Raising the Bar

UM's chief research officer champions excellence, competitiveness

Toni Scarpa, director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review, poses with Alice Clark after presenting her with the center's 2010 Marcy Spear Outstanding Reviewer Award for her 20-year commitment to reviewing NIH grant proposals.

Toni Scarpa, director of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, poses with Alice Clark after presenting her with the center’s 2010 Marcy Spear Outstanding Reviewer Award for her 20-year commitment to reviewing NIH grant proposals.

OXFORD, Miss. – Before becoming the University of Mississippi’s vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, Alice Clark spent 22 years working in the university’s School of Pharmacy, where she helped establish one of the longest continually funded antifungal research programs in the history of the National Institutes of Health.

She also achieved several professorial, research and administrative milestones, becoming one of UM’s elite Frederick A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professors and director of the National Center for Natural Products Research, one of the university’s internationally renowned research institutes.

After becoming UM’s chief research officer, Clark began using what she learned while working in the pharmacy school to benefit the entire university and is credited with expanding its research infrastructure and competitiveness, and reputation as a player in addressing issues confronting our state, nation and world.

“We are fortunate to have a person of her ability, commitment, character and national stature in science leading research at our university,” Chancellor Dan Jones said.

One key to Clark’s successes is her commitment to what she envisioned her job to be when first becoming the university’s CRO in 2001: serve as the chief advocate for all researchers on campus, no matter what their discipline, rank or status. That steadfastness has resulted in a faculty-focused Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, a campuswide technology transfer program, a 10-acre research park with an Innovation Hub and a far greater awareness of UM’s research enterprise in the Statehouse, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Championing the university’s diverse pool of researchers harkens back to the early days of Clark’s career, when the Graduate School dean and associate vice chancellor for research, the late Joseph Sam, supported her efforts to obtain competitive funding for her research, despite the notion that investigators from smaller schools such as Ole Miss couldn’t compete with those from larger universities.

“He believed in me and what I could do,” Clark said. “Back then, I was a novice, and I had the naiveté to apply for a contract from the National Institutes of Health to screen compounds for activity against opportunistic infections common among AIDS patients. Joe Sam put resources behind me and threw in some needed cost shares.”

So Clark, then an assistant professor of pharmacognosy, and Charles Hufford, professor of pharmacognosy and co-principal investigator, submitted an application in 1984 that received nearly $500,000 from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Because of progress made with that first NIAID award, Clark and Hufford received a $1 million contract renewal in 1987 and a $372,000 grant from NIAID in 1989. With Clark as its principal investigator, that competitive grant (RO1-AI-27094) has been renewed four times, pushing total funding for the antifungal research program to $7.4 million.

As CRO, Clark said, “I want to help other researchers, so they can enjoy the same kind of experience.”

Her first step toward that goal was staffing and organizing ORSP into divisions responsible for such elements as sponsored programs administration, integrity and compliance, technology management, and research and economic development.

In addition to routinely alerting faculty, staff and students to internal and external funding opportunities, Clark and her staff help investigators develop, polish and submit their proposals; manage fiscal and other aspects of their awards; and ensure that all their activities are conducted responsibly and with the utmost integrity. They also help investigators protect and transfer intellectual property they develop to the private sector by helping them license such innovations to companies or start businesses based on them.

“From the moment she stepped into the ORSP, Dr. Clark has committed herself to expanding the culture of scholarship of all kinds at the university and stimulating the state’s economy,” said former pharmacy school dean Barbara G. Wells, who worked with Clark to secure funding for several of the school’s major research and construction projects. “She pursued those goals on several fronts and never relaxed her pursuit of them. As a result, the number of successful research programs within the university has greatly expanded, many UM faculty members have developed into world-class researchers, and the funding for research has increased remarkably.”

Besides setting up the ORSP to “deliver what the faculty needs,” Clark has been working with the Mississippi Legislature and Institutions of Higher Learning “to accomplish good things” for the state, said ORSP technology management director Walter G. Chambliss.

“She led the state’s four research universities in their involvement in Blueprint Mississippi (an extensive one-year research project focusing on how public and private sectors can strengthen and expand the state’s economy and competitiveness) and, as chair of the Mississippi Research Consortium in 2010, led their response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion spewed millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, a multi-institutional National Institute of Undersea Science and Technology team was the first academic group to conduct sampling missions in the area, which helped scientists and government officials understand the spill’s extent and severity. That helped cement NIUST’s leadership in this type of research and resulted a year later in a $20 million award to a UM-led consortium for studying the spill’s lingering effects.

