Silvia Ronco, Research Corporation for Science Advancement

TITLE: Program Director 

FUNDING AREAS: Chemistry, physical sciences, and undergraduate research

CONTACT: sronco@rescorp.org, 520-571-1111

IP TAKE: With a research and teaching background in inorganic chemistry, Ronco has become a big advocate for high-risk research by early career scientists and in budding scientists in undergraduate settings.

PROFILE: In her research, Silvia Ronco, PhD, had a focus on solar power conversion, clearly well aware of the challenges facing humanity related to global climate change and energy use. In her role as program director for the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), Ronco is after high-risk, high-reward projects to take on problems of such importance, and she's looking for them in places you might not expect.

Since 2003, Ronco has been working at RCSA, first as a program officer and now program director, overseeing grantmaking to hundreds of academic researchers for relatively smaller amounts. The private foundation encourages creativity and risk-taking and has a tendency to fund early career researchers.

In her own early career, Ronco was a researcher of inorganic chemistry, with applications including materials used in solar power transfer. She earned her PhD from the National University of La Plata in Argentina, doing postdoctoral work at Notre Dame and Clemson University.

Just prior to starting with RCSA, she was a professor at the University of South Dakota for about 10 years. While she continued her research, Ronco also became involved in a new endeavor, even earning grant funding for a program outside her area of study—the journeys of Lewis and Clark.

It might seem like an odd fit, but Ronco was funded by the National Conference on Undergraduate Research and the Leslie E. Lancy Foundation as part of a program that encourages faculty and students to collaborate in research projects across academic disciplines. Ronco took a strong interest in this approach to research, and it has become a primary focus of her current work. She would go on to become active in the Council on Undergraduate Research.

It made her a great fit for the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a private foundation based in Tucson, Arizona, that supports physical science research at primarily undergraduate institutions and for early career scientists. By doing so, RCSA hopes to promote out-of-the-box thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration and more widespread education of scientific concepts. Since 1912, RCSA has existed to support what it calls transformative research and has funded the early work of 40 Nobel Prize winners. It was founded by Frederick Gardner Cottrell, a scientist and inventor who first endowed the foundation with his patent profits from an air pollution reduction device.

For RCSA and Ronco, the focus on primarily undergraduate institutions and younger scientists makes sense in the pursuit of riskier research. According to one paper Ronco contributed to for the CUR, such researchers and environments tend to be more flexible, while massive research institutions and funders can be more rigid or conservative in what they support.

As such, the foundation gives out many smaller grants, in the form of two awards programs, and the "Scialog" program that focuses on the exchange of ideas and forming new partnerships.

For example, 2013 Cottrell Scholar Award-winner Gordana Dukovic, of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is researching the use of tiny crystalline structures in clean energy applications. Dukovic will integrate her research into UC Boulder undergraduate chemistry courses.

Learn more about Ronco's grantmaking and how to apply for RCSA's research grants here.