College of Engineering sees nearly 30% growth in research awards

Faculty growth and investment help drive engineering research funding through three quarters

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Through the first three quarters of the 2019-20 fiscal year, research awards received by the Penn State College of Engineering faculty totaled nearly $96 million, an all-time high relative to the same period in prior years and a $20 million increase compared to the first three quarters of 2018-19.

From July 2019 through March 2020, College of Engineering faculty logged 446 individual research awards. Of the awards led by engineering faculty, 13 totaled more than $1 million. The largest was nearly $7 million in support of work in the Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies, housed in the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (LTI), which is part of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“As a college, we are strategically focused on continuing to grow our research enterprise,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering. “That growth starts with hiring top faculty and providing the resources they need to succeed. During this recruiting cycle, we have added more than 30 tenure-line faculty to the college and over the past three years we have added more than 100. Our growth in faculty reflects the strong support that we receive from the University, as well as the partnerships we have with many research institutes across Penn State.”

Among the research funding highlights this fiscal year include considerable growth in awards from the Department of Energy, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This year, 11 engineering faculty members were recognized as part of the NSF’s prestigious Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, more than the two previous years combined.

"Research success starts with hiring great people,” said Chris Rahn, associate dean for innovation and J. Lee Everett Professor in mechanical engineering. “The departmental leaders within the college do an excellent job of deciding which areas to hire in, recruiting outstanding candidates and attracting them to Penn State. We have hired world-class faculty at all levels in recent years.”

According to Rahn, the college provides a strong support system to help faculty members succeed once they arrive at Penn State. The college has provided more than $2 million in seed grants in recent years that allow faculty to establish new collaborations across the University and generate preliminary research data. 

“These seed grants make faculty much more competitive for externally funded grants,” Rahn said. “You need to have a mutually supportive and positive climate in the college to facilitate interdisciplinary and collaborative research. We asked faculty to self-report proposal submissions that resulted from a seed grant proposal and found that for every dollar we spent on seed grants, we received more than three dollars in external funding. Clearly, our seed grants are making our faculty more successful in winning external grants.”

According to George Lesieutre, associate dean for research and graduate programs and professor of aerospace engineering, the college has established numerous programs to help faculty succeed. Initiatives like new faculty orientation, NSF CAREER proposal workshops and departmental faculty mentoring programs have provided support for faculty seeking funding. 

“While we continue to improve, the College of Engineering and its departments do a good job of orienting new faculty members to the responsibilities of their positions and providing the support and infrastructure needed to help them succeed,” Lesieutre said. “Our extremely supportive Office of Engineering Research Administration has developed resources and tools to help faculty members find research opportunities and make it easier to submit proposals and to manage them once awarded.” 

Lesieutre added that the college’s efforts are designed to encourage senior faculty to focus on research that impacts society and provide inspiration for new faculty members to do the same. 

“We have also encouraged senior faculty members to take more imaginative risks in an effort to expand their impact on important societal problems,” Lesieutre said. “We have made corresponding cost-sharing investments in collaborative strategic initiatives. This has paid off, as these faculty members have notably higher average award sizes, and they are setting an example of service leadership in research for their younger colleagues.” 

The recent increase in collaborative activities within College of Engineering’s centers has also created a space for faculty members to work together and encouraged many to take on leadership roles. The Center for Biodevices, which was established this year, is just one example of a collaborative unit that aims at initiating and supporting research across multiple disciplines. 

“We have established a number of new centers that highlight our expertise in specific areas and encourage research collaborations,” Rahn said. “This rise in research awards is a sign that our strategy of hiring excellent people, establishing a collaborative culture, and supporting faculty members throughout their careers is paying off.”

According to Rahn, as a result of this increase in research awards, the college will see benefits that affect many people within the Penn State engineering community.

“Everyone benefits from increased research funding, including undergraduate students who learn about recent breakthroughs in their fields from research-active faculty members and graduate students who are financially supported through their advanced degrees,” he said.


Last Updated June 23, 2020