Archive for: January, 2011

Grantsmanship...Skill or Gift?

Jan 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I want to begin a discussion on grantsmanship. I've been tasked with helping put together (OMG, tasked? Spot the administrator!) a grantwriting workshop, as well as a "How Do Survive Survive Study Section" workshop. We ran one here a couple of years ago and it went down well. I don't have access to the data to find out if it made a difference to our instituional application success rate, but I hope people got something out of it. Since then the National Institutes of Health have made some fairly substantial changes to the grant-application (cut the length from 21 pages to 12) as well as the scoring system they use to 'rate' each application.

Before I launch though, I'd like to repost something (slightly edited) from my old blog at LabSpaces. There was some great discussion in the comments about how we (and should we) train people to write. I'm interested in your thoughts - should we? can we? who should do this? The institution, or is it incumbent upon an individual to seek help?


We're going to rant talk about grants and grantsmanship. I'm going to tell a tale of writing. If you want to understand the rules of writing NIH grants you must read and digest DrugMonkey, and if your tastes run to the National Science Foundation, then you shall want to visit Prof-like Substance and our own belov'd Odyssey. Read their posts on the subject and, importantly, read the comments and trackback to the commenters. There is a metric shit ton lot of great advice out there.

When I started in my graduate lab the PI gave me a copy his recently funded R01 to read and digest. It was, of course, utterly impenetrable. The language of a grant is different from that of manuscript (think Nature paper vs. JNeurosci paper kind of condensation). Also,  and importantly, for despite outward appearances I am not a total lackwit, I had moved to a Drosophila molecular genetics lab from a mammalian biophysics lab. Gradually as I learned the language of genetics I understood more of the grant and my own project began to take shape. After a year of being a teaching assistant and a Lab Pup I was told I had to apply for my own funding and my PI had found a perfect grant at The American Heart Association (AHA). Actually he said, "I'd rather you wrote an NRSA, I did. But you're a foreigner, and probably not good enough. They're very competitive. I won one."

I tell ya, that just made me feel grrrreat!

Anyway, he showed me the application forms for the AHA and I thought I'd just jump and get it done. Doesn't work like that I found out plenty sharpish. I realised almost immediately I had no clue where to begin.

"Just start with your abstract and specific aims." He said
"What's that then?" I replied
Specific Aims, I learned with a sharp cuff about the ear, are the salient goals of your research project. Three highly focused and ultraspecific goals you will accomplish with the money and time that the funding grants you. My first effort, something like...

"Aim 1 We will find the gene responsible for..." is not a good example. " How will you "find" the gene? Which "gene" are you looking for? Two simple questions that turn a specific aim into a high school level piece of prose.

My final version...

"Aim 1 EMS mutagenesis will be utilized to identify phenotypes that can be screened by..." is better. It is specific, you see.

Essentially this process was repeated with every step of the process. "Tideliar, show me your introduction on Monday...[insert wavy passage of time graphics]...oh dear. No, no, no - this isn't an introduction. This is more like a background, and this bit will be in your results section, and this section...well, I expect the reviewers will know that the brain is "made of neurons" so we can delete that I think..."

My PI, Dr. Venkman (not his real name, but he bears an uncanny resemblance IRL) would, with infinate patience, review edition after rain forest-depleting version of this fucking bastard of a beast grant. Once the basic framework of the grant was in place we spent literally scores of hours in his office as he showed showed me how to craft the text line-by-painstaking-line. I remember once dozing off because it took him an hour to get one sentence to his liking. Obviously, the grant was funded, I got my bottle of champagne and massaged my ego all over my colleagues because it was an immense boost to my self-esteem and expected graduation date. All was write with the world. Two years later I submitted an extension grant and this time I had to do it on my own. Thankfully Dr. Venkman had trained me very well, and the project was really a great and simple piece of work so my second grant was funded for the remaining year or my PhD. OK. I have to brag. I scored a 1.2 and ranked in the top 2% of the applicant pool. I'm really very good at my job (and it was a nearly complete grant as well? Ed.

In my first postdoc lab I immediately started looking for funding, but ended up moving on before much writing had been done. In my second I also started looking early on, although (somewhat unfortunately) I found the same process as grad school: my postdoc mentor felt the need to guide me line-by-line and step-by-step which was demeaning to me and a waste of time for us both, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Anyway, these postdoc grants weren't funded (another story for another day), but the point remains. I wrote several grants as a trainee and had excellent mentors take the time to teach me their version of grantsmanship.

