NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S2E1: Plan Before You Build

January 08, 2021 NINDS Season 2 Episode 1
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S2E1: Plan Before You Build
Chapters
0:00
Intro
1:18
Introductions
7:38
Q&A
44:42
Advice
52:56
Outro
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S2E1: Plan Before You Build
Jan 08, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
NINDS

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve is a podcast for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the components of a grant application with successful awardees. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!

In this episode, our grantee guests share insight on how to choose the right funding announcement and NIH Institute, how to approach the different components of the application, how to involve their mentors in the process, and other great advice on how to approach applying for NIH funding.

Featuring Tayler Sheahan, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar at University of Pittsburgh, Sweta Agrawal, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Washington, and George Vidal, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology at James Madison University.

Transcript available at http://ninds.buzzsprout.com/

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve is a podcast for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the components of a grant application with successful awardees. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we’re here to help—it’s our job!

In this episode, our grantee guests share insight on how to choose the right funding announcement and NIH Institute, how to approach the different components of the application, how to involve their mentors in the process, and other great advice on how to approach applying for NIH funding.

Featuring Tayler Sheahan, PhD, Postdoctoral Scholar at University of Pittsburgh, Sweta Agrawal, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Washington, and George Vidal, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology at James Madison University.

Transcript available at http://ninds.buzzsprout.com/

Lauren Ullrich:

Welcome to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, a podcast for neuroscience trainees that takes you through the components of a grant application with successful awardees. We know that applying for NIH funding can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. Hi, I'm Lauren Ullrich, a program director at NINDS

Marguerite Matthews:

And I'm Marguerite Matthews , a scientific program manager, at NINDS. And we're your hosts today.

Lauren Ullrich:

Welcome to season two! Last season, we discussed the stages of the grant cycle with NINDS staff, and this season, we're going to delve into the different components of the grant application with successful awardees .

Marguerite Matthews:

That's right. And this episode will focus on what to do before you apply. We will touch on choosing the right funding announcement and how to find the right NIH Institute, the different parts of the application, where to find resources and how to approach conversations with your research mentor.

Lauren Ullrich:

And of course, our disclaimer from last season still applies. Everything we talk about may only be relevant for NINDS. So if you're applying to a different NIH Institute, it's always best to check with them about their policies. Our guests today are Dr. Taylor Sheahan, Dr. Sweta Agrawal and Dr. George Vidal. So let's get started with our introductions. So Taylor, you want to go first?

Tayler Sheahan:

Sure. So thank you for having me. I am a third year post -doc in the Pittsburgh Center for Pain Research at the University of Pittsburgh. And my research interests are broadly focused on understanding how the nervous system detects sensory input like pain and itch, and then how that information is processed and encoded within the nervous system. And currently I'm focusing on neurons within the spinal cord that process pain and itch using rodent models. I first applied for NINDS funding as a graduate student. I applied for an F31, which was not awarded, but was still a really important learning experience for me. As a post-doc I applied for and received a position on an institutional training grant or a T32. And I also applied for an F32 as a postdoc , which was awarded. And I've also been extremely fortunate to have received an LRP or loan repayment program award to help pay down my student debt, which has been very amazing. And I'm currently gearing up to apply for a K99. My favorite thing to do outside of the lab is running. I think it's a really great way to meet new people and to explore and learn about the city.

Sweta Agrawal:

My name is Sweta Agrawal. I'm a fourth year post -doc at the University of Washington in John Tuthill's lab. I study the neural circuits underlying proprioception. So I work in the fruit fly as my model system. And specifically I'm looking at neural circuits in the fly's version of the spinal cord, the ventral nerve cord, and looking at how those central circuits integrate proprioceptive information from different proprioceptors on the fly leg. A lot of what I like about proprioception is that it's a sense that's very important for motor control. There are some people that have lost all sense of proprioception and for them performing even the simplest tasks is pretty difficult. And so I just find it fascinating to look at the sensory-motor transformations that underlie that kind of sense. As far as NIH awards. So I started applying for NIH awards as a post-doc. I applied for and did not get an F32 and then a K01, and then finally was successful when I applied for the K99 this past year. Like Taylor mentioned, all those failed attempts were very helpful. And I think definitely helped me get the K99 in the end. Part of what kind of complicated things was that regarding the F32, I was applying as part of the cohort when NINDS changed a little bit of how the F32 operated. So we can talk about that later if we want, or if anybody has questions about that, but yeah, in general, while it sucked not getting those awards, it was still helpful to have gone through the process and be familiar with it when I did apply for the K99. As far as hobbies outside the lab, I'm a pretty avid mushroom hunter, which goes along with my love of hiking and the outdoors.

