Monday, June 8, 2015

Applications: the first year

There is a lot of pressure (internally - from myself and to be able to support my lab members, and externally - expectations from the department/college/institution) to secure funding for the lab. It has been 10 months since I started my position, and feel like I've been learning a lot along the way. When it comes to funding, I needed to learn many things, and still feel that there is a lot of learning to happen. This year I worked on four areas: developing research ideas, finding funding opportunities, deciding what to submit, and setting deadlines. And I wrote. A lot.

This is what a scientist looks like.
1. Developing research ideas. 
Before we talk about the opportunities and the deadlines, I wanted to take a step back, because no funding is possible without a good idea. I've been keeping a document where I put "potential project ideas." Most of them are a little zany. Some will never see the light of day, but if I start to think of something that might be a good future collaboration, and I know I can't work on it now, I add it to this document. I also have a white board where I list the current projects in the lab, the ones with the most preliminary data (and hopefully most likely to be funded). At least this way, I feel like I can get the ideas out of my head and not worry I'll forget about them. We'll come back to research ideas at the end, when I talk about deciding what to submit.

2. Finding funding opportunities.
I started out by looking around the NIH and NSF websites. That got hairy real fast. So, I took a step back, and started asking around locally about where people found announcements, and learned that there is a whole office devoted to pulling together funding announcements for all areas of research across the university ( - though you have to sign in to get access). At other places there will be different levels of people who can help you find funding announcements. That said, even with this help, it takes time to read through and identify opportunities that are reasonable for me to apply to, but well worth the time. Even with internal resources like this, it is worth it, in my opinion, to periodically search for other funding opportunities that might be unique to you or your research area. For example, by listening to friends, I learned about some small grants available to support undergraduate research, that would never be listed on the main funding site because (in my opinion) they're not enough $ to warrant making the list, but can really help out a small lab.

3. Deciding what to submit.
For smaller and individual awards (e.g., 1-2 pages, undergraduate funding, etc), as long as there is interest, and someone to support, I'd say it is worth the time to apply. Securing trainee funding gives confidence to the trainees, provides support for an additional person, and small success can really keep you going, when it seems like other aspects of the funding game are stacked against you.

For larger awards (e.g., NIH R01, NSF proposals), for me, as a new PI, I don't have a ton of preliminary data, nor a slew of collaborators, so I felt like I really needed to focus on ideas that I could be really confident would go forward. For each of these largish grants, for each idea I had, I wrote up a one page of the Specific Aims (and Broader Impacts, where necessary), and then inquired with the program officer about whether it fit with their agency/group. I tended to get very prompt (at most a few days) and candid responses from the program offers. A few times, the answer was, "Can I be blunt? No, this isn't something our agency would consider funding." And honestly, I was so glad for the direct feedback! In these cases, I did not spend my time writing up a proposal. In a couple cases, I did receive positive feedback, and constructive criticism on what to adjust/change in the aims. For these, I did submit complete proposals.

I should pause here to say that I have no delusions that I'm going to be any more successful than my peers when applying to these, but I feel like at least I'm not starting out with a grant idea that is dead in the water. And that's something, right?

4. Setting deadlines.
When I started my position I made myself a table that lists four columns to help me stay focused and organized: 1) Award; 2) Deadline; 3) Amount awarded; and, 4) Notes.

The first three are pretty self-explanatory. Notes includes a link to the funding announcement if applicable, information about the PI/coPIs/trainees on the award, and general topic of the proposal. Then, I separated rows by Fall/Spring/Summer deadlines, and started propagating the table with planned or possible funding opportunities.

Below is the list of funding opportunities I applied for this year:
Blue - primarily or exclusively supports trainees
Crossed out - not awarded/invited
* - awarded
Italics - not yet submitted

Fall 2014
  • Bidstrup Undergrad Research Fellowship (Barrett Honors College)*
  • Mindlin Science Communication
  • Mindlin Undergrad Research Award (x 2 students)*
  • SOLUR program to support undergrad research at ASU (x 1 student)*
Spring 2015
  • NSF pre-proposal – IOS
  • SOLUR program to support undergrad research at ASU (x 3 students)*
  • NSF BEACON center award*
  • Arizona State University CLAS Undergraduate Summer Experience (x 1 student)*
  • NIH R01 - Feb 5 deadline
Summer 2015
  • Biodesign Institute Engaging Multi-Center Research internal seed (x 2 applications)
  • NIH R01 - June 5 deadline
  • Rosalind Franklin AGS award
  • Pew Fellowship (to be submitted for internal ASU evaluation)
  • Searle Fellowship (to be submitted for internal ASU evaluation)
  • Sloan Award (to be submitted for internal ASU evaluation)
  • Arizona Game and Fish Heritage Award (to be submitted)
So, in the grand scheme of things, as far as grants that "count," I've submitted one NSF pre-proposal (that was not invited for a full), and two NIH R01s (that I'm waiting to hear back from).

My sense is that this isn't too bad for the first year, but my internal pressure says I need to apply more, and I'll find out what my external pressure says in January at our annual evaluations. 


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'm also 1 year in to my TT position in a SOM and feel the same way regarding pressures to apply, although I've gotten mixed advice on that from senior people (some telling me to apply to everything and others saying don't apply until your lab is up and running). I took the former advice and did a lot of writing/submitting this year:

Rita Allen
Searle Scholar
Alzheimer's Association YFA
Collaborator on an R21 and R01

Ultimately I'll have many more failures than successes, but a couple of these have come through and I'm feeling a lot more secure heading into year 2.

mathbionerd said...

Wow, great! Congratulations on the successes, and hopefully there were useful comments on the rejections. I know they aren't successes, but I feel like they're not total failures, because of the value of solidifying ideas, and (hopefully) making progress on the research to get them submitted.

Titus Brown said...

This is fantastic - looking forward to more! I just made Associate (& moved to a new institution) and it's going to be a different kind of crazy. Best of luck!

You might find this interesting:

(it includes my grant sub numbers at the bottom)

Also, this:

Good luck!!

mathbionerd said...

Thank you!

These links are wonderful.

I suppose I should schedule time to upload all of these (already on my list, but was pushed off due to teaching then the June deadline). I was going to put them on GitHub, but looks like most people are using FigShare. Interesting.

Titus Brown said...

Figshare has the benefit of being readily citable, which is I think why Ethan puts stuff there. I just posted 'em on my lab web site :). Which I should do for my new lab site... hmm...

Mark P said...

I like the idea of talking to program officers. I assume you also have colleagues reading proposals, which is key. Some unsolicited advice. Don't spend ALL your time in the office writing grants. You are still the best scientist in the lab and your ability to generate new data is critical to your success.

Mark P

mathbionerd said...

That is good advice. I find things have been coming in waves. Sometimes teaching takes most of my time, sometimes writing, sometimes research, sometimes service. Each week is a different mix.

Mark P said...

Bottom line whether you like it or not--research is what gets you tenure (plus its the most fun)
Mark P