For Martin Monti, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, time is always in short supply, depleted by his teaching load, office hours and his research, for which he regularly sees comatose patients who’ve suffered severe brain trauma.

So spending even more time to find grants and other funding to support his research was a constant frustration. “Finding a grant is like looking for a needle in a haystack because every funding agency has its own website, which you have to learn to navigate so you can find the most current information,” Monti said.

But an information-packed newsletter emailed from the Research Enhancement Office within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR) to faculty in the Division of Life Sciences has eased this arduous search for Monti. Each month for most faculty  — and bimonthly for health sciences faculty — a newsletter customized to their academic unit or research theme such as diversity — arrives with a list of up to 50 current funding opportunities, complete with links to websites that zero in on information on research support from federal, non-federal, foundation and other sources.

“It’s just amazing,” Monti said. “Just by reading the titles of most of them I can tell whether they are applicable to my work or not. This is the best thing I get in my email.”

Those are welcome words to the team of five UCLA undergraduates who scour roughly a dozen subscription-only databases and many more websites to amass this valuable information for researchers. For the more than 4,000 subscribers, the students collate and distribute 12 newsletters under the supervision of Jill Sweitzer, co-director of UCLA Grand Challenges and an officer within the newly formed Research Enhancement Office in the OVCR.

On occasion, the students will reverse the process. If an important funding opportunity arises, they will identify and then alert UCLA faculty members who might be interested in applying.

Since students started using their own research skills to track down research funding, the newsletters have helped generate millions of dollars in new proposals that might not have been submitted by faculty otherwise, Sweitzer said.

“UCLA students make valuable contributions to the research enterprise on a daily basis,” said Vice Chancellor for Research James Economou. “The funding opportunity service is one of many tangible examples of how undergraduates play an integral role in the campus research community. I applaud our team for their efforts.” 

Monti, who credits the newsletter for leading him to a $300,000 grant from the Dana Foundation, joins in that applause for students. “I doubt I would have ever found it on my own,” said the neuroscientist of his newest grant. He is now working with the foundation to see whether, together, they can find a new treatment that would help restore consciousness in comatose patients with severe brain trauma.

“It’s exciting to be doing something you know is very important to faculty,” said Lindsey Muzzio, a third-year student who joined the team at the beginning of fall quarter. “I had no idea about all the research that goes on here.”

Third-year student Michael Elliot’s job is to find and track Limited Submission Opportunities (LSOs). “When UCLA is only allowed to submit a certain number of applications to a funding agency, we have to hold an internal competition to see who can best represent the university and potentially win the funding,” he explained. His job involves him in all parts of this process, from drafting an outline of the process to assigning deadlines.

“I love my job,” said Elliot, who considers himself to be “a small cog” in a huge administrative machine. “Being a part of this office has allowed me to step back from the perspective of a student and see UCLA as the true research powerhouse it is.”    

Sweitzer initiated the newsletter service in August 2011. “Grants are the lifeblood of research and scholarship, and, while there are thousands of funding opportunities out there, it’s time-consuming to sort through them and can be an overwhelming practice to maintain,” she said.

 “The newsletters have also created a channel for our office to communicate about other activities for researchers,” Sweitzer said. Included in the newsletters is information on upcoming webinars like “Funding Your Research — How to Get Started” for new faculty and “Competing for Funding from the NSF.” It’s also a way to publicize talks, such as “Leaping the Hurdles and Navigating the Maze: Getting NIH Funding,” as well as seminars, conferences and networking events hosted by other campus units such as the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property.

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Michelle Popowitz recently formed the Research Enhancement Office by consolidating a few units within OVCR. Currently, the new office coordinates the student-run newsletter service,  the Research Enhancement series of grant-making webinars and workshops, coordination of Limited Submission Opportunities and Selected Faculty Awards, support of the VCR Cabinet, production of the OVCR Annual Report and UCLA Grand Challenges, among other activities. UCLA’s first Grand Challenge project is  Sustainable L.A., “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles,” which aims to turn L.A. into a global model for urban sustainability by reaching the goal of using exclusively renewable energy and local water by 2050, while protecting biodiversity and enhancing the quality of life for its residents.

Sweitzer credits the students, headed by research assistant Justus Winn-Howard, a senior who started his job when he was a freshman in 2012, with taking charge of everything from identifying and organizing content to designing and distributing the newsletters. “It takes a lot of coordination to keep this service running smoothly,” she said.

In return, the students are honing their leadership and project management skills and are gaining experience in analysis, finding grant money and email marketing. They’re also learning about federal research priorities.

“When I tell people what I do, they always go, ‘Oh, wow!’” said Winn-Howard, who oversees the student team, reviews the newsletters and works on special projects for the Grand Challenges staff. That’s a big step up from his former job at Jamba Juice.  “All the credit goes to Jill and Michelle. This office is one of the few that utilizes students in this capacity and gives them more complex tasks beyond clerical work. And we’re all grateful for the opportunity.”

To subscribe to the newsletters and browse back copies, go here.