Lauren Ullrich:

Oh, that's neat . What's your favorite mushroom?

Sweta Agrawal:

It kind of depends on the use case, I guess, but there's this really cool mushroom that's also like hard to find called the cauliflower mushroom, where it just looks like a bundle of egg noodles in the ground. And yeah, it's just like, it's very delicious. You can kind of use it like egg noodles. It has the same texture, but it's actually made a mushroom.

George Vidal:

Hi everybody. My name is George Vidal. I am an assistant professor at James Madison University, where I am running a newly independent lab. I started my job here in 2016. And right before that, I was actually a PhD student in Stanford university in their neuroscience program. And that's where I received my first NIH award. It was actually through an institutional training grant that supported me for the first couple of years of my graduate school experience. Then later in my graduate career, I applied for an F31 diversity award. And I actually was awarded that on the first try, which I heard was very rare. And then afterwards, I came to this position and looked for a few different opportunities. One of them was a fantastic one, which is K01 career development award for faculty. And that's a unique one that I started an application for back in 2017, was unsuccessful the first time around made a lot of changes, and then in the second time around, I was awarded that. That's a five-year award. My lab is most interested in understanding just the development of the cerebral cortex in general, specifically excitatory neurons, excitatory pyramidal neurons, and our angle of that is actually looking at autism risk genes , because many of them are associated with dysfunctions in the cerebral cortex. So the way we look at it is we look at one risk gene at a time and try to understand all of the anatomical, the physiological, and behavioral consequences of that. Yeah. So outside of the lab I think one of my favorite things to do is art in general, it could be music, it could be painting or drawing or designing, but I think the one that is the most useful right now is culinary arts. I love cooking at home, and I think everyone on this podcast by being associated with some form of science , uh, is actually probably a really good cook.

Marguerite Matthews:

What's your favorite dish to cook?

George Vidal:

I have no idea. It's, it's really hard because every, every new recipe is a , is an exploration of something new, maybe a new culture or new technique, it never really ends. So I don't know. I don't have a favorite.

Marguerite Matthews:

All right . So how did you decide which funding opportunity to apply for and how did you find out about the award? So, also thinking about, did you go and find these things on your own? Did you have someone guiding you? What was your general process?

Sweta Agrawal:

So, like I mentioned, I had applied for an F32 and K01 before I applied for my K99. And in some ways how I got to the K99 is a product of that. So like I mentioned, when I applied for the F32, NINDS had , uh , I was sort of in this in-between phase where they were, they transitioned it to something that you could apply for in the first year of your postdoc . Whereas before I think you could apply for it up until maybe like year three or something like that. And so when I submitted my application, I was towards the end of my first year and then got a good score, but it wasn't funded, but then I couldn't reapply for it. Uh, so that was then what led me to try applying for this K01 that they have for postdocs that seemed like it was filling in that gap between the F32 as NINDS had it now, and then the K99. But then I was part of one of the first cohorts applying for that. And I found that it was kind of mixed as far as , um, the feedback that I got from that. And so my PI and I talked about it a little bit and we decided that it would be best if I just waited another year or two till I had some more data , um, and was more of a senior postdoc and could then think about applying for just the K99 and not worry about the K01 and figuring out what this new funding mechanism was. And then as far as the K99, there are a couple different versions of the K99 that one could apply for. I was debating between sort of the normal K99, and then the brain initiative K99, which is, I ended up applying for the latter one. And part of the reason for that was that , uh, in the summer of 2019, I actually went to the Gordon conference for Neuroethology where I met a program officer from NINDS Karen David, who actually helps oversee the BRAIN initiative K99. And through talking with her, I realized that the BRAIN initiative K99 was really a nice fit for me. It also has a slightly lengthened eligibility window for post-docs , which meant that I could then wait a little bit to apply and still be eligible to resubmit an application depending on what happened the first time around. Um, and so, yeah, so that's how I ended up settling on my funding mechanism.

Lauren Ullrich:

It's great that you sort of foreshadowed one of our, our other questions about the benefits of talking to the program officer, which I feel like was the entire , uh , take home message of season one [laughter], but , um, we can cover that later. So...

