University of Vermont

Center for Research on Vermont

REACH Grant Program Funds Faculty in Varied Disciplines

Next round of applications due Dec. 1

Deb Ellis
Film and Television Studies faculty member Deb Ellis and cameraman Dinesh Sabu set up a shot on location in southern Illinois for a new documentary examining the effects of rampant online pornography on the development of young adults. Ellis's team received seed financing for the project from UVM's new REACH Grant Program.

Pornography on the Web is not only pervasive, with 12 percent of all websites and one-third of all downloads devoted to it, it’s so easily accessible that the average age of first exposure, potentially to extreme, sexually violent imagery, is 11, and 80 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have visited hardcore pornographic sites multiple times.

“We’re living in a big social experiment that’s playing out before our eyes,” says documentary filmmaker and Film and Television Studies faculty member Deb Ellis.

How that social experiment is affecting the development of young adults, from its impact on their social relationships to their brain development, is the subject of a new documentary Ellis is co-directing provisionally titled The End of Love. Ellis got the project off the ground, the hardest budgetary phase of any documentary film, earlier this summer with the help of a new grant program the university launched last year designed to provide seed funding to faculty in a range of disciplines.

The REACH Grant Program was conceived as a way both for STEM faculty to do exploratory work that could attract large grants and for faculty in the social sciences, arts, and humanities, which typically don’t receive high levels of external support, to gain the resources necessary to do their work.

In either case, says interim Graduate College dean Cindy Forehand, who played a key role in shaping and administering the program, the idea is “to move the faculty member’s career forward and, by extension, the University of Vermont.”

From paintings to infectious disease

Supported with funding from both the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research, REACH took form last fall when a faculty group – led by classics professor Robert Rodgers and drawn from the Faculty Senate’s Research, Scholarship and the Creative Arts Committee and the Executive Committee of the Graduate College – deliberated on the judging criteria for a full semester.  

The challenge that consumed so much time, Forehand says, was coming up with a scoring system that crossed disciplines, “so you can compare a painting with someone who’s doing microbiology on infectious diseases in the Congo.” The outcome was a scoring rubric with nine criteria measuring a project’s innovativeness, impact, reach, budget feasibility, and the viability of its basic approach. 

Once the issue of scoring was addressed, a different kind of challenge arose: dealing with a tidal wave of faculty applications, 98 in all, about double what Forehand expected. The message that the grant program was non-denominational came through loud and clear: about half of the applications were from the social sciences, arts and humanities. 

To manage the evaluation process, Forehand asked deans for suggestions on faculty who could sit on a review committee.  Thirty-two volunteered. In the end, REACH awarded 17 grants, at least one in every academic unit.

A random selection of faculty receiving grants demonstrates the breadth of the program: Michelle Commercio in Political Science; Susan Lakoski in Medicine, Carmen Smith in Education; William McDowell in Art and Art History; Sean Stillman in History; Richard Single in Statistics, and the team of Bryan Baliff in Biology and Antonio DiCarlo in Surgery. See a complete list of grant recipients and abstracts of their projects.

Grants were capped at $50,000; many were half that amount, and a number a of faculty requests were less than $10,000. 

17 families, five states

For Ellis, a nationally respected filmmaker whose best known work is a portrait of Howard Zinn narrated by Matt Damon called You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the $21,000 grant she received was instrumental, enabling her to hire a camera person and to interview 17 families in Florida, Buffalo, Detroit, and southern Illinois in June and July. Ellis and co-producer Alexandra Halkin will be conducting follow-up interviews this fall with a number of families, and will work with an animator and music composer for their upcoming trailer.

The four to six minute trailer will be posted in January on a crowd-sourcing platform like Kickstarter. Ellis and Halkin will use the newly raised funds to make a longer and more developed version of the trailer, eventually approaching sponsors like Independent Television Service, which provides programming for PBS, and the Sundance Foundation for full funding.

While Ellis is confident that the compelling nature of her topic and skill of her team will make for a successful project, she doesn’t overlook the contribution the REACH program has made to her efforts. “Getting this kind of funding is so key to starting a project off,” she says.  “My sense is if UVM, or any school, wants to get people like us in the arts out there doing what we can do, we need this kind of program.” 

Applications for this year’s REACH grants are due Dec. 3; awards will be made in early February. Information about the proposal process will be available in the next several weeks on the REACH website.