Grants and Contracts Office vital to faculty research programs

Yvonne Shaw, Nicole Neighbors, and Haruka Brown.
Yvonne Shaw, Nicole Neighbors, and Haruka Brown.
From the moment a faculty member expresses interest in pursuing a proposal for funding, MechSE’s outstanding Grants and Contracts office is there to assist them every step of the way. 
Nicole Neighbors, assistant director of research administration, Yvonne Shaw, grants and contracts coordinator, and Haruka Brown, grants and contracts specialist, work closely with faculty to compile all the items from the solicitation document—which are often lengthy with a wide variety of detailed requirements—and then prepare the best possible proposal. 
Upon being awarded a proposal, the three staff also help faculty forecast their spending, ensuring they stay within their budget throughout the funding period. 
John Wierschem, assistant to the department head, said, “What they’re doing more and more in that office is serving as faculty members’ financial advisors for their research programs. In a way, each faculty member is running a sole proprietor research enterprise. So Haruka, Nicole, and Yvonne help them understand their accounts and balances, and advise them on decisions regarding hiring more graduate students or post docs or buying a large piece of equipment, for instance. They have a wealth of experience and are very detailed, deliberate, and hands-on,” he said. 
Professor Naira Hovakimyan, who works with all three of the office’s staff – and most closely with Yvonne – said they are “invaluable in pushing the boundaries of perfection, understanding the intricacies of complex submissions, tracking every detail, and finding answers to possible and impossible questions. I am so thankful for them that I could use all the nice words in the world and it would still not be enough!”
The wide range of online systems each federal funding agency uses to submit and manage proposals adds another level of complication to their jobs, and what is required to do the job well has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. But Haruka, Nicole, and Yvonne have helped guide faculty through what John says is nothing short of a revolution in proposal compliance. 
The department now has the highest number of tenure-track faculty with research programs in its history, which means more proposals than ever before are shepherded through the Grants and Contracts Office—and Nicole, Haruka, and Yvonne always have a full work load.
Assistant Professor SungWoo Nam worked with Haruka on his successful NSF CAREER proposal, which was, impressively, one of four given to MechSE faculty for 2016—the most the department has seen in a single year.  
“Haruka has gone above and beyond making sure my proposals have complied with all necessary sponsor's requirements. I have been so grateful for all her help in the past years!” 
Assistant Professor Nenad Miljkovic worked with Yvonne on his successful NSF CAREER proposal. 
“Yvonne was instrumental in the success of my proposal, including editing, grammar, budgeting, and making sure I complied with the rules. I’m certain that without Yvonne’s hard work and help, I would not have received the award.”
Another impressive testament to their role in helping faculty win proposals was the game-changing achievement of Professor Andrew Alleyne’s POETS Center as a funded NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC). 
It had been many years since Illinois was named the lead institution of an ERC, which gives Nicole a unique perspective as a grants staff person who has helped develop a successful proposal for such an important award. 
“Nicole was invaluable in winning the ERC. This was a huge effort and she provided tremendous support during the proposal preparation process by ensuring that all pieces of the proposal were ready at the appropriate time. There were multiple iterations and she was extremely professional and poised throughout the changes. She performed exceptionally well under deadlines and focused on getting the job done, sometimes going well above and beyond typical working hours,” said Alleyne.