Tayler Sheahan:

I would say my decision about which FOA to apply for was a lot more straightforward because I was already in that cohort of post-docs who knew that we were eligible either one year up to beginning the postdoc or one year after the start date. So I was made aware of that from other postdocs in the lab that I worked with as a graduate student, but it was something that I was discussing with potential postdoc advisors when I was interviewing with them. So that was a conversation that we had and kind of started to talk about when we would submit that application. And I ended up submitting it the first application cycle from when I started my position. It ended up being a little bit too difficult to try to juggle, wrapping up my PhD, you know, submitting those publications , um, while, you know, trying to get another foot out the door and write a grant application on a new topic. So, but yeah, I made a point to apply such that I would have an opportunity for a resubmission cycle if I needed it.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. That's so important. We see so many trainees, wait and wait and wait, cause they never feel like they're ready. And then, you know, they get a good but not fundable score and they don't have the opportunity to resubmit. So we always counsel people to sort of work backwards and try and make sure they build in that resubmission time, just in case.

Tayler Sheahan:

I think another important point that kind of comes from the switch to a shortened eligibility window is how much preliminary data is required. But with the new, shorter timeframe, like there really isn't emphasis on preliminary data. So it really is just to your benefit to go all in as early as possible

George Vidal:

To , uh, to add to that. Actually I wanted to echo what was just being said about building in time for a resubmission. The eligibility window for the faculty K01 is only in , I think it's , uh , first three years of the faculty appointment. And so it was really important that once I identified the opportunity that I went in with a first submission as soon as possible, and then I used the comments from that to build a really strong resubmission. And actually getting to why I chose the faculty K01, I actually, if you noticed from the little intro that I gave, I actually did my PhD and graduated with my PhD in 2016, but I also started my faculty job in 2016. So that meant that I didn't have the opportunity to do a postdoc in between those two things. And so like , I couldn't build things with that F32 or K99 or anything like that. And this opportunity was fantastic because the idea was to build a network of mentors that would take me and kind of launch my independent research career. And so once I saw that was what the award was for, and I talked to my program officer about whether or not someone at my institution would be eligible for applying for something like that, and then I saw the answer was yes, then I made sure to apply as soon as possible so that I could get a resubmission in there if I needed it to .

Lauren Ullrich:

So Sweta did you have something you wanted to add?

:

Um , yeah, I was just going to add that one nice thing about being able to apply early enough that you can resubmit is that you will often learn a lot from the feedback you get the first time around. And so for that F32 I'd applied for , um , my PI was a new PI, he had just started his job and we didn't realize that because he was so junior that it would actually work against my application if I didn't have a co-advisor. And that seemed to be the main thing that was really criticized about that application. So if I had been able to resubmit, I think with a simple change, I might've actually gotten it the second time around. And so it was heartbreaking to be so close and then to not really be able to do anything about it.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. And we mentioned a little bit earlier about the different eligibility criteria. So for example, the BRAIN K99 has a five-year eligibility window versus the parent K99, and that these eligibilities, can be very strict, like, Sweta like you ran into with the F32. And so just sort of wondering, like, how you navigated that process and were there any other surprises that came up or things that you , um, you know, didn't really realize to think about before you started reading the FOA

Tayler Sheahan:

Now, as I'm starting to think about applying for a K99, I had a lot of questions. When is the end of my PhD, or when is that--when did my K clock start? So I had a lot of questions and went to different people who had served on K99 panels and didn't really get a clear answer. So I ultimately emailed Steve Korn and, you know, got a good answer after I sent like these are all my dates, when I defended, when my PhD was accepted, when I started my postdoc , like which one is it? And he was just a really great resource to clarify that confusion for me.

Marguerite Matthews:

And just for our listeners who may have tuned in to season one and got a chance to meet Steve Korn , Steve Korn is the director of the training and career development office here at the NINDS

George Vidal:

Yeah. I just wanted to add that when I was applying to the K01, the faculty K01, I wasn't aware that I actually could talk to two different program officers about, about it. Um, one is my scientific program officer and really helped me to understand how to , uh, how to propose and understand the relevance of what I was proposing in my, in my research proposal. Um, and then the other program officer that I talked to was the overall kind of career development program officer that's currently Michelle Jones-London. And she has been a wonderful resource for me during the time when I was applying. And , uh, and now during the time of the award , um, so understanding that I have two , two people that I can talk to about two separate things has been really helpful.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. And that, I think that's a little bit of a unique setup that we have at NINDS where , um, we have the training office and the diversity office that we sort of oversee the program and the career development side of things. But then we believe strongly that these mechanisms should really live with the people that understand the science the best. And that's the program director that holds the scientific portfolio. Um, but it does mean that you have two separate people to talk to.

Marguerite Matthews:

And I think we have really great synergy here at NINDS between the different offices and the different program staff that handle these things , um , both on the scientific side, as well as the training and career development side. Um, and we work as a team because we want to give you the best information. And if there's any sort of discrepancy, we try to work together to make sure that you are receiving a unified , um, stance or voice on particular issues. So we hope that you folks continue to want to reach out to us. And if I'm not the right person to be talking to, I will make sure you get to the right person, be it someone else in my office or someone on the scientific side, or at least that's something we try to work on, is to make sure that you are getting the right information with the right expert at NIH.

