Collaboration Is Key
“I thought I would blaze my own trail,” said Noam Cohen, MD, PhD, Ralph Butler Endowed Professor for Medical Research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Ultimately, I ended up getting NIH funding, but it took 10 years.”
Explore This IssueMarch 2020
Although he did reach out to a few potential mentors early in his career, Dr. Cohen was “a little concerned” that a more established researcher might push him to support the researcher’s interests, rather than supporting his interests and goals.
You have to propose to study something that’s significant, and you have to persuade the reviewers that this is a significant problem. —Jennifer Grandis, MD
Caution is warranted. Maie St. John, MD, PhD, chair of the department of head and neck surgery at the University of California in Los Angeles, ended up having to give back her first NIH grant, a Career Development (K) Award, after one of her mentors told her to focus on breast and pancreatic cancer (his areas of interest) rather than head and neck cancer.
“I remember he said, ‘Breast cancer and pancreatic cancer are like a 747 in the sky, and head and neck cancer is like an old beat-up 1967 Honda Civic,’” Dr. St. John said. “I told him, ‘I’m driving that Honda.’”
The key to success is to find mentors and collaborators who may offer expertise or even supplies or lab space.
“Find a mentor who actually cares about what you’re doing and is interested in your career, not their career,” Dr. Cohen said. Consider reaching across disciplinary borders. Dr. Cohen eventually found collaborators in pulmonary medicine, genetics, and immunology.
Dr. Grandis also reached outside the field of otolaryngology.
“The scientific expertise for me to do what I wanted to do was not present in the department of otolaryngology. We did not have any cancer biologists in the department, so I needed to look elsewhere,” she said.
Learn Grant Writing
Grant writing differs—significantly—from academic writing.
“In a grant, you’re trying to sell the reviewer on your project and how impactful and important it is. In a research paper, you’re very reserved with your results and need to express scientific skepticism,” said Dr. Bleier, who also serves as the chair of the research and grant committee of the American Rhinologic Society. “Writing a grant is really a unique and idiosyncratic exercise.”
Dr. Bleier recommends that would-be investigators reach out to experienced grant writers for assistance. “It’s virtually impossible for someone who’s never done it before to write a reasonable and appropriate-looking grant out of thin air,” he said. “It really is an art form that requires input from others.”
Many academic institutions have grant administration programs to guide students and faculty through the grant-writing process. Some even include grant pre-review programs, in which a panel of experts will review and comment on your application so you can refine it prior to submission.
A mentor who has successfully secured funding can also help you understand the intricacies of grant writing.
Give yourself time to learn. “Expect the first few times you write a grant to take three times longer than any subsequent grant,” Dr. Bleier said. Build in time for peer review and revisions.