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Prof. Mark Smith Appointed to Four-Year Term on NIH Study Section

Mark Smith
Prof. Mark Smith studies the behavioral effects of opioids and cocaine.

Professor of Psychology Mark Smith has been appointed to a four-year term as one of 25 members of the National Institutes of Health Biobehavioral Regulation, Learning and Ethology (NIH BRLE) study section.

The section is charged with evaluating grant proposals concerning mental health and neuropsychiatric diseases that are submitted to the NIH from scientists, researchers and clinicians.

"It's up to us to evaluate the science in the proposals," said Smith. "Through our analysis of proposals, we provide perhaps the most important information in the process of funding decisions, but we only give a recommendation, and don't make the final decision."

Smith said the process begins with assignment of up to a dozen proposals to each member of the section. Members review and critique their assigned proposals, and bring their analyses of them to the three meetings per year of the entire section. A total of 60 to 100 proposals are presented and scored by members at each section meeting. The proposals and their recommended scores are then passed along to an NIH "council," which makes the final decision on funding.

"In making funding decisions the council evaluates the science of proposals, their likelihood of success and potential impact, and the stated mission of the institution it represents," Smith said.

It is uncommon for the study section to appoint to membership faculty from liberal arts colleges, like Smith. However, appointments are based in part on a potential member's success in receiving NIH grants, and their experience as "ad hoc" members of special section evaluation teams. Smith meets both criteria, having received five major NIH grants himself, and having served as an ad hoc member five times in the past two years.

"Having written a lot of NIH grant proposals myself puts me in a good position to evaluate proposals from other people," he said.

Smith said the duties of section members are tremendously time consuming, noting that it takes a full day to thoroughly evaluate a single proposal.

But his work on the study section also is tremendously valuable to his work in teaching at Davidson. Through the study section, he enjoys contact with others who share his professional interest–behavioral pharmacology.

"There are many advantages of working at an undergraduate institution like Davidson, but at a major research institution there would be colleagues also interested in addiction science with whom to discuss matters in the field."

He continued, "Study section gives me that opportunity to have discussions with other investigators doing similar research, and that greatly informs my science and makes me a better investigator. All those discussions of not only my field, but related ones, helps me become a better mentor and teacher."

Smith graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University in 1992 and earned his doctorate from the University of North Carolina. He joined the Davidson psychology department in 1998. His research focuses on the behavioral effects of opioids and cocaine. He and student research assistants examine potential behavioral and pharmacological interventions that may reduce drug abuse.