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December 01, 2015

Pump Primer awards help researchers build their case for grants

Three years ago, University biologist Michael Welte and his collaborators published a paper identifying histones, bound to lipid droplets, as a previously unrecognized cellular defense mechanism against bacterial infection in Drosophila fruit flies. The paper was greeted enthusiastically.

When Welte, professor of biology, and collaborator Steven Gross of UC Irvine followed that up with grant applications to both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to pursue the novel concept, several of the reviewers were enthusiastic as well. And yet, as happens often in the current funding environment, the agencies declined to commit any money, wanting even more preliminary data first.

Hence the importance of the Pump Primer II award Welte recently received from Arts, Sciences & Engineering. It will pay the stipend of Sean Lindley, a graduate student in Welte’s laboratory, who will now be able to devote full time to generating additional data for another grant application next year.

In a recent memo, David Williams, dean of research for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, reminded faculty members of the increasingly competitive environment for extramural funding, which  “increases the need for proof of concept and/or pilot data in proposals and decreases funding of high-risk proposals.”

Pump Primer awards were created to help faculty develop that data in order to seek extramural funding for “bold new research directions.” Pump Primer II awards are typically $1,000 to $20,000 and, in rare instances, as much as $50,000.

The awards can make all the difference in keeping a promising line of research alive.

“Pump Primer is really good in a situation where we have an established lab, and we already have the equipment in place,” says David McCamant, associate professor of chemistry, another Pump Primer II recipient this year. His lab is exploring whether the vibrations of light-absorbing molecules combined with excitation of electrons in coupled molecules, help explain how chlorophyll harnesses sunlight so efficiently.

The award he received will support a graduate student for eight months—“after which we should have some preliminary data and a better understanding how to design experiments. Those together would go into an application for a federal grant that might support two grad students for three years. It’s really the seed money to get this going.”

The Pump Primer II award received in 2014 by Chunlei Guo, professor of optics, helped his lab evaluate the suitability of developing a superwicking surface for a high-efficiency evaporative cooling system. He subsequently received a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Administration to pursue the project further. 

“Pump Primer II is a great program that enabled us to obtain some preliminary data and increased our competitiveness in obtaining the grant,” Guo says.

Welte’s project is a good example of the “bold new research directions” that the Pump Primer awards support. “If we can understand the molecular mechanism of how fruit flies regulate histones as a defense mechanism against bacteria,” Welte says, “it will be possible to look in humans to see if histones have this same effect. In the long term, we might identify a similar pathway in humans and find ways to boost it to increase protection against infections.”

Guidelines for the award are available at

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