The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Ten for Ten

Center for Research on Families hits sweet spot of success
  • UMass Alumna Dorothy Dunklee Gavin with CRF retrospective poster

Beginning with a generous endowment from alumna Dorothy Dunklee Gavin ’43, the Center was founded to promote research that would illuminate the family unit.

If a tenth anniversary isn’t enough cause for celebration, the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families (CRF) is also riding high on the wave of its most successful year. Its scholars boast grant acceptance rates well above the national average and its flagship program has yielded upwards of $15 million in external funding— nearly $10 million of which was awarded within the past year.

That success, explains CRF director Sally Powers, flows from the interdisciplinary network of researchers that convene at the Center—a network that Powers and the team continue to build.

Every year, the Center’s steering committee selects six new faculty members who are conducting family-related research to take part in the Family Research Scholars Program. The Scholars participate in a year-long seminar that includes intensive grant guidance, individualized methodology training, peer mentorship, and expert consultation. The program assists scholars as they put together major grant proposals. Financial manager David Bosch explains that, considering most Family Research Scholars are pre-tenure and submitting a national research grant application for the first time, the success rates, or “hit rates,” for these proposals are “striking”—63 percent for primary National Science Foundation (NSF) applications (over a national average of 22 percent) and 32 percent for primary National Institutes of Health (NIH) applications (over a national average of 18 percent).

“At CRF, researchers know they can expect and receive individualized attention, strategies, research advice, technical expertise, external and internal networks of other researchers touching on what they are investigating—it is truly a nexus for family researchers,” says Associate Director Wendy Varner.

Beginning with a generous endowment from alumna Dorothy Dunklee Gavin ’43 (pictured above), the Center was founded to promote research that would illuminate the family unit. Researchers look at the structure and functioning of families—from both biological and social standpoints—and how the family can impact health, society and the greater environment. Conducting research through this lens allows for a unique kind of collaboration; social science and natural science intersect within the scope of the family. In honor of that convergence, the Center is housed in both the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“The mission was really to try and pull together a network of family researchers on campus. It’s very rare, actually, that faculty and researchers will think of themselves primarily as ‘a family researcher’—it’s not a discipline. It’s an interdisciplinary sort of term,” explains Powers.

The CRF has also expanded to provide support for graduate and undergraduate students interested in family research through the Student Research Grants and Awards Program. Every year, the Center awards merit-based fellowships for students to work on a research project with a faculty mentor. The CRF also grants travel awards to support students who are presenting their research at far-away conferences, and support for students to receive methodology training. The Center provides more than $50,000 each year in student research funding.

To ensure faculty affiliates have success in reaching the public and policy-makers with their research results, the CRF works with the Center for Public Policy and Administration, the Department of Sociology, and the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program Public Engagement Project—a series of seminars and workshops devoted to helping researchers more efficiently engage with their communities about their work. Powers explains that it is often difficult for scientists to connect their studies with the people who are interested in them.

“We hope to be a link between the researcher and the communities that might use that research,” says Powers.

Neuroscientist Lisa Scott, Psychology, is an example of a Family Research Scholar who was extremely successful with support from the CRF. As a new investigator, Scott was awarded $675,000 from the NSF to study infant perceptual learning and how perceptual experiences can impact brain development. That same year, she also received $2 million from the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences to lead a start-up project entitled “Visual Expertise in the Laboratory in the Real World.” She regularly attends CRF’s “I’m a PI: Now What?!,” which is a workshop series designed to help new Principal Investigators adjust to their new role.

Powers and the team are proud of the momentum the Center has gained and continue to listen to their scholars in order to learn how to build on the rich strengths of family researchers at UMass.

“I think that’s our greatest success—keeping our eye on what faculty think would grow their research and trying to meet those needs,” says Powers.

Amanda Drane '12