“This project demonstrates the University of Mississippi’s leadership role in addressing challenges affecting our state and nation and in bringing together the best possible minds to address those challenges,” Clark said. “It is also a testament to the high-quality, highly competitive research being done by our scientists.”

Insight Park, UM’s new research park, and its 62,000-square-foot Innovation Hub were designed, constructed and programmed to ensure that the creative products of such researchers serve as an economic catalyst.

“The purpose of Insight Park is to ensure that the outcomes of world-class researchers are put into action, transforming what we know and how we do things,” Clark said. “It’s a place where technology and research-based companies can benefit from being close to the university and work with its faculty, staff and students.”

Such achievements may surprise observers elsewhere but not those familiar with Clark’s history of getting the job done.

Early in her Ole Miss career, she and Hufford found and patented several compounds that killed or inhibited Candida albicans, the culprit behind an opportunistic infection threatening the lives of AIDS patients. They also developed a microbial model for predicting the human metabolites of primaquine, an antimalarial drug that produces hemolytic anemia in some people and to which some parasites have become immune.

Clark also began serving on scientific review panels that evaluate NIH and other grant applications to help the agencies fund the most promising research.

Because of those and other accomplishments, in 1993, the university named Clark one of its Barnard Distinguished Professors, an honor it bestows only on internationally renowned faculty members. Two years later, the pharmacy school needed someone to serve as interim director of its then-new National Center for Natural Products Research. Clark was its choice, as she was a year later, when she became the center’s director.

As director, she helped secure more than $8 million to build the center’s new home, the Thad Cochran Research Center. She also helped negotiate the center’s nearly $1.4 million cooperative research agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, which made the Cochran Center home to the USDA-ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit. In addition, she helped secure yet another $1.8 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the drug interaction risks of botanical dietary supplements.

“She got Phase I funded and teed it up for Phase II,” Chambliss said. Phase II, which is under construction and slated for completion later this year, will double the pharmacy school’s research space and complete a two-building complex that Clark and other school leaders envisioned two decades ago.

In 2000, Clark testified at a congressional hearing examining the national and global problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. A year later, she began serving on a National Academy of Sciences’ task force commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a framework for evaluating the safety of dietary supplements.

By 2001, the year Clark became the university’s vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs, NCNPR had become the “go-to-place” for anyone around the world seeking expertise or training in natural products research or dietary supplements.

As vice chancellor, she has heightened awareness of UM’s research enterprise within the state due to her work with the Mississippi Research Consortium – which includes CROs from the state’s eight public universities – and the governor’s office, said NCNPR director Larry Walker.

“She has developed strong relationships with leaders throughout the state and region, and those relationships have very much benefited the university,” he said.

Because of her work with such entities as the NIH, USDA, FDA and CDC, as well as Mississippi’s congressional delegation, Clark has been just as successful raising awareness at the national level.

“She is so well thought of in all those circles,” Walker said. “That’s because she is able to see the entire research landscape and relate our research to their missions. As a result, our work with these agencies was set on a solid foundation.”

Nearly 13 years have passed since Clark became CRO at Ole Miss. While few here find it surprising that a researcher could so smoothly and successfully step into such a highly responsible administrative position, some people are amazed that Clark continues to work one-on-one with faculty members to strengthen their proposals, counsel students about their aspirations, maintain a strong research program of her own and find time for reviewing grant applications for NIH.

Among them is Lainy Day, an associate professor of biology who secured some $470,000 from the National Science Foundation to study the relationship between mating displays and brain evolution in a family of birds native to Guyana and Panama.

“I was amazed that a vice chancellor would take the time to look my application over,” Day said. “She helped me reorganize the proposal and eliminate typos, and she gave me a quick turnaround time.”

Others credit Clark with raising the glass ceiling for women in academia and biomedical research.

“She is a wonderful role model and mentor,” said Ameeta Agarwal, a senior scientist in NCNPR and collaborator on Clark’s antifungal research project. “When faced with a problem, my colleagues and I often ask, ‘What would Dr. Clark do?’ She is a thinker and handles the big picture. She listens, strategizes and offers suggestions, and she does so without being condescending.”

Agarwal, who first began working on Clark’s project as a postdoctoral research associate, said that many times during their 13-year association, she has watched Clark encourage and advance women.

“She has sparked several women’s interest in biomedical research,” she said. “She is able to see people’s potential and provide the support they need to advance their careers.”

“Dr. Clark is an exemplary and complete faculty member, leader and public servant,” Wells said. “Her impact on the university is immeasurable. Her tenure will be remembered as the time when the ORSP and research culture at Ole Miss came to maturity, and as a time when a stable foundation was laid to underpin the remarkable success the university will have in coming decades.”