Looking back on UW2020 successes charts path for Research Forward

As the UW2020: WARF Discovery initiative comes to a close, one doesn’t have to look far to see its profound impact on the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. That makes it easy to sense the exciting discoveries possible with the university’s new research initiative called Research Forward, which has an impending abstract deadline on Dec. 21.

UW2020 funded a total of 95 projects across six rounds of awards since the program began in 2016. The initiative was funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which will also support Research Forward.

Of the projects awarded in the area of biological sciences, many of them were led by SMPH faculty members as principal investigators. Dozens of other SMPH faculty members served as co-principal investigators, investigators, and collaborators.

Photo by Clint Thayer/Department of Medicine.

“The UW2020 Initiative has provided our investigators with outstanding opportunities to pursue their most innovative and groundbreaking ideas, facilitating new collaborations that will have a long-lasting impact on our campus,” says Anjon Audhya, PhD, Associate Dean for Basic Research and professor of biomolecular chemistry. “With several new avenues of research, our training environment has never been better. Importantly, the transformation of our research infrastructure enabled by the UW2020 Initiative is a benefit that can be shared by all faculty, staff, and learners on campus.”

The large diversity of SMPH projects covered both research and infrastructure work in the clinical and basic medical sciences. Projects tackled some of the most challenging research questions of the decade and investigated diseases and processes critical to the school’s research mission to develop new approaches for preventing, diagnosing, and treating illness — ultimately improving the health of the residents of Wisconsin and beyond.

“UW2020 projects born out of UW2020 have led to positive health actions and provided innovative and relevant data for public health interventions,” says Steve Ackerman, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. “The rapidly changing field of medicine and health care calls for technological innovations and interdisciplinary collaborations, which we have seen in the SMPH projects. Building on the success of UW2020, I look forward to seeing what Research Forward projects come out of SMPH.”

Projects explored HIV/AIDS, CRISPR gene editing technology, cancer therapies, diabetes, and more. Researchers from all corners of the school — from Oncology, Radiology, and Pediatrics to Cell and Regenerative Biology, Neuroscience, Biomolecular Chemistry, and more — had funded projects.

Elizabeth Cox, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, had multiple areas of research supported by UW2020. With UW2020 funding and support from the SMPH Office of Basic Research, Biotechnology and Graduate Studies, Cox and numerous collaborators created a new research resource that will engage diabetes researchers all across campus, developed new methods that can inform which diabetes medications may work best for each patient, and formed a biobank for diabetes research that includes patient information and clinical samples for investigator use across campus.

“This biobank and our UW2020 work have been integral in supporting the creation of the UW–Madison Comprehensive Diabetes Center,” Cox says. “This will greatly enhance opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary diabetes research across campus.”

UW2020’s goal was kickstarting new research projects and collaborations, to great success. The projects started new collaborations within and outside SMPH. Data gathered from projects also helped secure large amounts of extramural funding. One recent example is a series of projects involving cancer research that recently led to a $12.5M grant from the National Cancer Institute.


As the UW2020 name implies, all good things must come to an end, but the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education’s goal of helping fund innovative research remains unchanged. To build on successes from UW2020, they have launched Research Forward. The program will also be funded by WARF and provide funding for one to two years, depending on the needs and scope of the project. The maximum award amount is $500,000.

Image of ResearchSimilar to UW2020, Research Forward will support collaborative, multidisciplinary, multi-investigator research projects that are high-risk and high-impact. It seeks to fund research projects that have the potential to fundamentally transform a field of study, as well as projects that require significant development prior to the submission of applications for external funding. Collaborative research proposals are welcome from within any of the four divisions (Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences), as are cross-divisional collaborations.

“I am excited about the possibilities that Research Forward offers to our scientific community,” says Audhya. “It sets UW–Madison apart from our peer institutions and highlights the exceptionally strong commitment to cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research here in Madison.”

To apply, the lead principal investigator must be a UW–Madison faculty member or a researcher with permanent PI status. A cover sheet with a 300-word abstract is due Dec. 21 and complete proposals are due Feb. 1, 2021.

For more information on the initiative and details on how to apply, visit research.wisc.edu. For questions regarding eligibility or submitting an abstract and full submissions, please contact the appropriate divisional associate vice chancellor for research (see research.wisc.edu/about/leadership/). For technical questions or for general information, please send an email to competitions@research.wisc.edu.