July 29, 2020

WPI researchers were awarded, through the Office of Sponsored Programs, a record $56 million in government, corporate, and private funding for their work during the 2020 fiscal year, up 50 percent from the previous year.

About 240 awards were received during the year ended June 30, supporting work ranging from learning technologies to the development of PracticePoint facilities at the Gateway Park campus.

Talented faculty, Research Solutions Institute efforts to find and develop grant opportunities, and new facilities such as the PracticePoint healthcare development and testing facility and the photonics Laboratory for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP), have helped increase sponsored research funding over the last five years, says Bogdan Vernescu, vice provost for research.


“We’ve built infrastructure through our Research Solutions Institute to support research, we know what expertise our researchers have, and we are finding opportunities to go after and support faculty to develop the proposals,” Vernescu says. “The support we provide allows researchers to seek out larger, more complex awards and to work across disciplines on proposals.”

In 2015 WPI developed a strategic plan to increase research funding, and funding has increased more than 140% since then. The amount of research money a university brings in matters because it can support exciting research that bolsters reputation and attracts more students. At WPI, it also helps to financially support more than 150 graduate students, research scientists, and research engineers. In FY2020, research expenditures on grants were about $31.7 million.

In addition, research funding opens opportunities in the labs, which benefit students by preparing them for the workforce, Vernescu says.

“If we have faculty and infrastructure that is at the cutting edge of technology and science, we can train our students for the best jobs,” Vernescu says.

The biggest funder of awards to WPI during 2020 was the National Science Foundation, which originated about $17.9 million in awards to the university’s researchers, followed by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Institutes of Health.

If we have the right people and the cutting-edge facilities, we can embark on solving more exciting research problems.
  • Bogdan Vernescu
  • -Vice Provost for Research

A team led by Danielle Cote, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was awarded the largest individual award of $5 million from the Army as part of a $25 million contract to develop 3D printing technology for the repair of military vehicles and equipment in the field.

Neil Heffernan, William Smith Dean’s Professor of Computer Science and director of the Learning Sciences and Technologies Program at WPI, received the largest initial award of $4.98 million from the U.S. Department of Education to scale and expand ASSISTments, an online teaching and learning tool. The total award for the five-year project is expected to reach nearly $8 million.

Several young faculty members received prestigious awards aimed at early-career researchers. Haichong (Kai) Zhang was awarded a Director’s Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health to develop a medical robot to detect and monitor prostate cancer. The award will total about $1.9 million over five years. The NSF gave CAREER awards during FY2020 to four WPI researchers: Eric Young, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Andrew Teixeira, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Andrew Clark, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Yanhua Li, assistant professor of computer science.

Researchers in WPI’s School of Engineering were awarded the largest portion of funds during the fiscal year, securing more than $30 million. School of Arts and Sciences researchers were awarded about $22 million, and Foisie Business School researchers were awarded more than $600,000. The remaining funding was awarded to initiatives such as K-12 outreach and technology transfer.

WPI researchers were particularly busy seeking funds during FY2020, submitting 413 proposals for nearly $263 million. When the university restricted campus operations in the spring because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, many researchers who were working from home spent time on grant applications.

Vernescu says he expects WPI award totals to grow this year as researchers work at PracticePoint and at LEAP, which will enable WPI to secure more federal support and build corporate partnerships.

“My expectation is that by opening facilities, we're going to increase the funding in medical devices, and we're going to increase the funding in integrated photonics,” Vernescu says. “If we have the right people and the cutting-edge facilities, we can embark on solving more exciting research problems.”

-By Lisa Eckelbecker