Rising Canadian Stars win Cottrell Scholar Awards

The search for funding is challenging for any new university faculty member. In Canada, most not-yet-tenured science scholars pursue funding from one or more of the well known sources like CFI and NSERC, but there are other awards that are less well known but well worth adding to the funding toolkit. For those working in the physical sciences, the list of less-well-known awards includes the Cottrell Scholar Award from the foundation Research Corporation.

With the goal of fostering a better balance between research and teaching in academia, the U.S.-based Research Corporation offers a $100,000 grant--up this year from $75,000 in previous years--for faculty members in the third year of their first tenure-track position. The aim of the Cottrell Scholar program has been to close the divide between education and research at universities and encourage the development of leading scientists who are also talented educators.

"There is a movement across North America to enhance science education at universities, not at the expense of research, but rather as a complement to it. Huge amounts of resources are being spent in time and energy to develop ways of promoting interest in sciences among students and train the next generation of educators," explains James Gentile, President of Research Corporation. "So this award really gets to the heart of . . . what's happening in science right now, and targets scientists early in their career and starts building up future teacher-scholars."

The Canadian Connection

What makes this award special is not just the emphasis on a teaching component but also the fact that the competition is open to applicants from north of the U.S.-Canada border. Because Research Corporation is private and not for profit, Gentile says, the foundation is able to keep the award free of cross-border restrictions. Since 2000, there have been five recipients of the Cottrell Award from Canadian universities. Of this year's 17 winners, two are from Canada: a chemistry professor at University of Ottawa and an astrophysicist at Université de Montreal. There are no quotas, and Gentile expects the number of Canadians on the winners' list to increase in coming years as the award becomes more widely known up north.

"It's our way to articulate not only the importance of integration of teaching and research but also to communicate that the Canadian community is really making great strides in science education as well as in scientific research," explains James Gentile, President of Research Corporation. "The Cottrell Award is a great way of recognizing high-caliber Canadian scientists."

Hoping to promote the award among Canadian institutions, Gentile plans to create a Cottrell Speakers Bureau where Canadian recipients will visit other universities to talk about their research and to model some of their pedagogical methods. "That would mean we would have five Canadians on the road and promoting what we're doing in Canada, and we expect that should bring in a lot more interest as well," he adds.

Do your homework

The award application requires a narrative on both research and teaching experience. While most proposal writers--even seasoned ones--find the educational part of the proposal more challenging, it is in fact a key component of the award, and what sets this award apart from many others. According to the award guidelines available on the Web, reviewers look for a teaching plan that "identifies a problem in science education and offers a feasible strategy to address it." Applicants should explain both their current and past teaching experiences that demonstrate their dedication to education. The application should include a solid literature review of what has been accomplished already in the field. Proposals to use web-based technology or cooperative-learning techniques "should explain how it is grounded in an understanding of the educational goals and objectives."

2002 winner Steve Dodge, an up-and-coming quantum physicist from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, found that applying for the award and understanding what the judges are looking for in the teaching section was made a lot easier by his conversations with past scholars. He also credits his success to the assistance of program officers at Research Corporation, as well as the guidelines and sample teaching proposals posted on the organization's Web site.

"They want to see some evidence of interest in teaching and something innovative in your tenure-track position," he says. For Dodge--one of 12 chosen for the award in 2002--it was his experience working in education at the Exploratorium, just outside of San Francisco, that might have made the difference.

Keith Fagnou, a chemist from University of Ottawa who won the award this year, found the application process for the Cottrell Award quite different than for other grants he has applied for since joining the faculty in 2002. "It's a little bit different from other awards because there's a teaching component where you need to identify a problem in teaching at the university that you would like to address," says Fagnou. Fagnou was able to capitalize on his background in education, which included a Bachelor's in Education that he received years before he began his career in science. "Because I have such a varied background, in that I taught at the high school level and that I even had experience with designing curriculum, I could see the bigger overall picture that makes up science education," he recalls.

To those that have limited experience in teaching, Fagnou recommends talking to senior faculty members and looking at what they are doing. He cautions that the Cottrell reviewers look for proposals that include a teaching curriculum likely to produce results that are "quantifiable and [have] a tangible outcome."

Cottrell Scholar Awards Fast Facts


Applicants should be faculty members in Ph.D.-granting astronomy, chemistry, and physics departments and must be in the third full calendar year of their first tenure-track position. (Faculty who assumed their tenure-track positions anytime in 2003 may apply only in 2005, observing the September deadline.) Application must be made on the foundation's application form, and must include the institution's endorsement.


Budgets are not required. Cottrell Scholar Award funds can be used at the discretion of the awardee for most direct costs. There is no provision for indirect costs, faculty salaries, tuition, or routine institutional services. Funds from an award may be used to support both the teaching and research projects of the Cottrell Scholar.


The potential of applicants to mount outstanding programs in research and teaching and applicants' commitment to pursuing careers as teacher-scholars are of paramount importance. Proposals are first scrutinized internally to assess the quality of the teaching plan. Applications that pass the first screening--usually about half of all applications--go on to peer review of both the research and the teaching proposals. The final recommendations are made by the foundation's Program Advisory Committee.

Application deadline

September 1, 2005

Announcement of Awards

Before mid-May of following year

Booster Shot

But why does the program target exclusively faculty members in the third year of a tenure-track position? This is a critical and stressful time in a young researchers' academic career, when scientists are juggling a variety of tasks, all of which are important: getting their research programs off the ground, cranking out reams of funding proposals, and learning the art of university teaching. It's enough to wear down a young teacher-scholar and put stress on a young career.

"That's a point where a booster shot of resources can come in, because they've already set the foundation and now they want to build on that," says Gentile.

Many universities have resources to help young researchers find start-up funds from in-house and federal sources. Gentile and his team target their award for researchers who are a bit further along. "We want to help them build on it and capture the energy that they have at this point in their career. We like to think of it as catalytic money that allows for speculation research." Since its inception a decade ago, $10.35 million in direct funding have fueled the speculation of 172 early-career researchers across North America.

One of the award's biggest selling points is that the money can be spent entirely at the discretion of the researcher. For Dodge, who already had some operating grants but lacked the funds to hire professional personnel, the grant helped secure enough funds to hire a postdoc, which was his foremost goal. He also feels that he has been able to take on more challenging research problems, thanks to the award. "You can be more ambitious with the scale of the projects that you can take on."

Fagnou, who has also received funding from NSERC and CFI to help build up his laboratory, needed something extra to get him where he wanted to go with his research. The Cottrell award, he feels, will allow him to continue on the path he has set himself on. "I can keep my research group at the size that it's at or even grow it if I wanted. If I think that we've got a good result I can pursue it aggressively," he adds.

One very important benefit for Fagnou, like other Canadian researchers that have won the Cottrell Scholar Award in the past years, is that it has allowed him--and many of the others-- to remain in the country to pursue their careers.

"I'm a proud Canadian, and unless it happens for financial reasons, I have no intensions of leaving Canada--and the way that things are going financially, this is exactly where I want to be," says Fagnou.

For guidelines, application forms and sample proposals on the Cottrell Award visit Research Corporation's Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

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