Big Proposal Bootcamp

Big Proposal Bootcamp is an 11-week program, kicking off each January and concluding in April, which introduces a small cohort of faculty to the skills to do large-scale, cross-disciplinary proposals and connect them to the diversity of resources of support that Pitt has to offer as they develop those proposals.

These large-scale projects are strategic investments that attract the attention of sponsors’ boards of trustees or oversight staff, in the case of a federal agency. They almost always involve institutions distributed across a region or the country.  They frequently involve corporate or non-profit partners. And, they increasingly require a wide diversity of disciplinary expertise to be successful.  As a result, big proposals are different.

Bootcamp includes guest speakers from across campus who offer research support services related to major elements of big proposals as well “deep dive” case studies with senior faculty who have led successful large-scale proposals. During the program, participants will have the opportunity to develop the outlines of a big proposal, and the series will conclude with a “pitch” competition. The winning pitch will be rewarded with a small prize they can invest in developing their project. The prize amount is less than a PMF Priming award. 

View the list of the 2024 Big Proposal Bootcamp participants >>

Bootcamp Topics:  The agenda will continue to evolve with every cohort, but sessions have covered topics such as:

Strategic Context for Big Proposals

As already noted, large-scale projects are strategic investments for the sponsor.  Not only do the attract heightened attention, they shift the center of gravity of a program manager’s or a program’s portfolio while increasing the portfolio’s risk.  Bootcamp provides insight into how research agencies’ portfolios are evaluated.

Team building and team management

Dynamics of team-based research has become an area of scholarly interest.  Bootcamp covers what this new literature tells us about the effectiveness of research teams and consultative collaborative management models.

Broader impacts and broadening participation

Topics include STEM education & informal science education, research-practice partnerships, and evaluation plans.  Topics also include engaging and retaining underrepresented minority collaborators and trainees as well as building disciplinary or sectoral diversity.

Intellectual property & technology transfer

An intellectual property primer includes such topics as patents, trademarks, and copyright.  The primer on academic-based technology commercialization covers commercial and open source licensing, support for startup companies, and the university’s responsibilities under the Bayh-Dole Act.

Corporate and community partner ecosystem

Partnerships exist along a continuum of participation and decision making.  They also differ in who brings what to the table, but in all cases, there must be mutual benefit.  Building an ecosystem of partners is essential skillset for leading large, multi-sector research projects.  Leadership of Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers, Office of Industry and Economic Partnerships, and University Center for International Studies will discuss the services they offer to support faculty as they build those ecosystems.

Working with foundations

Donors and philanthropies vary dramatically in size, grant making processes, and their relationship to Pitt.  Topics include donor motivation, building relationships with program officers, alignment with foundation strategy and goals, and resources available through Pitt’s Office of Philanthropy & Alumni Engagement.

Budget & finance

Topics include budgeting, costing, reporting, and multi-institutional subaward issues.

Working with proposal development professionals

Topics include managing the proposal as a project, proposal coaching, “color teaming,” (i.e., external reviews during proposal development), and reverse site visit coaching.

The review process

Big proposals are different than individual investigator or small group proposals.  The technical heart of proposals in that make it to the final round are all equally brilliant; the non-technical factors – team cohesion, quality of the partner ecosystems, knowledge transfer strategies, credibility in broadening participation, etc. – take on greater weight as sponsors decide who makes the cut.
Case studies

Past case studies have included SVC Rob Rutenbar’s Center for Circuit & Systems Solutions (C2S2), Prof. Bill Wagner’s NSF Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials developed with colleagues at NC A&T University, and Prof. Julia Lane’s Administrative Data Research Facility spun out of NYU as the Coleridge Initiative.


Bootcamp Logistics: 

Meeting times

In order to secure a weekly time that works for the majority of participants, we survey nominees for their recurring weekly spring commitments (teaching schedule, faculty or research group meetings, etc.) and do our best to find a time that accommodates as many schedules in each cohort as we can.  Inevitably, some schedules conflicts are unresolvable. We always offer those faculty with unresolvable conflicts a chance to participate in a subsequent cohort. 