George Vidal:

I agree. To second that idea, you know, what, during my resubmission, especially I viewed both my scientific program officer and my, and my career development program officer as a team. And oftentimes I would hear from them together and talk to them together. So just getting, getting that kind of unified response was extremely helpful during that resubmission process.

Sweta Agrawal:

I was just going to say one other thing, as you're thinking about eligibility windows , um, is to just keep in mind, at least for the BRAIN initiative K99, it was somewhat laid out as far as when you might expect the grant to actually be reviewed. And so it's just helpful to think about the timeline about when you might be getting that first score feedback , um , before you can reapply and to just make sure again, that you leave enough room for those next stages for when you do need to resubmit, so like enough time to get the feedback , um, and then to be able to change your application in response to that feedback.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah, that's a good point. A lot of times applicants think they'll be able to apply the very next cycle. Um, but it's unlikely you'll even get the summary statement back in time. But even if you do, you might have a week or two before it's due, and that's just not enough time to, to really put together a good resubmission. And so planning on it's going to be two cycles before you're able to resubmit and sort of working backwards from there is really important.

Marguerite Matthews:

So it sounds like each of you did contact a program officer either at NINDs or somewhere else before applying, but how did you know who to contact?

Sweta Agrawal:

for me? I was lucky enough that I was able to meet Karen David at this conference. And so it was wonderful to have some face time with her. Um, and also a friend of mine had just received the same FOA, the BRAIN initiative K99, and she had been working with Karen David and had good things to say about her. So that was--like, it was just, it's hard to like have something like that just fall into your lap, so that was kind of opportunistic. Um, and then otherwise I did go on the FOA for the BRAIN initiative K99 and at the bottom they list who the program officer is, different people to contact depending on what your question is about. And so I did then , uh , reach out to, for example, Michelle Jones-London.

Tayler Sheahan:

Similar to us Sweta, I also utilized the NINDS websites and also the LRP website when I was preparing those applications. And like Marguerite mentioned, like, you know, I reached out to maybe not the ideal person to answer my question initially, but my emails have always been forwarded to the person who would know the correct answer. So I, you know, I try my best to contact the person who I think should answer it, but know that it will probably end up in the right hands if that wasn't, you know, the perfect person to answer that question.

Marguerite Matthews:

Right. And even if you contact the person listed in the funding announcement or some other place, it may not have been updated, people move to different institutes or on to different job opportunities. So we do try to do a good job of making sure you're connected with the right people. And please, please be persistent. If for some reason you do reach out to a program person and they don't respond to you, try to find someone else because it may be a situation of just that person is no longer with that particular office and maybe the contact information wasn't updated , um , or they're out sick unexpectedly, all kinds of things can happen. So we do want you to be persistent in trying to contact someone , um , because this is our job. Our job is to talk with you and make sure that you have all the information you need to apply and have a competitive application submitted.

George Vidal:

Something that was very helpful for me in , uh, in first reaching out was actually to have, a very short statement, not even a specific aims page or anything, but , um, it was a very small statement about what I intended to do, where my scientific expertise lied, where I am in my career. Um, because then when I, I use the FOA announcement online to first contact the program officer that was, that was listed--and I think that that was Michelle Jones London at the time--when I reached out to her and I had that , she was very easily able to connect me with the right program officer for the scientific part of my application.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah, that's such a good point because a lot of these FOAs, NINDS is the only one signed onto it. And if you don't fall within our mission, we legally cannot fund you. And so making sure that you're even with at the right institute is a, is a great first step.

Sweta Agrawal:

I don't know how true this necessarily is, but I was told, well, one, I was encouraged faculty in my department to contact the program officer . So I knew that this would be a good idea going into the whole process. Um, but I was encouraged to have at least a rough draft of my specific aims, ready to send to them. Again, so they could kind of make sure I fell within the purview of the particular FOA. And also I was told, never cold call them, but you always email them and let them set up a phone call with you. So that's the protocol that I've followed , um , with each program officer that I've contacted.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah, I would say , um, it's always best to email first and set up a time just so that, you know you have their undivided attention and they're not, you know, on their way out the door and they have time to review your aims and read them and be prepared for the conversation. So yes, we greatly appreciate emails and not cold calls. So once you sort of, you had decided which FOA to apply to, how did you approach putting the grant together? Did you start in a certain place? Did you start with certain documents before moving on to others? And how long did it take you to put that grant together?

