix that. She cleans up all the messes we make, and she does it with a smile.”
Benfield’s long history at the University of Kansas enhances her effectiveness, according to colleagues. She worked in the chemistry department for 18 years before moving to the SSC in December 2013 when KU centralized transaction-based activities.
“A lot of weird questions come up when someone has a grant and you’re trying to make sure they follow all the rules,” a co-worker said. “Because she has a lot of experience and connections at KU, Beth is able to see the big picture and put together pieces that make things easier for people.”
Benfield is also a conscientious educator who understands when to get closely involved with teaching new skills and trouble-shooting problems, and when to take a step back because someone is confidently moving forward with a project. That’s true for researchers, the two staff members that she supervises, and other colleagues.
“She is excellent at checking in with people and giving them the time and attention they need,” a co-worker said.
Witek agreed: “Beth is absolutely indispensable for us.”
Development officer catalyzes KU research funding success
Nancy Myers | Research Development Officer | IPSR
Ward Lyles cannot imagine having applied for and received the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty without the support of Nancy Myers.
“Her expertise, skills, encouragement and full array of talents and personality were invaluable every step of the way,” said Lyles, an associate professor of urban planning who won a five-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER award in 2018. “From the outset, she gave generously of her time and insights to help me craft the proposal.”
Multiply that sentiment over the 800-plus proposals that Myers has coordinated or supervised as grant development officer at the Institute for Policy & Social Research, and the magnitude of her positive impact on the University of Kansas research community starts to become clear.
During 19 years at IPSR, Myers has helped grow the center’s client base from fewer than 10 to more than 150 affiliates in a wide range of disciplines, including business, law, education, journalism and the social sciences. She and her team have helped secure over $40 million in grants and contract funding for KU investigators exploring social problems and policy-relevant questions.
What drives those impressive quantitative results, according to colleagues, is Myers’ qualitative excellence.
“Nancy brings excitement and energy to the workplace, which is undoubtedly a factor in her success and the success of faculty she supports,” a co-worker said. “In a job with tight deadlines and a need for the highest quality work that requires deep collaboration with diverse faculty, she and her team have achieved what is hardest to achieve: calm, high-level performance.”
Lyles noted that Myers’ professionalism and commitment elevate KU’s reputation beyond campus borders: “Colleagues from other institutions – some with much bigger research infrastructures – have made a point of telling me how impressive IPSR, and Nancy, are.”
'Go-to' manager leads gracefully under pressure
Joanne Eden | Grant Officer | Post-Award | KU Office of Research
Knowledgeable. Respectful. Helpful. Consistent.
The words Joanne Eden’s colleagues use to describe her read like a hiring manager’s wish list. As a veteran grant officer in the Office of Research Post-Award unit, Eden has been around the University of Kansas long enough (31 years) to recall the origin and evolution of projects and practices.
“She’s just a bank full of knowledge,” said a co-worker. “She remembers details from 10 or 15 years ago. And she truly believes in not just giving you the answer, but also giving you the history to help you connect the dots.”
As the Grant Management Team lead, Eden supervises 10 employees who manage more than 2,600 awards from a diverse range of sponsors. No two awards are exactly alike, and Eden guides her staff through the nuance of budget allocations, cost transfers, revenue balancing, financial reporting and more with a steady hand. Appreciation for her expertise extends beyond the Office of Research.
“She has a great reputation with the different funding agencies,” a colleague said. “She also counsels many of the faculty and program officers on campus. When she has an opportunity to meet with them, it’s always positive.”
Through it all, Eden models calmness, kindness and positivity. She brings flowers to brighten the office at least once a week, and she stocks the freezer with treats. “She understands the stress of the job,” one team member said. “Any time we’re having a hard day, we know we can indulge in an ice cream cone to soothe the beast.”