Dr. Julius Fridriksson assumed the role of interim Vice President for Research (VPR) on July 1, 2021, and was hired as the permanent VPR on April 14, 2022. Dr. Fridriksson has for years been a prominent member of the UofSC research community, serving as a faculty member in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the Arnold School of Public Health since 2001 and as SmartState Endowed Chair of Memory and Brain Function, directing the SMARTBrain™ Center, since 2016. He also co-directs the cutting-edge UofSC McCausland Center for Brain Imaging.
Dr. Fridriksson brings a wealth of research and administrative experience to the VPR role. He built his research portfolio from the ground up over many years, studying post-stroke neuroscience and learning about how to manage a growing, thriving team of researchers through doing just that. These efforts have culminated in development of the interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Aphasia Recovery, or C-STAR, now in its second round of successful, competitive funding through the National Institutes of Health. Collaboration is at the heart of C-STAR’s mission. The center encompasses four projects, including two here at UofSC, one at Johns Hopkins University and one at the University of California, Irvine. Each project examines a different aspect of aphasia, a communication disorder characterized by difficulty understanding and/or generating speech that results from damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, often caused by a stroke.
Dr. Fridriksson explains many of his plans for the VPR role in a Q&A on his vision for the University of South Carolina research enterprise.
I'm like a research junkie. The thrill of discovery is so overwhelming that when you get results from the next study, or as you get closer, it's almost like winning a big game. I played basketball unitl I was 22 years old. It's like the thrill of vicotry seeing results. Sometimes there's a major letdown and things don't work out — that happens all the time in science — but when it works out, it's amazing.
– Julius Fridriksson, Vice President for Research
You have yourself been highly successful as a researcher. Why take on the role of interim VPR in 2021? And why stay on long-term?
When the opportunity came to be interim VPR, I was reluctant because usually it’s the kiss of death to your research program. So I thought about it long and hard. I still have a very active research career, but the longer you stay in that role, the more you step back and realize which things are the most rewarding. For me, that has been working with students, working with postdocs, and working, especially, with junior faculty.
And you like big challenges.
Yes, I’m very much challenge-driven. When we renewed my program project grant, which is very difficult to do, I started thinking, “What are the next challenges? How can I take what I did with junior faculty on a smaller scale and do that at a much larger scale, at the university level?” That’s really the reason I agreed to do this. And I like it so far. I like it a lot.
As someone who came up through the ranks, what lessons can you apply in your role as VPR?
I’m going to go way back here. I’m a first gen college student, so coming into a university was a daunting experience. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college — not just my immediate family, but even in my extended family and we’re a big family. I was the first, and all the way through my master’s, and even my Ph.D. program, I felt a little bit like a fish out of water.
As a junior faculty member there were so many times when, clearly, I was just fishing in the wrong pond. I can’t tell you how many studies I started or relationships I developed that I thought were going to get somewhere but just went nowhere. As a senior faculty member looking back at all those false starts, I want to help the folks who are where I was 20 years ago.
The Propel grant writing mentorship program is part of that effort. Explain how that works.
Through Propel, junior faculty — mostly new faculty this year — attend eight workshops starting in August and ending in April. These are half-day workshops that cover the A to the Z of grant writing, even down to how to manage your time. In addition to that, we pair every one of these junior faculty members with a senior faculty member, and they meet at least once a month for a one-on-one session or small group sessions to focus on writing a top-quality grant proposal.
I was lucky to have a strong faculty mentor, but my mentor was not research intense. I wish I would have had something like this when I was junior faculty. I’d never even seen a grant proposal when I came to the university, and I came from a good lab.
For a lot of faculty who get dismayed or feel overwhelmed it’s because there’s nobody to show them the way. We need to be more proactive mentoring our junior faculty. If we can formalize that process a bit, make it more efficient, more targeted, we can benefit not only the junior faculty members, but the research enterprise.
You’ve described large scale center grants as the future of grant funding at universities of our size.
