Tipping the Grant Scales
In Christen Opsal’s world of academic grants, there are two kinds of research proposals: Successful, and not-yet-successful.
That optimism serves her well in the role of research development coordinator for the social sciences in the College of Liberal Arts, a job she’s held since returning to the University of Minnesota in 2019 after a four-year stint at the University of Northern Iowa. Opsal started her career at the Institute on Community Integration in 2001, working as an editorial assistant and office manager in the publications office. While at ICI, she held a variety of positions, supporting programs working on transition and youth development, the Check & Connect student engagement model, and others. In 2014, she completed a doctoral degree in educational policy and leadership at the University.
Today, she and a colleague support CLA’s 33 departments and nearly 500 faculty members as they seek internal and external funding for their research.
“My role includes everything you do to support and promote grant-getting. We pave the way and improve the odds of a successful award,” she said. “They look to us for a fresh perspective, not presuming any knowledge specific to a certain field, so we get to read about a huge variety of interesting work.”
Besides being a fan of ICI’s strong culture of supporting employees who are furthering their education, which allowed her to complete her doctoral work, Opsal said she developed a way of thinking about the grant-writing process at ICI that has served her well.
“Grant writing is very pragmatic and task-based. You have to help writers think logically about the steps they’ll need to take to accomplish the goal. What is the outcome, and how does our contribution help?” she said. “We often remind people they’ll have to convince reviewers that what they do has value. There is feasibility and proving your potential to accomplish something, but I would add a third element: Does it matter?”
The does-it-matter question, she said, was formed in part by her work at ICI to improve the daily lives of people with disabilities.
“Chris is a highly talented individual who always held a keen interest in bringing new and creative ideas to fruition through grants,” said David Johnson, who was the ICI director during Opsal’s time at the Institute. “I greatly appreciated her energy and commitment to ICI, its mission, and the individuals we strive to support through our work.” Johnson is now the Birkmaier Professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development.
She continues to help investigators communicate the urgency of their work in her current role.
“I have supported a faculty member doing research into COVID-19 death rates by race, and that’s just one example of the broader reach of this work,” she said. “It’s so interesting to me to support that and to stand behind these people.”
She often reminds colleagues to keep trying to get their research funded, even if it means applying multiple times until the right funding agency sees the idea as a strong fit. That professional optimism spills over into her personal life as well.
After hearing about an “unadoptable” dog, she rescued Stella, a pit bull mix who, at 13, is living happily today with Opsal. Naturally, Stella is participating in a multi-site, grant-funded national project studying aging in dogs.