Over the last decade, crowdfunding has emerged as a new way to support anything from disaster relief to business startups. Some academic researchers have turned to Experiment.com and other sites specializing in science research. Now, a group of UM alumni has added a new opportunity focused on research on infection-induced cancer.
The Richard G. Hankett Memorial Research Grant Foundation (RGHGF) was co-founded by graduates of Chemistry professor Zhan Chen’s research group Jeanne Hankett (’16), Lauren Soblosky (’14), Josh Jasensky (’15) and former Zellers group member Will Collin (’15) .
Hankett, in particular, wanted to focus on this research area after losing both her father and cousin to infection-induced cancers and learning that, despite low public awareness, they are prevalent around the world. The founders came together in graduate school and “have a passion to share knowledge regarding these cancers,” says Hankett, who hopes this work will lead to improved global awareness and treatment.
The RGHGF founders chose crowdfunding because they wanted to maximize transparency in the funding process while minimizing overhead costs. Grants from government agencies remain a common way for academic researchers to obtain funding but, in this system, most taxpayers don’t have direct input or knowledge about how their tax dollars contribute to research. Soblosky notes that the public may not understand the difficult process of obtaining funding and generating scientific results where, “it is often a lot of failure before the success that everyone sees in a news report.”
In contrast, crowdfunding allows individuals and businesses to choose where their funds are going and to directly see results from their donation, no matter how small. The RGHGF founders wanted to use this model to establish open communication between the public and the researchers they fund. They already maintain a blog about infection-induced cancer research and, once the grant is operational, they plan on connecting grant award recipients with donors to share how the grant advances their scientific work.
The grant award will go directly to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Hankett believes this model gives younger scientists “opportunities to grow in academia,” adding that this approach “also allows us the opportunity to support research that may have otherwise been unfunded.”
From students to foundation directors
Starting a grant foundation was new territory for the founders, who are all research scientists. Hankett and Soblosky recall that an entrepreneurial attitude was encouraged in the Chen group but they have cultivated new skills to run the foundation—like making executive decisions, leading people, and pitching ideas that aren’t scientific research.
Collaboration has also been central to RGHGFs success. The founders consulted friends, family, and community resources to legally establish the foundation as a non-profit and they run it as volunteers to keep overhead costs low. They also collaborate with several UM undergraduate volunteers – Adam Eckburg (BS ’19), Ian Malinow (’21), and Noah Dyer (’21) – who work together to run the foundation’s social media accounts, pen scientific blogs, and write up scientist interviews for their website.
“Together We Science”
The RGHGF’s motto, “Together We Science,” encapsulates their hope that crowdfunding will raise both funds and public awareness for infection-induced cancer research. More broadly, they aim to clarify the scientific process for the public and, in Hankett’s words, “generate supportive and engaging communities online and in real life where we can all be health advocates and science advocates for one another.”