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Posts tagged ‘Wasatch Plateau’

4 Funding Tips from an Experienced Grant Writer

Dr. Richard Gill developed an interest in ecology as a child while exploring the forests and seashores of Washington State. This attraction to wild places motivated Dr. Gill to study Conservation Biology as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University and to receive a PhD in Ecology from Colorado State University.

Dr. Richard Gill

Dr. Richard Gill, ecologist at BYU

His PhD research on plant-soil interactions in dryland ecosystems, supervised by Indy Burke, dovetailed well with his postdoctoral research on plant physiological ecology with Rob Jackson at Duke University. Dr. Gill returned home to Washington in his first faculty position at Washington State University. There he pursued research on global change ecology, studying the impacts of changes in atmospheric CO2, temperature, and drought. In 2008 he joined the faculty of Brigham Young University as an associate professor of biology. He teaches Conservation Biology courses and in the general and honors education curriculum.

Dr. Gill has been successful in obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Dept of Energy, and the U.S. Department of the Interior.  He also helped guide one of his graduate students in winning research instrumentation from the Grant Harris Fellowship, provided by METER.  We interviewed him about his thoughts on successful grant writing.  Here’s what he had to say:

  1. Understand the call: I think it’s important to understand what’s being asked of you and write to the call for proposals itself.  We all have ideas, and we think everybody should give us money for every idea that we have.  That’s part of being a scientist, but understanding the parameters and the purpose of the grant is crucial.  This is because the easiest way to eliminate proposals is to cull those that don’t address the call.  In this way, proposal readers go from a stack of 200 to a stack of 50, without having to get into the details of the research at all.  So my advice is to read the call for proposals, and make sure you actually address what they ask for and stick to the requirements for length and format.
  2. Be true to the vision: There is always some sort of vision tied to the call, so make sure you are true to that vision.  For example, let’s say it’s the Grant Harris Fellowship, which provides instrumentation for early career students to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.  Make sure you say, “Here’s what I’m already doing with the funding and instrumentation that we have in our lab.  There’s a key component missing, and I can only do it if you support me.”  Show a clear need, aligning your research with the purpose of the proposal, and you’ll have a strong case for funding.
  3. Make sure you edit: Many proposals don’t get funded because of poor writing.  Your great ideas can’t come forward if the reader is mired down in your verbiage.  Don’t send them your first draft.  Make sure you have somebody read it for clarity.
  4. Be clear and concise: When scientists are involved in a project, it is common to develop a sort of tunnel vision, a byproduct of having worked on the project for years and being familiar with all the details.  When you write a proposal you should remember that the person who is reading is going to be intelligent, but have no idea what you’ve been doing.  You should say, “Here’s what I’m going to study, why I’m going to study it, and how I’m going to test it.”  Be clear, specific, and declarative.

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Despite Drawbacks, Scientific Collaboration Pays Off

Though collaboration can fuel innovation and increase the relevance and complexity of the scientific questions we study, I’ve noticed it does have its ups and downs.  The highs and lows we’ve run into on our research projects may help others avoid some of the pitfalls we experienced as many diverse groups tried to learn how to work together.


Researchers discussing science at the Lytle Ranch Preserve, a remarkable desert laboratory located at the convergence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert biogeographical regions.

There can be bumps in the road when collaborating with companies who want to test their product. Being at the forefront of innovation means that untested sensors may require patience as you work out all the bugs together. But from my perspective, this is part of the fun.  If we are late adopters of technology, we wouldn’t get to have a say in creating the sensors that will best fit our projects as scientists.

Collaborating scientists can also sometimes run into problems in terms of the stress of setting up an experiment in the time frame that is best for everyone.  During our experiment on the Wasatch Plateau, we had six weeks to get together soil moisture and water potential sensors, but our new GS3 water content, temperature, and EC sensors had never been outside of the lab. In addition, we planned to use an NDVI sensor concept that came out of a workshop idea my father Gaylon had.  We’d made ONE, and it seemed to work, but that is a long way from the 20 we needed for a long-term experiment in a remote location at 3000 meters elevation. In the end, it all worked out, but not without several late nights and a bit of luck.  I remember students holding jackets over me to protect me from the rain as I raced to get the last sensor working.  Then we shut the laptop and ran down the hill, trying to beat a huge thunderstorm that started to pelt the area.