We also know that conflicts arise during the semester, so we record our sessions (Zoom when virtual, Panopto when live) and make those recordings available to cohort participants to catch up.  So that speakers feel free to be as forthcoming as possible, we do not distribute those recordings further.

Nomination process

In early November, SVC Rob Rutenbar requests nominations from Deans and the Directors of UCIS, LRDC, and UCSUR of faculty who (i.) the Deans or Directors think are ready for a next step in the scale of their research activities and (ii.) who they know are now thinking about either doing something big or want to be part of bigger team efforts going forward.   If you are a faculty member interested in participating in Big Proposal Bootcamp, please let your Dean, Director, or Associate Dean for Research know of your interest.  Michael Holland, Vice Chancellor for Science Policy & Research Strategies (, does keep track of faculty whom he knows are interested, and we include their names as a courtesy in SVC Rutenbar’s November nomination request for their Dean’s or Director’s consideration.


Success stories: A partial list of Bootcamp success stories includes:

Melissa Bilec

Melissa BilecMelissa Bilec (2019 bootcamp), a member of Eric Beckman’s $400,000 Pitt Momentum Funds Scaling Award team, led a coordinated set of 5 NSF Growing Convergence Research proposals that have been awarded $1.3 million to date with the potential to reach $3.6 million. Her $1.6 million award, Convergence Around the Circular Economy, is linked to one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas, and Melissa is in the first round of those GCR awards.  Melissa is an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Co-Director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

Kevin Binning

Kevin BinningKevin Binning (2021 bootcamp) leveraged a $60,000 Pitt Momentum Funds Teaming Award into two federal awards.  Kevin is the PI on a $2 million project, Developing a Context-Integrated Mindset / Belonging Intervention to Eliminate Demographic-based Underperformance in Challenging Large Lecture Undergraduate Courses, from the Institute for Education Sciences to expand and scale up his Momentum Fund team’s Ecological Belonging intervention across large lecture courses at Pitt.  Kevin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and a Research Scientist in the Learning Research & Development Center

 Linda DeAngelo

 Linda DeAngeloLinda DeAngelo (2021 bootcamp), Kevin’s Pitt Momentum Funds co-investigator, is PI on an aligned $2.4 million NSF award, Collaborative Research: Course-based Adaptations of an Ecological Belonging Intervention to Transform Engineering Representation at Scale to apply the intervention at Purdue and UC Irvine engineering schools and add a faculty development component for cultural sensitivity in teaching URM students.  Linda DeAngelo is an associate professor of higher education in the Administrative and Policy Studies Department and Center for Urban Education faculty fellow.

Michele Reid-Vazquez

Michele Reid-VazquezMichele Reid-Vazquez (2021 bootcamp) leveraged her 2020 $60,000 Pitt Momentum Funds Teaming Award into a $175,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Institute for Higher Education Faculty grant for “Transnational Dialogues in Afro-Latin American and Afro-Latinx Studies.” Michele Reid-Vazquez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and a Global Studies Center Fellow.

Cori Richards-Zawacki

Cori ZawackiCori Richards-Zawacki (2020 Bootcamp) led a team of researchers from Pitt, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Berkeley, University of Nevada Reno, University of Alabama, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Vanderbilt that won a 5-year, $12.5 million NSF Biology Integration Institute, Uncovering mechanisms of amphibian resilience to global change from molecules to landscapes, in 2021. OSVCR provided support, including proposal development coaching by McAllister & Quinn, red team reviews, and reverse site visit coaching, for Cori’s 2020 proposal and her 2021 revision and resubmission.  Cori participated in the 2020 Big Proposal Bootcamp, won her cohort’s pitch day competition prize. She had previously won a 2020 Central Research Development (CRDF) award (the precursor program to the PMF).