Sweta Agrawal:

So I , um, first made sure to just go through the FOA and read some of the language that was on there, about what they were looking for in the BRAIN initiative K99 and different aspects of science that they were trying to emphasize. And again, talking--like Karen David at that conference also had put together a little presentation about applying for BRAIN initiative grants, not specifically a K99, it was more broad than that, but it kind of gave me a sense of some of the goals and the types of research that they were interested in. And then I do think that it's important to have kind of a cohesive message to the grant. And I also talked to a bunch of people about the K99 and the program officers and it was clear that the purpose of this funding mechanism is to provide some training, like you do want to apply to it and demonstrating how the, what you propose in the K99 will help train you, but it's only supposed to be about two years as a post-doc, and so you're also supposed to be on this cusp of transition, but make the case that like this little bit of training is going to help get you over that cusp and to really make you a competitive applicant for the job market, the academic job market. And so with all that in mind, that was kind of thinking about what is it that I could use, what final bit of training , and I'd always wanted to try and pursue a computational project. And so I made that the main focus of the research part of my grant, as well as the training part of my grant. And so once I had that figured out what was going to be kind of the core message of my grant, it felt a lot easier for all the other pieces to fall into place. Um, and then of course, there's lots of little documents that go along with any NIH application. And so for that, I was very glad to have had these failed past attempts that I could cannibalize and use a lot of those other documents to kind of fill out the rest of the application.

Tayler Sheahan:

I'll talk about my experience with preparing an F32 application. So I started my postdoc knowing that like right out of the gates I would need to write this F application in terms of, you know , the eligibility window. And I think I probably ended up spending or allotting myself around two months to work on the application. And since I was new to the lab, one of my first steps was just kind of diving into the literature and getting a sense of where there's a gap in knowledge that I might want to address. But then also I made a point to collect a number of F32 applications from labmates and friends and other colleagues that were both successful and unsuccessful to get a sense of what a scope of an F32 looks like. And then around that point, I started just bouncing ideas around with my mentor about a proposal that would not only lead to potential significant findings to the field, but also entail a lot of really great training opportunities for me during my post-doc . And in terms of the sections that I spent the most time on, obviously the research strategy was the bulk of my time. So I worked on that, got a good draft going so that I would be able to send that out to people to get their feedback. And then while I was waiting for feedback or just needed a break from thinking about science, I would do those other documents that Sweta was talking about. And, you know, I, again, learning from previous grant application submissions when I prepared my F31, and remember, I did not have a sense at all of how long those additional documents take and I really vastly underestimated how long those additional documents take, but they're still very critical to your application because it is a training grant. So it was nice for my F32 to have, you know, a template for all those additional documents from my first F31 application ,

George Vidal:

Uh, for me in, in doing the K01 faculty application, I think the biggest thing was reading the FOA really carefully because in there I realized that the point of the mechanism wasn't only for funding the science, but also funding the person. And so that person is, you know, unique. It's a unique person at a unique institution with unique institutional commitments and environments, and all of that together forms this, this thing that can be developed. Right. And so once I understood that there were actually--it wasn't just about the science, it was also about where am I in my career and where, what gaps do I have to fill, get to where I need to go? And how is that going to help the NINDS mission? All of that helped me really frame everything in the right way. The other thing I wanted to say, and this is just unsolicited advice, and just hearing what we've been talking about is to really not be shy and get over your own inhibitions to contact potential mentors, you know, either at your institution or at nearby institutions, or also to contact your program officers and work through all of these things with everybody. I learned at a little bit the hard way, because I wasn't--I'm kind of an introverted person. And so that when I, applying the first time around, I had some mentors and , um, I had talked to my program officer, but I could have done a lot more. And that's what I did during the resubmission. And I also had a lot of encouragement from people around me to build that mentor network. Before I went into my resubmission. As for keeping track of the different parts of the application, everyone's saying that there are a lot of parts, it's the same for me. And if you've done this before, actually they're a little Gantt charts, they're organizational charts that, that let you list every item that you need to complete, every little task. And I just wrote out all of the documents. When I got to the research strategy portion, which is a very big deal, I broke that down into the different specific aims, or maybe the introduction and the specific aims that I was going to do. And then I laid that out over the course of several months. I know that in the first application, it definitely took me, from the time that I was considering applying to the time when I actually applied, it was about six months and in the resubmission, I think it was more than that actually. Part of that was because I was waiting for a publication to be in press and also I was talking to a couple of mentors , um, and adding them onto my application. So yeah, give yourself a lot of time, organize things, and plan it out way in advance. Find your mentors, find more mentors than you think you need. And talk to your program officer more than you think you need, because you probably need it more.

