Sunday, October 18, 2009

NIH mentoring and grantwriting workshop (UPDATED 10-23-09)

I am spending the next three days at a secret location for an NIH conference grant/Program Officer-run grantwriting and mentoring workshop. Anything that is not confidential (i.e. pertaining to the specific research information shared there by proposal donators and other attendees) and might be useful to people here, I will share either as I go or after we're done! I'll just keep updating this post with info.

To discuss mentoring issues, we had multiple 'breakout' style discussion sessions where we submitted questions we had and examples we wanted to talk about, and then spent significant time digging into our own junior faculty perceptions on them and getting the more senior faculty and PO perspectives. The quality of the senior faculty "workshop mentors" was outstanding: they were all engaged and engaging, enthusiastic and contemplative. They gave us their candid but also well-considered takes on stuff from how to recruit good graduate students to how to deal with misconduct observed during the review process. They all offered their continued support, too, if we ever run into situations in the future where we don't have local senior people to help us (or just want some alternative perspectives). SO worth it.

UPDATE 10-24-09: To address a good point that CPP made but also highlight what the workshop was really about, I updated the wording about "a compelling human health relevance."

UPDATE 10-23-09: This workshop was particularly focused towards junior faculty in synthetic organic chemistry, bioorganic/bioinorganic chemistry and chemical biology. I'll give snippets of stuff about different things we learned/talked about and experiences we had as I have time. Right now I have 5 minutes, so I'll tell you about the major NIH R01 take-home message from the workshop. The key, especially for chemists and anyone who does basic synthetic research that is not necessarily easy to connect to a disease, is to establish a credible, compelling human health relevance through developing a depth of understanding and solid rationale within the biology you want to study.

If you love inventing new ways to make complex natural products, it is NOT ENOUGH to just say "this natural product is interesting because it kills a cancer cell line with a potent IC50 and came from a sponge." Nor is it quite enough to say "This methodology is interesting because it would allow access to chemical structures or information about biological function that is hard to get otherwise." You really have to craft a strong argument for WHY your particular methodology or hypothesis is fundamentally important to the study or treatment of a human health problem at whatever level your work can fit, for example:
  • tool-development for basic biological research
  • novel methodology for accessing difficult molecular architectures that can probe or affect biological function
as well as HOW it represents a new angle for approaching the problem. Once you lay that groundwork in the beginning through the specific aims page, "significance" and "innovation" sections, THEN you can get more into the details of your specialty. But no amount of beautiful chemistry or insightful methodology will get you past the hurdle of not finding a compelling connection to a disease-related biological knowledge gap.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, do you mind sharing the details of the workshop? I have been planning to attend one such workshop for a while now.
Thanks in advance.

Best,

Siva

Arlenna said...

This one is targeted towards synthetic chemists and chemical biologists and sponsored by an NIH grant and run by some program officers and other NIH-experienced folks. As far as I know there isn't a link to it somewhere online where you can just go register, but department heads get sent letters every year asking if they have junior faculty to nominate. Mine nominated me and I was accepted.

I'll certainly hope to share about some of the things we are learning about here, and I'll ask the organizers which things they mind me disclosing specifically and which they'd rather I didn't share here.

Drugmonkey said...

if this is "NIH run" it should be fairly open about content, no? If the organizers have problems with you "disclosing" things it is going to be a very interesting question as to why. If there are confidences and / or specific examples about grant review they probably shouldn't be sharing it with a workshop*.

*of course, who are we kidding, investigators talk out of school about study section doings all the time. in private anyway.

Arlenna said...

It's "NIH-run" in the sense that it is organized and guided by a couple of current NIH program officers, and funded by an NIH conference grant.

The only confidential content was in the actual grant applications we mock-reviewed in a model study section. That's confidential at the request of the PIs who donated their proposals for mock review, but I asked the organizers and they said that all the other discussion we had about review process/grantwriting process/mentoring/etc. is all fair game--they hope it will help evangelize to get other people interested in attending in future years.

A lot of the content was more junior faculty mentoring-focused, rather than specifically NIH grantwriting. Both parts were equally helpful, and even more helpful were the connections I made with other junior faculty colleagues from all over the country--there were such great people there, we'll probably be in touch with each other now for the rest of our careers! It was also awesome to make those kinds of real, mutually interested connections with a number of senior faculty in the field and the NIH program officers, they were all super cool too.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The key, especially for chemists and anyone who does basic research that is not necessarily easy to connect to a disease, is to establish a credible, compelling human health relevance.

Calling this "the key" is grossly oversimplifying. The extent to which it is important in a successful R01 to "establish a credible, compelling human health relevance" is *extremely* dependent on the details of a particular application, the study section that will review it, and the IC to which it has been assigned.

Whoever claimed that this is "the key" is doing a disservice to the workshop attendees.

Arlenna said...