Desert-FMP Researchers at the Lytle Ranch Preserve

Other challenges of scientific collaboration present organizational hardships.  One of the interesting things about the interdisciplinary science in the Desert FMP project is the complexity of the logistics, and maybe that’s a reason why some people don’t do interdisciplinary projects.  We are finding in order to get good data on the effects of small mammals and plants you need to coordinate when you are sampling small mammals and when you’re sampling plants.  Communicating between four different labs is complicated.  Each of the rainout shelters we use cover an area of approximately 1.5 m2 .  That’s not a lot of space when we have two people interested in soil processes and two people interested in plants who all need to know what’s going on underneath the shelter.  Deciding who gets to take a destructive sample and who can only make measurements that don’t change the system is really hard.  The interesting part of the project where we’re making connections between processes has required a lot of coordination, collaboration, and forward-thinking.

In spite of the headaches, my colleague and I continue to think of ways we can help each other in our research.  Maybe we’re gluttons for punishment, but I think the benefits far outweigh the trouble we’ve had.  For instance, in the above-mentioned Desert FMP project we’ve been able to discover that small mammals are influential in rangeland fire recovery (read about it here).  We only discovered that piece of the puzzle because scientists from differing disciplines are working together.  In our Wasatch Plateau project, my scientist colleague said it was extremely helpful for him to be working with an instrumentation expert who could help him with setup and technical issues.  Also, we’ve been able to secure some significant grants in our Cook Farm Project (you can read about it in an upcoming post) and answer some important questions that wouldn’t have occurred to either one of us, if we hadn’t been working together.  In addition, solving problems that have cropped up in our projects has spurred us on to a new idea for analyzing enormous streams of data in near-real time.  (read about it here).

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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Spectral Reflectance and Water Content in the Wasatch Plateau Experiment

We chose to collaborate with Brigham Young University in an experiment on the Wasatch Plateau in 2009 because a scientist friend of ours had been working in that area the previous five years, and he noticed there were big grazing responses.  The plants growing in the long-term grazed areas were all drought tolerant, while ungrazed plots had plants that were often found only in wetter areas.  The only difference was the fence that kept sheep on one side and not on the other.   The big question was: how does water influence plants in this ecosystem that we understand relatively well? The story had always been the influence of grazers, when in fact, maybe the indirect consequence of grazing was mediated by water.


The Wasatch Plateau above Ephraim Canyon, UT, USA.

METER donated some sensors in order to set up an experiment where we changed the amount of water in various plots of land. We had rain exclusion plots, and we had treatments where we collected all incoming rainfall and reapplied it either once a week or every three weeks.   This allowed us to say to what extent this system was controlled by water during the growing season.  To do this, we took measurements with our prototype NDVI Spectral Reflectance Sensor to measure canopy greenness. We also used our prototype volumetric water content sensors to measure soil moisture (this was a few years ago and the sensors were prototypes at the time).  Using these sensors, we found that water is critical in a system people have dismissed as being climate-controlled because it’s at the top of a mountain.


A very early prototype of a NDVI sensor measuring canopy greenness in experimental plots on the Wasatch Plateau.

It turns out the amount and timing of precipitation makes a big difference.  We were able to directly connect plant survival, not just to the grazing treatment, but to the actual amount of water that was in the soil. Also, using continuous NDVI data, we were able to look closely at the role of grazing on plant canopies.  When we looked at our NDVI data, we were able to see a seasonal signal, not just a single snapshot sample in time.  So by having the richer data from the data loggers, we obtained a more nuanced understanding of the impact of land use on these important ecological processes.

One of the mistakes we made was failure to include redundancy in the system.  We only had two replicates, so when one of them went down we ended up having just one little case study.  However, that mistake gave us new ideas on how to set up a better system using the right sensors for the job, and it generated a new idea on how to get real-time analysis of data.  In our new Desert FMP project, we have a much better-replicated system where more is invested in the number of sensors that we’re putting out. Each treatment combination will have five to ten water potential sensors.  We are also developing a system where we can analyze data in real-time, so this time we will know when a sensor goes out if a student accidentally kicks it.

 For more details on the Wasatch Plateau Experiment, watch for our published paper that we’ll link to when it comes out.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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