Sweta Agrawal:

Yeah, I would say, I think I took only about two months of like really, from when I was like, yes, I'm definitely going to apply for this next funding mechanism--so I think I decided that in August and then was going to apply for the October deadline--but I did spend pretty much all of September very focused on the grant and it was a little bit rushed. So I would recommend spending more time than that. I think I had at least already had been thinking it over in my head and mulling it, so that helped me hit the ground running a little bit, but I would definitely recommend not being quite so delayed in your process. And I echo George's advice to find mentors and Tayler, too, mentioned about finding other example applications. That was super helpful for me to find ones that were closer to my area of research or ones that were further from my area of research and to just have , um , a couple of different templates to kind of see what people have talked about, especially for the R00 part of the K99 award. It was hard for me to wrap my head around to what level I should be talking about this future research. Um, especially when I don't know where that would be.

Marguerite Matthews:

Now, how, how did you incorporate your mentor into this? Did you make a plan before you decided to apply? Did you sort of decide that you were going to apply and then ask your mentor for help and how involved were they in the process?

Tayler Sheahan:

I've been very fortunate to have super supportive mentors for both my graduate and postdoc work. So they have already wanted to play an active role in discussing what the research will be like and how to really maximize my training in their labs. But I think that's really critical for something like an F32, because it is a training grant and your mentors should be on board with the training plan that you're proposing. And I would say I had pretty frequent conversations with my mentor, Sarah Ross, during the application process. And that would be in the form of, you know, having very iterative conversations about what would make good, specific aims, but also what training opportunities or like technical training opportunities should we work into the application to really develop my scientific toolbox. And then also training opportunities for my professional development. And I would say it was a pretty good process and exciting process because together we exchanged a lot of science ideas, got excited about the project, then also just really mapped out what the first three years of my postdoc would look like and set up goals for one-year, two-year checkpoints and that. So it was a very helpful process whether or not I had gotten the award. I think it was a good opportunity to discuss goals and expectations with my mentor.

George Vidal:

I completely agree with that idea that as you're applying for the award is actually an amazing training opportunity, in a way, to involve your mentors more in your own development. So it'll, it'll always do good. Um, I remember the first submission, even though it didn't go well, or it wasn't funded, I grew so much during that time. And because I was doing the faculty K01, it was important to find a mentor who had really respect , uh , my independence and always guard it and basically acted as someone who would support me while I was getting that independence. So for me, it was, it was in, in talking to my colleagues around here in my department, I found one who was particularly, you know, had a great track record of mentorship of all different levels of training, including junior faculty. And it was very clear just in casual conversations that this was somebody who was going to really respect who--my identity as a scientist, and just act there as a, as a support mechanism to really push me to, to become a better scientist and a better professional. So once I found that, that was just through casual conversation, it was , I wasn't actively looking for a mentor, but I guess in retrospect, I kind of was, right? Many of these mentor mentee relationships happen very organically. Um, so once I identified my colleague as my main mentor in the application, he actually helped me a lot to identify some others, maybe think about ways to connect things or ways to accentuate how our institution really supports our research mission in the lab, things of that nature that only he could provide, because he was in the department for a lot longer than me.

Sweta Agrawal:

One nice thing about the K99 is it's an excellent catalyst for having what should be a very important conversation with your post-doc mentor about what is it that you can take from the lab and work on in your own lab. And especially because my advisor, John Tuthill , he's a new PI, I'm one of his most senior postdocs , neither of us has any practice at this kind of conversation or this kind of transition. And so he had already been very involved in all of my previous grant applications and is an excellent writer. So I was set on that front, but then it was interesting to have these conversations with him about , um, where he kind of sees the lab going, about where he thinks are some promising directions of research, and to kind of run my own ideas past him. And so that was important and good and so even if it hadn't worked out and gotten funded, I think at the very least I appreciated that it worked as a nice vehicle for us to have that conversation. And like I mentioned, because he's a new PI, I also had to find a co-advisor for the application. And since I knew I wanted to improve my computational skills, and I knew that the other advisor would have to be someone who has a track record of transitioning post-docs to their own faculty positions, a natural choice ended up being Adrian Fairhall, who's also in the same department , uh , just down the hall. And so it was nice. She was immediately on board and I also got to have some nice conversations with her about ways to get some of the training that I was hoping for. And then also about, as I was filling out the computational aim in my grant, she was great to talk to about the methods, since I was definitely quite a bit less familiar with those.

Lauren Ullrich:

Great , and so besides your mentors, did you get any feedback on your application before you submitted it and who did you send it to? Who did you ask to read it? Was there anyone who you thought was maybe particularly helpful?

