Introducing the Research Incubator Program's Inaugural Cohort

To address the increasing need for advancement in our understanding of depressive illnesses, the Eisenberg Family Depression Center has launched a new program designed to help emerging researchers explore innovative research questions.


The Research Incubator Program, part of the Center’s Data & Design Core, breaks down the barriers early-career investigators often experience when developing research programs by providing hands-on support and guidance for impactful research projects.

The new service was created after Data & Design Core Faculty Leads Donovan Maust, M.D. and Briana Mezuk, Ph.D. recognized a gap in research services for early-career faculty and the urgent need to further interdisciplinary research about depressive illness. Both Drs. Maust and Mezuk have extensive experience using secondary data and realized the potential a program like this holds.

“We know that conducting original research is lengthy and expensive. It can take several years, and several hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to see an original research idea to completion,” said Meghan Seewald, Data & Design Core Manager. “There was a sense that, given the state of the mental health crisis, we need to start making research advancements much more quickly. We can’t keep waiting for answers.”

The idea of using secondary data is not new but can be very challenging, especially for those who lack the resources to identify the best source and uses for the data. Often, early-career faculty have difficulty securing funding, limited time to devote to research, or the ability to hire a research team to complete projects. For many faculty, a resource like an expert-level statistician is critical and requires grant funding. The program leverages the Center’s embedded lead statistician, Emily Urban-Wojcik, Ph.D., to close this gap.

“There was a sense that, given the state of the mental health crisis, we need to start making research advancements much more quickly. We can’t keep waiting for answers.”
Meghan Seewald, Data & Design Core Manager

The Research Incubator Program is unique in that it has a team of dedicated staff who help the selected faculty discover answers to their research questions at no cost to pre-tenure faculty and Eisenberg Family Depression Center members. The program helps establish a foundation for the investigators, building confidence in their abilities, and equipping them with new skills that will help further their careers. 

“It really provides hands-on support for people to move their research ideas from question to answer much more efficiently,” said Seewald. The Core team has practice working with secondary data and navigating the data landscape. This background helps do much of the heavy lifting for the faculty members who are new to using secondary data, an often underutilized resource in academia.

In September, four faculty members were selected to join the program’s inaugural cohort. Each submitted a short application which was reviewed based on its potential for impact, its contribution to the overall literature, the clarity of the proposal, and the feasibility of the project. The goal is to create tangible outcomes that will be disseminated in a range of settings, from traditional academic pathways to having real-world influence like new or affirmed clinical guidelines and policy briefs. The four selected projects began working with the program this fall.

Meet the Principal Investigators:

Aurora Le, Ph.D. M.P.H., C.S.P., C.P.H.
John G. Searle Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health

Dr. Aurora Le is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Dr. Le’s work concentrates on highly infectious disease mitigation and management. 

Dr. Le’s incubator project will analyze the relationship between the dual COVID-19 and opioid epidemics, employment, and mental health. The project hopes to better understand the efficacy or harm of having drug-free workplace policies on opioid use disorder and opioid misuse.

Michael Smith, Pharm.D, B.C.P.S.
Clinical Associate Professor of Pharmacy, College of Pharmacy and Clinical Pharmacist, Michigan Medicine

Dr. Michael Smith is a Clinical Associate Professor for Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy and is a Clinical Pharmacist in Pain and Palliative Care. His research focuses on the safe and effective use of pain management medication in centralized pain and the appropriate use of medications in vulnerable populations, particularly older adults.

Dr. Smith’s incubator project will investigate the less studied association between depression and centralized pain and the medication burden on the older adult population. The project intends to quantify the medication burden of these diagnoses to understand the prevalence of these comorbid diagnoses and improve medication management for these conditions. 

Wei Zhao, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research

Dr. Wei Zhao is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center. Dr. Zhao’s research investigates genomics, aging and retirement, and population health.

Dr. Zhao’s incubator project will examine the heritability of depression and the direct and indirect genetic effects as an underlying risk factor for developing major depressive disorder. The project will investigate how genetic direct, genetic indirect, and non-genetic environmental factors impact depression.

Peter Larson, Ph.D.
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research and Adjunct Lecturer in Epidemiology, School of Public Health

Dr. Peter Larson is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center and an adjunct lecturer in Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. His research interests include spatial and geographic information system analysis, environmental impact, infectious disease, and health disparities.

Dr. Larson’s incubator project will explore the impact of climate change on mental health incidents requiring hospital-level intervention in older adults. The project will examine the correlation between the effects of climate change and increased risk for acute mental health emergencies.

About the Data & Design Core

The Eisenberg Family Depression Center’s Data & Design Core supports scientists across the University of Michigan with individualized guidance to support and accelerate the research process to advance depression research. The Data & Design Core offers services to help connect investigators with existing resources and provides consultations to assist in the design and analysis of studies.

Interested in Applying? Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. The deadline for applications to join the next cohort will be announced in early 2023.