Collaboration, Persistence, Savvy, and Upkeep: How Pitt Grows Our Resources

Instrumentation grants strengthen Pitt Research community

Immunology staff member Nevil Abraham operating the chip cytometer. The United Flow Core's new advanced ZellScanner Chip Cytometer, an imaging platform manufactured by Canopy Biosciences®, bought with funds from an NIH S10 grant. 

As seen in the January 2022 Pitt Research Newsletter

Copernicus theorized that the sun was the center of the universe, unlike what people of his time believed. Almost 70 years later Galileo proved that the sun is the center of the universe. What made the difference between theory and proof? Galileo had a telescope.

"The rate of scientific  discovery is determined by the power of your tools -- you can't prove what is out of reach," explains Rob A. Rutenbar, Pitt senior vice chancellor for research. "Picture the leap in discovery that happened going from Earth telescopes to the Hubble in orbit. A greater leap will come with the new Webb telescope a million miles out in space."

Pitt's research community has an impressive record of increasing the power of their tools by securing grants for scientific instruments from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Recent grants for instrumentation enhanced researchers' access to cellular analysis and AI computing, technologies that are invaluable to the entire university, benefiting researchers far beyond the PIs with names on grants. But applying for grants is a complex process for which Pitt Research provides vital support.

Lisa Borghesi is a professor of Immunology and director of the Unified Flow Core, which provides  imaging and analysis resources. She was recently the PI on a successful NIH grant to buy an advanced imaging platform called a ZellScanner chip cytometer, manufactured by Canopy Biosciences®. As Borghesi pointed out in her grant application, there was not one of these instruments at Pitt or within 100 miles of Pitt.

"This new instrument means new capabilities. It is a cellular imaging method that gives information on a cell's positionality -- where is the cell and who are its neighbors -- and highly complex information by being able to drill down using multiple markers on individual cells. The unique feature in this machine is software that allows that kind of drill-down with the ability to export files for cross analysis.  And it is non-destructive -- you can continue to reanalyze the same tissue sample on which you've identified the markers."

Borghesi and her collaborators began thinking about the application six months before its June deadline.

"We think about what gaps there are in our capabilities," explained Borghesi. "What can best serve the community across the university. In the application, we must show a unique need."

Borghesi says that Pitt Research provides a new level of organization to the structure for instrumentation grants.

"Pitt Research plays a vital role in making sure that groups aren't competing for the same instrument," she says. "We combine the teams with the immunology community plus the infectious disease community and others."

The collaboration principle also applies to NSF grants. A multi-disciplinary team of Pitt researchers recently landed a $1.2 million NSF grant for computing resources (internal Pitt funding pushed the entire award to $1.5 million). The Center for Research Computing (CRC) will acquire an unprecedented volume of graphics processing units (GPU) – a computing technology widely used in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Twice as fast as the previous generation of GPUs – and up to 50 times faster than chips used in standard computing -- the new shared resources give researchers across the university new capabilities in speed, power, and scope.

Chemistry associate professor Geoffrey Hutchison led the application with a cross-disciplinary team of researchers in mechanical engineering, materials science, and computational and systems biology. More than 30 existing research groups across the university will benefit from the new resources, with over $18 million in NSF grants in fields including chemistry, computational biology, materials science, psychology, astrophysics, weather forecasting, energy, and sustainability.

“This is not a grant to one researcher or one project but an investment in research itself. We don’t know how wide the impact will be over the life of the technology,” said Hutchison.

"This opens the ceiling for innovation," says CRC co-director Kim Wong. "It empowers the unbounded creativity of our research community."

The team needed persistence to win the grant after being turned down in 2020. Talking to a grant officer about improving the proposal, they realized that they had overlooked an important NSF priority - outreach. Among other changes, the revised application highlighted CRC's workshops on advanced computing presented online to students and faculty ranging from Howard University to Pitt regional campuses. In 2021, they re-applied and won.

Mike Holland, vice chancellor for science policy and research strategies, has spent a lot of time thinking about what research resources the government will fund. Earlier in his career, he spent 13 years overseeing federal research and development programs at the U.S. Department of Energy.

"There are very different pitches for different agencies. The NIH has a clear, easily explained mission -- find cures for disease. The NSF's mission is to increase knowledge -- which means there is almost nothing touching science and engineering the NSF isn't interested in. Say you are investing in an advanced MRI scanner. You pitch the NSF as a tool essential for a fundamental understanding of human cognition. To the NIH, you pitch the scanner as a tool for studying disease. It's one investment with two different pitches."

Holland says Pitt Research does two important things to help researchers win grants. "We can help tie schools together to coordinate investment and make investments that span the campus for the greatest number of faculty. The old paradigm of individual schools, departments and labs building their own resources sometimes needs an assist."

"The other thing Pitt Research can do is help researchers pursue grants from the point of view of what the  government wants to accomplish. We can help make the case for a grant knowing how the funding agency is balancing the investments in their portfolio among many different priorities."

One crucial aspect of instrumentation grants is maintenance and documenting usage. Applications need to document the resources available to maintain the instruments, including staff resources. Agencies also require documentation of the work done using the instrument.

Simon Watkins, professor of Immunology and director of the Center for Biologic Imaging (CBI), is Pitt's champion of NIH S10 instrumentation grants. Director of the nation's biggest center for microscopy, he  has been the PI on 25 successful grants, the first in 1993.

He takes pride in the longevity of the CBI's instruments.

"The fear of the NIH is that the grant winners don't maintain the instruments. We have a very skilled staff, and we describe our staff's training and details of the maintenance resources as part of the application."

That care pays off in longevity. Watkins calculates that one microscope in the center has contributed to six to seven hundred academic papers over a lifespan that began around the turn of the millennium. Averaged over the life of the instrument against its purchase price, that equals a bargain price of only $200 per paper.

"It's a 21-year-old microscope that is still used 1,200 hours a year. That microscope is old enough to drink," Watson declares.