For it is not just what you write, but how you write and indeed, to whom you write as well. In my current job grant writing is a major part of my PDQ, and on average takes up at least 50% of my time. However, things are very different in the administrative world in which I now roam. Firstly, I am not Faculty and the rules of my institute mean I cannot be a PI, or even co-Investigator. So I write other people's grants and that sucks, but again, a different post for a different day. My Unit, my group if you will, provide bioinformatics support for level of effort projects such as fairly modest (R21) level preliminary studies; we do the same for multi-site (RO1) clinical trials; and even for some Core/Institute (RC2, U19, P01) level grants. My job is to get the greenbacks in so we stay afloat (pressure much?). I help our PIs craft the sections of the grant that deal with their informatics and databasing needs. To do so I need to know in great detail the specifics of their project (obviously...we're databasing for them). So I have worked on maybe 4 personal grants in 2 years, but nearly 20 site grants. And every one is subtly different and demands different levels of commitment, their writing and grantsmanship. Because I've worked closely with so many stellar and well funded faculty I have learned so much about writing grants I honestly think I could write a decent and highly competitive grant of my own if only had the rank and the space.

The current version is not going so smoothly, but that's purely for political reasons [EDIT: it went in finally, on time...just]. We've restructured our Institute rather heavily, but no one bothered to tell the foot soldiers, so writing sections that support missions you know nothing about is necessarily very hard (understatement).
The point here, if there is one, is I have been lucky: I work in a job that plays to my gifts. But most of us in science live on tax-payer dollars and the spigot can run dry at any time. Being able to write scorable and fundable grants is a significant duty and one which requires extensive training and practice. But most of us never get that chance, especially non-US citizens for whom there might be cultural and language issues involved. But all of us are expected to somehow accrue grantsmanship skills during our training. If we don't need an R01, we need at least something to get some dollars in. What can I do to help translate these skills to my fellow junior scientists? IS it even incumbent upon me to do so?


I don't know what the solution is here. We are such a diverse population that what worked for Jane might not work for Johnny. In my case I have been fortunate to get enough on the job training that I know I can do the job. But I know others in my position might not be so fortunate purely because their interests focus on a more narrow band of science. Or they lack the self-confidence to begin "doing" and get caught out justing "trying". Or they don't have the writing experience I have - I'll admit that a lot of the experience that I rely on comes from ingratiating myself with PIs during their writing and essentially forcing them to teach me some tips and tricks. I remember seeing the aghast looks on my bosses faces when I volunteered my time and effort to help on grants far beyond the remit of my job. Fortunately it has paid off in new skills, new contacts and (thankfully) greater positive exposure for my Unit.

So, what does the blogosphere think? Should we have grant writing courses for postdocs?  Does this not risk wasting their valuable lab time as well as enforcing skills they might not appreciate? As lab leaders should we encourage all our trainees to submit K99 and NRSA (depending on their experience/rank) just to begin the training and hardening process? What about ESL scientists, do we give them extra help? Or is good grantsmanship contingent upon a more ingrained skillset than the ability to form a perfect sentenc

Or do we maintain the status quo and just let the strong flourish while the weak are predated by Science, red in tooth and claw?

11 responses so far

Written on a napkin

Jan 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized


One of my few geek shirts is the one above, the old classic "98% Chimp" from those True American Heroes at (I have another I love which shows Darwin's finches and true adaptive evolution: Jet Engine Finch, Laser Eyeball Finch etc.).

Anyway, I was wearing my Chimp T-shirt at the pub the other day and some wag had a note sent down the bar to me. It read thusly, "What's the other 2%? Ponce?" I'm surprised he could do the math, but perchance the Memphis city school system is better than I've been lead to believe. I thought about this thesis on simple genetics for a moment, and decided that I should respond. After all, I am nothing if not a scientist and educator. I grabbed another napkin and a pen and wrote back thusly:

"Thanks for your kind note. Actually, the T-shirt is wrong. We're probably closer to 97% closer to Chimps. Our closest genetic relative is the Bonobo, another species of ape, at perhaps 98.5%. In fact like you and your sister they fuck face-to-face, and like your mom they even practice lesbianism. I digress. We're also about 85% similar genetically to pigs and even 68% to the fruit flies plaguing this bar. So, really what do those numbers mean? A chimp is 23% different from a fruit fly, and we are 25% different? We need to look deeper and explore not what the differences are between us as species, but what the differences are between us as humans. In fact, there is a greater degree of intra-species variation than there is inter-species! So, while you and I might be '2%' different from a chimp, the differences between you and I are actually more significant on a genetic level. Thus we can say we are 100% similar, yet we are far from identical. The differences between us make us who we are. While I might be "2% ponce" you are clearly at least 2% ill-educated fuckwad who needs to think before he smack-talks via napkin."

