Branching Out

Oct 16 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

There is much going on in the world these days--both actual and virtual--that has induced extreme levels of grumpiness in yours truly. I would very much like nothing more than to sit around in my comfy pants with my cat, play Candy Crush, and whimper all day, but alas, 'tis not a luxury I can afford. I am in the 3rd year of my position, and though the government may be shut down and my R01 application hanging in study section limbo, my tenure clock ticks away.  Indeed, it is my Tell Tale Heart - keeping me awake at night, until I resignedly join my insomniac husband for the last half of Eyes Wide Shut on IFC at 4 am.  In this metaphor, I suppose the body lying in pieces below the floorboards is my career - is it dead? Is it alive? I won't really know until the police (tenure committee) arrive in a few years. Yes, I am having a cocktail at the moment, why do you ask?

One thing that could undoubtedly help to silence that incessant ticking would be the influx of about $250k/year for the next five years, and so I continue to seek the assistance of the government. They have been relatively generous so far. But up until now, including grad school and post-doc applications, my grant proposals have gone exclusively to a single NIH IC, and I think it's time to start reaching a little. But how?

I gave a talk at a small meeting last year, and a program officer from not-my-normal-IC approached me immediately afterward, saying "I want you to do exactly what you just talked about but in the context of my IC." I was totally flattered, but also more like um, OK except I have no background in your thing and I could maybe see that as being a problem? I mean, who is going to fund an application whose Aims the PI has no track record of being able to achieve? At that point, too, I had just gotten the lab going, and so my first priorities were doing the things I'd originally set out to do - I'd worry about branching out later. Well, it's now a little later, and my goal for the February cycle is to submit an application to this IC. The challenge is convincing the study section that I can do it.

I'm getting ahead of myself, of course, because at the moment I still have to figure out what "it" is. Sure, I can incorporate the things the PO I met mentioned, but that alone isn't an R01 - I need a broader question, and then an innovative way of addressing it, and then I need to persuasively argue that I'm the right person for the job.

I'll admit there's a part of me that feels disingenuous actively searching for a way to break into a new field. Shouldn't the content of my grant applications be guided by the burning questions that gnaw at my soul? Maybe that was the way things worked back in the salad days of the NIH (LOL when was that again?), but these days my approach has evolved to, what do I have that will be attractive to this IC?  And so I looked for RFAs and PAs from this IC to give me a sense of what kinds of work they're currently looking to fund (RePORTER is of course another great resource for wrapping your head around what gets funded), and lo and behold, a PA that may as well have been written just for me! I reached out to the contact person for the PA, who was very helpful and offered to give feedback on Specific Aims once I had them. That was easy!

And so now comes the fun part  - diving into a vast new literature, and trying to figure out where I fit in. It is highly daunting, but I'm going to start with big picture stuff and try to narrow things down once I find something that strikes my fancy. When I do, I still think I'll need to find some folks to sign on as consultants or possibly co-PIs for this first foray into new territory, but luckily I've got a couple of good networking opportunities coming up.  I'm excited about learning new things, meeting new people, and, I admit, planting my flag in some foreign soil. Oh, and MONIEZ.

7 responses so far

  • Mikka says:

    I'm with you on the crippling anxiety. It doesn't help that the elders that will ultimately decide on my tenure are absolutely clueless as to the current state affairs, thinking that if you don't get an R01 there must be something wrong with you, and that publishing papers is a matter of emailing the manuscript to their friend who's an editor of a society journal and then fixing the typos.

  • DB: contact the PO. Get some ideas organized. Ask hir about them. Get some specific q's organized - "I appreciate what you said to me, and I am following up on it, but I am not sure about XYZ".

    Mikka: I don't think the elders are clueless, not all of them. Indeed, the greybeards & bluehairs are having trouble getting funded and getting published. The good ones understand that in some ways it is harder for you than it is for us.

  • Go Becca!! And enjoy the fun part of it, although I can totally imagine all the stress and insecurity. For what it's worth, I think you're awesome!

  • Ola says:

    This sounds smack in the middle of R21 territory. Lest anyone think an R21 is a "starter R01" for junior faculty, one of it's original intents was to permit established researchers to branch out into new areas. It's not as much money/time, but at least it would allow you to dip your toe in the waters and see if it's a field you want to remain in to get an R01. This of course assumes that the institute in question actually funds R21s (many of them don't any more).

    I guess the only advice would be to publish something, anything, with one of your future collaborators. Even a review article would be good. Something that puts a stake in the ground and says you plus person X have a collaboration that's ongoing. The bonus is, you're going to be doing a shit-ton of reading about this new topic anyway, so why not segue that proposal introduction into a good review article? This carries a lot more weight than a half-assed letter from some person you just found in the next building by searching your University's website. When there's no prelim' data or joint pubs, these letters need to be really strong. If the collaborator's letter comes across as "yeah you can have the mouse just leave me alone already" (e.g. by not quoting the title of the grant properly), those little things get noticed.

    The other thing to do is rack your brains for the tiniest iota of evidence that you know anything about this new field. Some forgotten abstract from way back when you were in grad' school. Some class you taught years ago. All that stuff that goes in the personal statement section of the biosketch. It depends how much you've shifted around during your career, but for example I've been involved with 2 major organ systems over the past couple of decades, which means although my current program is in one area I could confidently apply for funding in the other area based on a few publications from >15 years ago. Anything that says "I didn't just pull this idea out of my ass after a Friday afternoon on PubMed, but have been passionate about this field for a long time" is good.

    Go for it!

  • namnezia says:

    Not to put a damper on the enthusiasm here, but I've found that breaking into a new IC that you've never been funded in has been a crushing experience for me. Never have I gotten such bad scores and reviews than on grants in which I tried to branch out. Even in an R21 application, it was criticized for being too exploratory, even if it is meant to be fucking exploratory. YMMV of course, this is just my experience, but it does help to know the individual cultures and to have allies in the inside.

  • Red says:

    I agree with namnezia. You should absolutely try to apply everywhere you can, but the first thing the reviewers will comment would be your lack of experience, training and publications in the area. The second would be the lack of co-authored papers with your collaborators. I have seen this even for NI/ESIs. And the helpful PO is not going to have any input during the study section that will determine the outcome. It's not a totally wasted effort because your grant application would hopefully become a large portion of the intro in the paper that will eventually be the basis of a successful grant application.

  • dr24hours says:

    Obviously, I come from a different world, never having had NIH funding, but as to the "gnawing question of my soul" vs. "attractive to the IC"? I fall on the latter side. But I also believe that one can often find a way to make one's personal questions fit into different contexts.

    I think the time has been long gone that researchers could truly advance their own interests and expect to get funding. The agencies and the peer review system are set up so that we HAVE to be responsive to what other people are interested in.

Leave a Reply