Getting the Edge


Attempting to be at least five steps ahead of the game while simultaneously teaching 500 undergraduate students, mentoring five graduate students and more than ten K-12 science teachers is a daunting task.  As part of my tenure-track roles and responsibilities at Rutgers University, I find myself juggling numerous responsibilities which include teaching, performing independent and collaborative research investigations as well as providing civic engagement opportunities and services to the community.

I am also expected to create an independent and economically sustainable research agenda which involves actively publishing my own research and providing mentorship to graduate students. A primary focus of my work includes writing proposals in an effort to acquire grants from the government and funders. To ensure success, it’s critical to provide competitive, hypothesis-based research in combination with a track record of published work.

The probability of winning a grant is often directly related to the history of publications and as well as their respective impact. The phrase “publish or perish” is often used to demonstrate academic talent; however, it does not accurately depict the full story which often positions academic researchers as salespeople as well as in an effort to demonstrate that we are capable of bringing capital to the university by selling our research agenda.

So, the main question is, how can I be five steps ahead of other fellow researchers from smaller, bigger and/or other prestigious universities? I may also be competing against Nobel Laureates, members of national academies, directors of national centers and experts of the subject matter. As stated previously, it’s a very daunting task.

To best position myself to get ahead, my strategy is to surround myself with great mentors. I am extremely grateful to have mentors from both Rutgers and from the surrounding universities that have guided me across the minefields and have motivated me to keep trying. Some of the best advice I’ve received from them is “to not give up and always keep writing.”

Another valuable lesson I’ve learned from my mentors is to ensure you have access to tools that can make your job easier. Last year, I discovered a Digital Science’s innovative new platform, Dimensions.  I serendipitously learned about it from a colleague whose child attends the same elementary school as my own. After spending some time exploring Dimensions, I very quickly realized that the database was also used by publishers. While I’m not personally a publisher, I could use Dimensions to identify research trends within a field or grant trends within a subject.

Excited about the potential Dimensions offered to investigate a variety of keywords related to my research, I began exploring the database for publications related to two main categories of interest: polysaccharides and proteins. Furthermore, I subdivided the research into individual subcategories each representing a specific molecular name. I looked at publications and quickly discovered trends both domestically and globally.

At the national level, I reviewed funding trends for over the past 10 years which was critical. The analytical views within Dimensions provided a graphical representation of all the trends and allowed me to identify a sharp reduction of funding in the field of materials regenerated from lignin and a constant increase in research related silk. I also noticed that research relating morphology to molecular interaction was lacking.

As a result of these insights I gathered from Dimensions, I made the decision to stop writing proposals on lignin-based materials and concentrate my proposal efforts into looking at the physicochemical and morphological properties of silk-based biomaterials regenerated from ionic liquids. 10 months later, I successfully received federal funding. I strongly believe that Dimensions provided the necessary information that enabled me to focus my research proposal writing efforts. While it didn’t help me directly secure the grant, it certainly gave me an edge by offering insights to topics with a high probability of funding that closely aligned with my interests. Dimensions also enabled me to focus my ideas by matching them with up-to-date funding and publication trends.    


About the author

Born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, David Salas de la Cruz moved to the United States after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico with a BS in Chemical Engineering. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. Before joining a tenure-track position at Rutgers, he acquired a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from Villanova University and a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. David has over 15 years of working experience in material science and medical devices companies and in education. His research focuses on understanding the molecular interaction and physicochemical properties of polysaccharide and protein biocomposites. His technology platform could be used for cell regeneration, battery applications and as well as a membrane for pollution remediation.


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