Thankfully he appreciated his impromptu genetics lesson, and even saw the humour in the incident, when it was pointed out to him that I have PhD in molecular genetics, am a regular at the bar. And at least 6 inches taller than him. And a kickboxer.

24 responses so far

A Meandering Scholar

Jan 05 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Welcome to my new blog, thanks for stopping by.  The nice folks at Scientopia were kind enough to ask me to join them and I have, obviously, accepted. Given what so many of my fellow Scientopians (gotta get used to that!) believe is the prima fascia for their blogging, it made sense for me to move here with this blog.

The first incarnation of A Meandering Scholar came into existence in May 2008 over at Nature Network. I wrote there until August 2010, and the subtitle of the blog was "The Continuing Evolution of the Postdoctoral Scholar". I don't know what specific motives lead me to stop, but in the long run I guess they don't matter. Anyone who followed the drama at the time knows, anyone who's curious can dig it out, and if you're not bothered, neither am I. Suffice-it-to-say, here find ourselves.

So, who am I? Well, the labels are easy: "scientist", "biologist", "ex-postdoc", "blogger" and so forth, but I think a more instructive glimspe to who I am, and what I hope this blog will evolve into is to quote somewhat extensively from the opening passage of the original Meandering Post...

*...cue wavy dream-like special effects sequence...*

My personal evolution as a scientist began a decade or so ago, in a musty lecture hall at The University of Leicester, UK. Having failed spectacularly to get into medical school I was facing an uncertain future as a reluctant biologist. All that changed one afternoon during a lecture on excitatory amino acids. These are, as their name suggests, simple amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Glutamate is one of these and it also happens to be the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system.

Glutamate receptors at the nerve endings in your brain (synapses) come in two main flavours; either NMDA type receptors, or AMPA type receptors. It doesn’t matter what those two abbreviations stand for, but suffice it to say between the fast acting AMPA receptors and their slower cousins, the NMDA receptors, we have the entire neural basis for our ability to learn. The up- and down-regulation of these receptors by use dependent feedback causes a long term modulation of the current flowing across the neurons in your brain. Essentially...this is a memory forming.

As the undergraduate lecture continued I learned about RNA editing (RNA is the message from your DNA, the step before a protein is made), and how a certain part in one certain AMPA-type receptor subunit must be “edited” at least 99% of the time, or else you die from epileptic style seizures not long after birth.

“But, how does it know when and how to be edited?” I asked.
“No one knows…Yet.” was the answer and that was that.

That was the day I fell in love with science.

The post goes on to explain how I got where I am...or was, I suppose given that this was 2008. At that time I was well into my second postdoc and still hoping to make it to the tenure track, to become a faculty member with my own lab and the chance to ask my own questions. There's an element of hope in the post that makes it painful to re-read.

Things didn't pan out that way.

In very late 2009 I walked away from the lab bench and took up an internship as a Project Manager in a Clinical & Translational Science Institute. This was a 180 degree shift from what I'd been doing, what I'd been trained to do, and what I had foreseen myself doing since I was 18 years old. It rates, in retrospect, as one of the the most painful and yet most important decisions I've ever made.

This blog will tell you about that journey and its continuing evolution because so many postdocs and grad students around the world will face a similar crossroads. According to the National Science Foundation "Science & Engineering Indicators", in 2008 there there were an estimated 75,000 postdocs, of which only about 20% will make it to a R1 tenure track position. Most of them, us, will need to explore 'alternative' careers. But we're a bloody-minded and obstinate bunch. And the numbers are getting "worse" (depending on your perspective, of course!).

I'll offer my thoughts on the journey, share the advice that helped (and sometimes hindered me). I'll re-post occasional pieces from the original blog, a well stuff I wrote elsewhere under my pseudonym.

I hope you enjoy the journey, and because this is a blog, I hope you enjoy the stories too. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments or via email.

25 responses so far