CPP, *I* am calling it the key, and it is field-specific. The workshop was designed for and mentored by synthetic organic chemists and chemical biologists (in the closest to a 'traditional' sense of the term--i.e. only a few steps away from synth org): generally, these folks (a field where I came from) DO NOT KNOW HOW to set up this kind of relevance in a compelling way. We/they have also been particularly historically bad at getting NIH funding since the days of 30-40% paylines.

There are only a couple of study sections where these kinds of applicants and projects get assigned and/or specifically apply, and the workshop was run by the program officers and study section members of these sections.

Also, I will point out: this is NOT one of those workshops where you get suckered into paying a few thousand dollars to "get all the answers to getting grant money." This workshop was sponsored by the NIH grant that the organizers have, and we only paid our airfare to get there (and for many of us, our departments picked up that tab as well). We worked with the Russel/Morrison workbook, because it is awesome, but this workshop is not some kind of motivational speaker/self-help money-making scheme for the organizers.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Organic chemistry and chemical biology are just as important--if not more--to advancing basic science as they are to advancing translational/clinical science. To the extent that "there are only a couple of study sections where these kinds of applicants and projects get assigned and/or specifically apply", chemical biologists and organic chemists are selling themselves short.

It is just as important for organic chemists and chemical biologists to learn basic biology and to justify the relevance of their work to breaking open important questions of basic biology as it is for them to learn to "establish a credible, compelling human health relevance". By focusing too heavily on the latter, organic chemists and chemical biologists are foregoing numerous opportunities to argue for the importance of their work.

As just one example of what I am talking about, there are a number of FOAs seeking R01 applications for "technology and tool development" to advance basic research in the context of various organ systems. These applications are reviewed by special chartered study sections in CSR that are quite broad in the kinds of technologies and tools being proposed for development (and certainly include organic chemistry and chemical biology). And the justification of significance for these grant applications has little to do with "establish[ing] a credible, compelling human health relevance".

Arlenna said...

You can do what I am talking about (establish a credible, compelling human health relevance) by doing exactly what you described, dude. Finding a real, fleshed out rationale for how it applies to and can be used for biology is exactly the point. And that requires understanding the connections between what you are doing synthetically --> complexity of biology ---> how that relates to physiology ----> human health.

There is a serious culture gap in the the practices and communication strategies between synthetic chemistry and biology/physiology: it took me five years of postdoc to get just to the middle of the bridge--and that was with a mentor who was exceptionally aware, transparent and strategic in training me to get there (which most chemists don't have). There's also a big difference in culture, goals and experience between the tool/technology-developing chemical biologists and the fundamental synthetic organic chemists who represented more than half of the attendees (and targeted future attendees) at this particular workshop. Fundamental synthetic organic chemists are not necessarily deeply interested in developing tools, and it IS a compromise to them to learn how to tell their stories in a way that lets them get funding for things that are looked upon that way without giving up the parts of the work that they love, identify with and feel is their own.

I think you would probably be one of the first people to proclaim that there's no such thing as a magic formula to getting NIH funding--and no workshop will ever be able to (or should claim to) teach people one. That's not what this workshop was about. First of all, it is mostly about junior faculty mentoring in general, and second it works hard to help chemists to find ways to frame their work that will improve the impact of their communication about it. All while keeping the connection to why they and their labs want to do it in the first place: because they love molecules and love to find elegant ways to make them.

Anonymous said...

Arlenna,
Thanks for sharing your insights from the point of an organic synthetic chemist. I can completely relate to it as a synthetic chemist. Now that you have invested so long to transform in to a 'chemicalbiologist', would you mind suggesting some quick tips from your journey for the people ho want to take the same path? Are there any books or some crash courses etc?
Coming up with the sales pitch i.e. 'connecting basic research to a disease and establishing a credible, compelling human health relevance' is not an easy thing for chemists as you have rightly pointed.
How do you do that in your research? Do you choose the biology problem first or do you choose the molecules first? Just thought of seeking your perspective of the entire process.

Arlenna said...

Hi anon: I'm responding in a new post to the first part of your question. For the 2nd part, I personally have done a mixture of both angles--both picking a biological problem I think is cool (and finding lots of ways to use molecules to get at it) and starting from a molecule (or set of similar molecules) and finding a biological problem/question to try applying them to.

You can really go either way, and the exercise of working from each direction will probably be extremely educational and helpful. But it might be easier to work from what you know best (your molecules and/or reactions you're especially interested in) and start reading PubMed papers (rather than SciFinder) about them to see what kinds of biology they might be useful for or involved in. If you're a natural products person, you could look for your central interesting architecture in a range of compounds and look up everything you can find about their biological activities. Maybe you'll need to propose to study how exactly they DO work if nobody has really figured it out yet.

Finding a good, helpful biological collaborator who will humor you and train you in your need to learn how it all works will make your life much more pleasant during this process!