Jennifer Grandis, MD, is something of a unicorn.
Explore This IssueMarch 2020
Currently the Robert K. Werbe Distinguished Professor in Head and Neck Cancer at the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Grandis received NIH funding the first time she applied. “That was, and is, an unusual experience,” she said.
Her initial grant paved the way to a career filled with discovery. Dr. Grandis has received millions of dollars from the NIH to study the biology of head and neck cancer. Her work is pointing the way toward novel treatments that may change clinical practice and patient outcomes.
“It’s such a privilege to get paid to think, to mentor, and to contribute to discovery,” Dr. Grandis said. “But there isn’t a huge cohort of people anxious to follow in my footsteps. And it’s not because what I do isn’t important but because it’s hard.”
The path to NIH funding is full of twists, turns, and obstacles. It is extremely rare to be awarded an NIH grant on your first try; most investigators submit five to 10 applications before one is funded, said Benjamin Bleier, MD, director of otolaryngology translational research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.
Dr. Grandis encourages physician scientists to push through their discomfort and fear of rejection. “The reason most surgeons, including otolaryngologists, don’t get grants is that they don’t apply for them,” she said.
This advice from top clinician-scientists can help pave the way to NIH funding.
NIH grants are extremely competitive, so you’re more likely to find success if you pursue other organizations first. Importantly, securing smaller grants may give you the funding you need to conduct preliminary research and gather the data you’ll need to ultimately convince the NIH to support your work.
“The NIH wants to see data along with your research, so you have to figure out how to get money and data before you can actually write an R01 grant,” said Bert W. O’Malley Jr., MD, the Gabriel Tucker Professor and Chair of Otorhinolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Dr. Bleier obtained his first grant from the American Rhinologic Society. That grant allowed him to explore the use of laser tissue welding to repair spinal fluid leaks. Later, grants from the American Academy of Otolaryngology and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research supported his work. (At that point, Dr. Bleier had partnered with a neuroscientist to study how the mucosa used in laser tissue welding might be used to deliver drugs directly to the brain, bypassing the blood-brain barrier.)
“I was able to get a significant amount of money,” Dr. Bleier said. “The bar for the foundational grant was a bit lower because the grants didn’t have to go through a formal study section process. The foundation had money they were willing to spend, and [they were] interested in identifying novel research opportunities.”
Dr. Bleier then used the data he obtained from Michael J. Fox Foundation-funded research to support his NIH R01 application.
(The Triological Society also awards grants. See “Triological Society Grant Programs,” for more information.)