illustration of hands holding lightbulb and dollars
June 28, 2017
Jennifer Wagner

Dave Frisvold sometimes travels, and when he does, he typically ducks into a popular restaurant chain for black coffee and a breakfast sandwich. The calorie count in the sandwiches—which are posted in the menu—range by a good amount. Some climb to 500 calories and others, depending on the ingredients, contain less than 250.

On reflection, Frisvold normally chooses the sandwich with the lower calorie count. And in doing so, he unwittingly becomes the subject of his own research experiment.

Frisvold is the principal investigator for the largest grant received in the modern history of the Tippie College of Business. A member of the Carver College of Medicine’s Obesity Research and Education Initiative—a group of multidisciplinary researchers positioned around the University of Iowa—Frisvold is leading a $1.4 million project that examines how restaurants and their patrons will respond to a national law requiring all restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calories of standard menu items. The law took effect on May 5.

“The intent of the law is consumers should have more information to help guide decisions,” says Frisvold, associate professor of economics and Henry B. Tippie Research Fellow. “We’re examining whether customers, armed with the knowledge of their menu item calorie counts, will switch up their orders or choose different restaurants entirely.”

The amount brought in by funded research pursuits like Frisvold’s has risen significantly at Tippie since 2013-14, according to Senior Associate Dean Kurt Anstreicher, and external funding is becoming increasingly important. “We have a very research-active faculty,” he says. “But most of our people don’t have outside funding as they are working in areas where funding doesn’t exist.”

Anstreicher points to three main reasons why funded research is more and more critical. First, while business schools don’t internally use grants as primary indicators of success, faculty members are often evaluated for promotion and tenure by “external constituents”—that is, academic peers outside of the business school who typically put a higher value on funded research. Second, a reduction in state funding translates to a reduction in graduate student funding. Grants help supply research assistantships, among other things. Frisvold’s grant for instance, funds one full-time graduate student and five undergraduates working hourly. Third, the level of funded research is a high priority for the larger university, and especially for the UI Office of the Vice President for Research.

“In the last five years, we have made a number of efforts to provide support for our faculty seeking these grants,” says Anstreicher. One such effort was creating a research support manager position, and in 2012 Sara Maples was hired to help generate ideas and find sources of funding.

“I am here to help facilitate research,” says Maples. “I help break down administrative barriers, and to also help faculty members become aware there’s a team member here to help them succeed.”

The level of support varies among researchers. For Assistant Professor Kang Zhao, Maples helped review his initial budget and proposal, making sure all requirements were met. Zhao succeeded in receiving a major, highly competitive research grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Zhao’s research concerns social network analysis of large-scale data. “My research looks at individuals’ behaviors online to understand and predict whether they will be able to quit smoking in their offline life,” he says.

In collaborating with the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., Zhao and his team utilize a text-mining technique that examines over 1.5 million public posts or messages generated by over 675,000 people. “This kind of research allows early intervention for people who, given their online behavior, appear that they will likely go back to smoking,” he says.

Tippie Professor Greg Stewart is also engaged with a segment of health care. He is part of a nationwide effort examining how health care can be improved when individual patients are assigned long-term to interdisciplinary teams of coordinated health care professionals, as opposed to a random selection of doctors, nurses, and clerks for each visit. His grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This “team,” says Stewart, consists of a doctor, two nurses, and a clerk. “Often clerks are overlooked,” he says. “But they are the ones who initially interface with the patients and develop a human side to health care that is often missing.”

The overall goal, he notes, is to have members of each team work to the top of their abilities and competencies. The latest studies suggest that using these teams results in higher quality health care for patients, higher satisfaction ratings, and lower costs due to fewer emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

“It’s very satisfying research,” says Stewart. “We are having an impact on these vets by improving their lives.”

Finding satisfaction in one’s work is a subject Tippie Professor Amy Colbert knows very well. She is in year three of a $375,000 grant funded by the Templeton Religion Trust that focuses on why people choose meaningful employment, and how people handle burn-out and stress while working jobs to which they feel called.

“My research examines this sense of ‘calling’… this sense of a broader contribution than what is just immediately in front of us,” she says. “We research the work of pastors, relief workers, doctors, teachers. We examine the challenges they face and are trying to figure out how they can continue to focus on their profession and what’s really important to them as opposed to burning out.”

Colbert hopes to develop a model that will categorize people’s stories on how to deal with tough circumstances in jobs they feel called to do. “We want to learn from people who are resilient to stressors and continue to find meaning across their careers,” she says.

This particular grant is housed at Notre Dame, where Colbert spent three years before arriving in Iowa in 2007. She is the co-investigator. Most of her funding goes toward supporting a Ph.D. student — both his tuition and stipend are paid for out of the grant monies; she also employs a consultant in qualitative research. “I’m grateful to have others working with me on this project,” says Colbert. “It’s important to have multiple perspectives on these difficult questions.”

Asked whether she finds her own work meaningful, Colbert remains resolute. “Absolutely!” she smiles. “I’m inspired every day by the stories I hear from the people I study. If our research can help them thrive through challenges that they face, then all my work will have been worth it!”