Absolutely. I’ve seen the trend. It’s been slow, but now it’s coming on especially fast. I had a conversation with the director of the Office of Portfolio Management at the NIH. They take data, mainly NIH data, and crunch it to figure out how the NIH can get the most bang for its buck. These larger groups of faculty members working together offer much better return on their investment. It doesn’t mean that they’re going away from individualized grants, but proportionally they’re going to be putting a lot more funding into center grants.
They understand what’s happening. Ten years ago, I probably published four or five papers a year. It’s close to 30 now, but that’s because we have a huge group. I always tell faculty who are reluctant to go for these, “When you have a bunch of adults working together and you can spread the work around, it makes your life a lot easier.” Most folks who don’t like the idea don’t like it because they think it’s going to be more work. In my experience, it has actually been less work than having several smaller grants.
But the grants themselves are more complex.
They are extremely complex. Our last one, a renewal for our program project grant, was like 800 pages. It was a monster. They take a long time to put together, but if you can get one of these, they’re transformative, not just to your immediate group but for departments and whole colleges.
We have two in the School of Public Health, the only two program project grants at the university. They build communities. They allow students and postdocs and junior faculty to get continuous mentorship and advice about everything academia related, even teaching. I look at those folks who are in that group and I think, “Had I been involved in that as a junior faculty member, it would have been so fantastic.”
What about student research? How does that fit into our research enterprise?
Once students get involved in research, they learn a lot more than what they learn in their classes. Just being involved in research, you can’t help but absorb a lot of information. And a lot of those students get very excited about research. They may go into medical school, or they may go on to graduate school. That’s a big part of what we do through the Office of Undergraduate Research.
But I do think we can do better in terms of marketing. I was up at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently, talking to them about how they recruit students. When they do their surveys, research is one of the top three reasons students came to Urbana-Champaign. Sixty percent of the students say they are there because they’re interested in research. And it’s because of how they market themselves. Right from the beginning it’s, “Come here. There’s a lot of research happening here.”
Health sciences and STEM get a lot of attention. That’s right in your wheelhouse. What can we do to ramp up those efforts even further?
Obviously, the new health sciences campus is going to be transformative for our research effort. We’re already looking at equipment. We’re already securing funding for that equipment. We’re going to have top-notch facilities and top-notch research equipment that will allow us to do research that we are not capable of doing right now. Also, we are working on improving facilities in the different colleges. The College of Arts and Sciences, for example, has been updating both the biology and the chemistry labs.
What do you say to the humanities, the arts, the social sciences — those camps that maybe don’t bring in such high-dollar grants and end up feeling neglected?
It’s the truth. They have been neglected. But my office is not just interested in health sciences and STEM. All scholarship concerns us, so I’ve been trying to get together an advisory group so that we can do better on that front. I hope to provide new resources for faculty members that they haven’t had before about where to go for funding.
There is certainly funding available for the arts and the humanities. What we hope to do is to become sort of a matchmaking entity so that as program announcements come down, we don’t just spam the whole university, but we go specifically to the faculty in those areas and say, “Hey, look, we’re not saying you have to do this, but we’d really appreciate it if you gave it a shot.”
Where do you find the energy to continue your own research?
It’s a struggle. But I’m very lucky. The group that we have is somewhere north of 60 individuals now, including graduate students and postdocs as well as mid-career and even senior faculty who have taken prominent roles. The Center for the Study of Aphasia Research is now a small community. So even before I came into this job, I realized I don’t actually have to lead it anymore. I certainly am still the principal investigator — if somebody sends me a paper that we’re about to submit, I’m an author, I’ve got to go through it —but it’s different now. It’s a break in the action. It’s fun.
So the research is still rewarding.
It really is. I love it. And I can’t stop. I’m like a research junkie. The thrill of discovery is so overwhelming that when you get results from the next study, or as you get closer, it’s almost like winning a big game. I played basketball until I was 22 years old. It’s like the thrill of victory seeing results. Sometimes there’s a major letdown and things don’t work out — that happens all the time in science — but when it works out, it’s amazing.