Sweta Agrawal:

So I ended up sending my application to another senior postdoc in the lab, especially for my specific aims, I kind of wanted to get those nailed down first. And since that would then form the basis of what I would flesh out for the research statement, I spent a lot of time thinking about those specific aims and working with this other senior postdoc in my lab, since I definitely trust a lot of the ideas he has. Um , and then also went over it with my two mentors. Once I had a research statement put together, I ended up contacting another friend of mine who now is a faculty member , um , at Indiana University, so I was able to send it to him to read over as well as a couple other folks in my lab. I kind of tried to choose one person who was less familiar with the specific questions and then a person who was a little bit more closer to the research to try and get both perspectives on what I had going on. Um, and then also at the University of Washington , uh, we actually have this nice peer mentoring group for K99 applications. And so I was able to send some other parts of the application to somebody in that peer mentoring group , um, that it consists of postdocs from all different departments at UDub. And so that was a nice way to get feedback from someone who was in the same boat, working on the same application, but totally removed from the type of research, the funding mechanism and everything, just to kind of get another set of eyes on it.

George Vidal:

Uh, for, for me in preparing the K01 , uh, the first time around I made a mistake and that was, I didn't get enough people to take a look at it and they would have given me very timely advice had I done that. So during the, the resubmission , uh, I involved beside my primary mentor , um, I also involved my co-mentors as well. Each of them is in a different, a slightly different subfield than me. So they gave very interesting, great perspectives that were extremely useful and also helped me with my confidence, too . It really helped to get that positive feedback , um, constructive feedback from them. I also had a , an unusual set of eyes taking a look at it, and those were my undergrad students in the lab. They had just been trained on some of the techniques and the ideas and in the lab, but they hadn't been trained as neuroscientists for very long. So actually having them read it and asking me questions really helped to open my eyes to understand where in the application I was just being way too jargony and assuming way too much from my readers, who are really from all across the board. So their input actually really helped me to break down the ideas so that they're understandable by basically any, any of my peers

Tayler Sheahan:

Similar to both George and Sweta, I had several people read my application, my primary mentor, of course, as well as my co mentor. Um, and then in terms of additional people in the lab, I had another post-doc who is an expert in a technique that I proposed , but that was new to me and was a--very much a training component of my application to make sure what I was saying made sense and was feasible and how I, like, make sure I was interpreting the data of the experiments I was proposing correctly. And then in terms of just the specific aims, I guess, going back to the start, when I had my specific aims page, I sent it to another faculty in the pain center who is maybe like known for giving critical feedback and as painful as it is to see a specific aims page torn apart, I would always love that to happen on the inside before it goes out to the world. So, definitely got his feedback and it was also convenient because he has served on NIH grant panels before. So it's nice to have senior faculty who have experience being members of review committees because they have a sense of what might make or break an application. So I sought--tried to send my applications to the most critical eyes that I can , um, with the hope that they will catch the weak spots before grant reviewers do.

George Vidal:

Something that helped me psychologically was to try to seek the most critical eyes. And , um , that helped me because I knew that the feedback that I would get would really get those weak spots. What I thought was was great psychologically was to say, Hey, you know, I actually explicitly said, "I'm looking for you to get at those weak spots. Please identify them for me so that I can make my application stronger." And just being really transparent with that intention really helped my attitudes towards, towards the critique process.

Marguerite Matthews:

That's really great of you to say, I think we mentioned this, actually, in season one, but of course this is program staff and people think that, you know, sometimes the advice we give is not always , um, very realistic, but clearly, you know, you are someone who believes that getting critical feedback really is a help and not a hindrance. Um, and that it's not a mark against you as a person, as a thinker, as a scientist, but it gives you an opportunity to perhaps sharpen your message or make it more clear, or address things in a different way that may help the reader instead of making them focus on some of the more negative outcomes. Well, thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. Uh , would each of you like to give one last piece of advice for our future applicants?

George Vidal:

I think that my biggest piece of advice is actually another little psychological tactic. And this one is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who you think is really successful in science, right? Someone who you look up to a lot and say, well, what would I be doing in their , in their shoes? Would I be looking for critical feedback? Would I be looking for as many mentors as I can? Would I be reaching out to my program officers? And that really helped me because, you know , I go through a lot of imposter syndrome, right? This idea that I'm not really good enough, that my science is never going to be good, these really destructive, self-destructive thoughts , um, that have no place in our own development. So I think that biggest piece of advice is put yourself in the mind of someone else who you think is successful. They're probably going through the same exact kinds of things as you are, but when you do that, hopefully that will give you an idea of how to reach out to people and how to take advantage of the resources that are around you.

