SRU Physical Therapy professor Dr. Timothy Smith was rewarded almost $50,000 in a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to fund his research on the development of primates.
Smith’s doctorate is in Physical Anthropology and he teaches Micro Anatomy and Gross Anatomy. Although he admits that anthropology is not very similar to physical therapy, the study of anatomy is central to both studies.
Smith has been studying primates for almost 15 years. He began a research project in 2008 where he studied paranasal sinuses in mammals. The goal of the study was to understand how the sinuses were formed and if they are they influenced by other structures in the face such as the eyes or teeth. Smith began a new research project this year that expands on his 2008 study.
“What happens is, you answer a question or try to answer a question, and a new one comes up,” Smith said. “It’s been a progression. It expands on previous research.”
The main focus of Smith’s new study is to learn about how primates and humans develop after birth, specifically how their teeth and bones grow. He also plans to study primates at a microanatomical level by looking at their anatomies through a microscope at the cell processes. By doing this he hopes to learn how facial features form and acquire their unique shapes.
“I am fascinated with unique attributes of humans,” Smith explained. “Such as the facial form and how we are able to learn to walk. Some of those answers can be found by looking at what’s the difference between this newborn that can quite see right, and certainly cant get up and walk around and the fully functional adult. That contrast really fascinates me.”
Smith explained that physical development happens quickly after birth, especially when compared to how slowly the human body changes after reaching adulthood.
The specimens that Smith studies are manly cadavers or animals that died from natural causes. While Smith has studied human samples, he mainly sticks to primates because they are easier to obtain.
Smith does not work on the project completely alone, he has colleagues at a few other universities including John Hopkins and the University of Kentucky. Anatomy students from SRU are also actively involved with helping out with the research.
The NSF has very strict guidelines for proposals. He explained that learning how to write proposals takes a long time. He had to learn from trial and error, and writing workshops. Smith’s proposal ended up being over 30 pages. Smith stated that the NSF frequently turns down proposals. If they show curiosity in the proposal, they will usually ask for a revision. He had to send his proposal four times before it was accepted.
“You basically tell the National Science Foundation, ‘this is what I want to do, and this is why it’s important’”, Smith explained. “After you do that, you have to go further because everybody says ‘Well, this is important’ so they ask about its intellectual merit and what are the broader implications. What that means in a nutshell is why is this really important, and what will it do for us as a society?”
Dr. Tamra Schiappa, professor of Geology, served on a panel of experts in the NSF, and has also had her own research in paleontology funded by the NSF
Schiappa explained that the NSF requires preliminary data before they agree to give grants. Finding initial data can be challenging for scientists as it often requires money. Scientists have two main options for funding their research. They could pay for their experiments with their own money, or they could apply for seed grants that offer small amounts of money for research.
“The purpose of providing the scientific community with money is so that we can produce a product that will educate the community so that we will have a better understanding of our world,” Schiappa said.
After finishing the preliminary research, a proposal must be sent to the NSF, Schiappa explained. The proposal requires a timeline and a budget. The budget has to be very specific, explaining how much money is needed and what it will be used for. The timeline needs to give a detailed report of what will be done year by year.
When it is sent to the NSF, it is reviewed by a panel of peers. Afterwards the director of the program will send the proposal to other experts in the field and who will analyze it and will decide it if it is beneficial to the scientific community. If they decide that the hypothesis warrants more research, they will send it to the director who has the final say if it gets funding or not.
“Those who get NSF proposals, it’s a big deal,” Schiappa explained. “It means that there has been some very careful thought that the intellectual merit and the broader impacts were significant enough that the panel though that the results could potentially be a significant contribution to the discipline.”
After the experiment is finished, the NSF expects that the results of the experiment are written published in a peer review journal. Scientists also have to provide a detailed report about how the money was spent, what the results of the experiment were.
Part 2 of the series will cover research on developing a tool to monitor the movement of airsheds.