Randy Black never gets a byline on the grant proposals he writes and edits as director of UC Irvine’s Office of Research Development, but grateful investigators say he deserves a lot of credit.
Black’s crisp prose and meticulous editing have helped procure millions for UCI from grant agencies, supporting such diverse endeavors as graduate education for underrepresented minority students, medical school construction and undergraduate research. He recently assisted Maria Feng, civil & environmental engineering professor, in winning a $6.2 million grant to build robots that can fix leaky water pipes from the inside.
Black’s dogged pursuit of grants on behalf of campus investigators earned him the 2009 Living Our Values Award for staff members with more than five years of service. Given annually by Chancellor Michael Drake, the awards honor staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.
“Randy Black is the unsung hero behind many of the major UCI successes in extramural research funding and developments,” wrote Frederic Yui-Ming Wan, mathematics professor, in his nomination letter.
Black does everything from minor edits to crafting entire proposals from scratch, always keeping a low profile and letting the investigators shine. “I’m kind of a ghost,” he says. “You can’t take credit for a grant. It’s their work; you just play a supporting role.”
To plenty of people, though, Black’s a star — because of his ability to polish the roughest draft into sparkling copy.
“He takes raw text and produces a strong and coherent argument for funding a UCI project,” says Christina Hansen, who retired last September as assistant vice chancellor for research administration. “He writes beautifully, in prose that grabs the reader’s attention and makes one want to read it.”
Black never dumbs down his material. He attempts to clarify while remaining true to the researcher’s intent. “He can translate difficult-to-decipher science into readable copy in ways that can be appreciated by scientific reviewers and laymen alike,” Hansen says.
Adept at finding the ideal analogy to illuminate the obscure, he once described DNA as “a chemical zipper, with each open half-zipper acting like a mold to cast its opposing half-zipper in RNA. RNA strands then float off to become molds for the original DNA half-zipper, or just zipper pieces.”
Before joining UCI in 1986 as a public information officer, Black worked as a freelance science writer, contributing articles to Omni magazine (now defunct), Air & Space/Smithsonian and other prestigious publications.
“Grant writing is a different kind of writing. It’s not as flashy, but you’re still trying to knock their socks off,” he says. “You have to write succinctly. I can take a draft and boil it down to fit into less space without losing muscle or bone. The integrity is still there. It’s storytelling, but within strict parameters — like what haiku is to poetry.”
While caring about his craft, he has no illusions about the purpose of his prose: It’s to garner “cold, hard cash.”
“My goal is to get money for the university, primarily from federal agencies,” says Black, who started the Office of Research Development in 1994. In 2009, his two-person office worked on 70 grant proposals totaling $108 million, and $12 million came in as a result of their efforts. The office’s track record is so consistent, other universities have asked the federal government for copies of UCI applications.
Black also holds grant writing workshops for graduate students, and serves as a liaison for the Faculty Profile System, a research interest database — among other things — that helps match potential collaborators.
“The toughest aspect of my job is that an unsuccessful proposal takes as much work as a successful one, but you don’t get the money,” he says. “You just have to submit the proposal by deadline and hope for the best.”
Those efforts, though, are rewarded often enough that researchers continue to seek his office’s services. Says Black modestly: “We get a lot of repeat customers.”