Show me the money! Panel explains how to dip into NIH’s pockets.

Today is a day of double greetings: Happy mardi gras, and happy international women’s day! Today I shifted my research focus a bit to my second project, which is more on the nanotechnology end of things. This project will eventually require me to successfully introduce foreign nanoparticles into living cells, a process with which I am critically unfamiliar. So I spoke to a few poster-presenters in the ‘Exocytosis and Endocytosis’ poster section in hopes of getting a better understanding of the process as a whole. It seems as though the consensus from that community is to use a hypotonic solution in the endocytic vesicles, or to resort to cellular microinjection. If any of you have alternate suggestions, please let me know!

My favorite session from today was the NIH grant-writing workshop, How (Not) to Write Your NIH Grant Proposal. Even though I am still just a graduate student, I figure it is never too early to start looking into the academic grant-writing process. This panel was great- 5 former NIH panel members who mimicked the process of reviewing a grant proposal using dummy grant applications with varying strengths and weaknesses. It was like being a fly in the room during an actual NIH review

When I first arrived in the room near the start of the workshop, it was standing-room, probably reflecting the stagnating success rates for scientific proposals over the last few years. The first dummy grant application that was “reviewed” was from a prominent and well-established professor who had submitted a poor renewal. The NIH panel detailed some of the weak points of this application, which included

–          Design of experiment had the possibility of leading to false positive results

–          Knowledge gaps in the literature review: The grant author failed to acknowledge one or several other works in the field that might have competing goals.

–          The proposal was poorly organized

–          The aims of the proposal were not addressed by the experimental approaches the PI planned to take

–          There had been a decrease in productivity in the lab over the course of the past few years

–          A need for better preliminary data

Apparently, these flaws are common throughout grant applications that receive poor scores. The next dummy grant review was actually a dummy re-submission from a new PI who had just started her lab. This grant re-submission was categorized as strong. Some of its key points included:

–          The re-submission addressed all potential problems that were brought up by the reviewers in the original grant application

–          The PI generated more preliminary data

–          The proposal was clear and well written

–          The suggested intellectual outcome of the proposal would be beneficial for the field

–          The idea was creative

–          The suggested experiments had the potential to answer the questions addressed in the proposal

Members of the dummy panel also gave brief PowerPoint presentations on the types of NIH grants available, and general grant-writing tips. I found it interesting that it is highly encouraged to explain personal circumstances that have influenced your/ your lab’s productivity, if applicable, in your biographical sketch. I came away with a decent understanding of the review process, and although the process itself is lengthy and can be tedious, I am glad referees go to such lengths to ensure a fair evaluation process. Another good tip was to accurately represent the aims of your project. A common question is “why is this research important and relevant”, which certainly needs to be addressed. But, on occasion, applicants will overemphasize the potential results of their research. For example, I study topoisomerases on a single-molecule level. Type IB topoisomerases are popular anti-cancer drug targets. However, I shouldn’t claim that my optical trapping data will cure cancer- only that a better understanding of the protein function may help in future drug design. If the several-steps-removed end goal of your project is too far-fetched, your proposal may end up being reviewed by the wrong panel.

A big thanks to Ravi Basavappa, Jean Chin, Catherine Lewis, Arnold Revzin, and Donald Schneider for making this panel very informative.

And, for my random picture of the day, here is a quick iPod touch snapshot of one of last night’s performers during the BPS dance.


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