Sweta Agrawal:

I would say that my piece of advice is that even though the process is very intimidating and there's a lot to do , um , and it's very easy to put off or decide not to do it, that it is always worth applying and thinking about, at least, even if you don't get it, the good that may come of it. I actually almost did not apply for the K99 since my postdoc paper wasn't out yet, I was getting married the day after the application was due, I was debating whether to apply for academic jobs or for the K99, and my advisor actually talked me into it, like, just try it, like it'll help you out. And like, you know, the job market will always be there. We didn't realize that there was a pandemic on its way that would kind of tank it, but, but still, it was good advice. And I'm glad I applied because I did end up getting it and it worked out a lot better than I thought it would. And even if I hadn't gotten it again, I feel like I've learned so much about NIH and the whole process through every failure. Um, and it's helped make the next grant stronger. So , um, yeah, just don't be too intimidated. You just, at some point have to kinda jump in and tackle it and see where it takes you.

Marguerite Matthews:

I love that advice. Thank you.

Tayler Sheahan:

I completely echo that advice just to like take all the chances; I almost didn't apply for the loan repayment program award because an NINDS does not prioritize PhDs, but I thought what the heck might as well go for it. And that has really been like a life-changing award for me. In terms of another piece of advice, we've touched upon this a bit throughout our conversation today, but I think it's important to emphasize that your application really be, you know , the story of you and your scientific career and emphasize that throughout each component of your application, tell the reviewers your scientific story, where you come from, where you are now and where you want to go and what you're doing to, you know , progress your story and your science and how your mentors are going to really help you achieve those goals that you have.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah, that's such a good point. Especially these training and career development awards, they really are about you. In so many ways they're about your strengths and your weaknesses, they're about the training that you still need in order to get where you want to go. And really the most successful applications that I see are the ones that , that have that personality, that have that story, and they're so compelling that the reviewers say, "Oh, of course we have to fund them, of course we want to support this person, like, I can see them doing great things and being a leader in neuroscience." And those are the ones that are, that are super successful.

George Vidal:

Hmm . I think now I have a competing advice--they're competing for first place. So I don't know.

Lauren Ullrich:

[laughter] Go ahead. You can say two.

George Vidal:

So I think the biggest thing here was--and it echoes this idea that this application process is going to make you into a stronger scientists , no matter what--and in that process, there's a lot of self-reflection about what are the gaps in your training that need to be filled. And that is what my mechanism is all about. So, once I had enough self-reflection to say, "Well, what are my actual gaps?" The only way to really do that is to really try to write out one of these applications so you really understand your weaknesses and your strengths. And you can work, you can use this training mechanism to propose how you will fill in those gaps in your own training and become stronger in the end.

Marguerite Matthews:

For all of our returning listeners, we promise we did not feed them these things to say. These are coming from their own brains, Lauren and I did not have to bribe them to give similar advice that has been given before on this podcast. So thank you all for sharing. Lauren, do you have any parting advice for our listeners?

Lauren Ullrich:

Um, I guess my advice for this episode is a little bit more practical, in terms of just being very careful when you're reading the FOA. We hate to see applications come in that we can't fund for whatever reason. And so doing that homework and really doing the work up front to make sure that, you know, you have all the required components ,that you're eligible, that this is the right Institute, all of those things. And most of that can be found in the FOA. And if not there, then reaching out to program directors. Um, and also a thing that's commonly overlooked is the notices. So, sometimes there are updates to funding opportunity announcements. These could be changes in what's required in the FOA, these could be changes to the eligibility criteria, this could be , um, even a new FOA has been published and you're applying to the old one, and they're very easy to just scroll past and to miss. And so making a little mental note to always go in and check the related notices before you submit that application, that would be my advice. What about you, Marguerite?

Marguerite Matthews:

I think it's a great opportunity for you to talk with your mentor about planning your application and even getting some advice from other folks about the right type of funding opportunity to apply for, but none of that supersedes what is in the funding announcement in terms of eligibility and other information, but also talking to program staff. So, it's great to have folks to talk to at your institution, but you also want to make sure that you are communicating with the NIH to make sure that you are applying to the right place, you are applying for the right type of opportunity, and getting feedback from us on how to best guide you. We are not the end-all be-all, we don't have all the answers, and much of what we are giving to you are suggestions and not hard and fast rules, but we do want to hear from you. So please reach out to a program officer or three, if necessary, to do that. But it's really important that you aren't just relying on information given to you by people who may have applied for an award that you're thinking about because of all the things Lauren just said: things, change policies, change, procedures, change , um, and , us at NIH are the best people to give you the right information. So, yep .

Lauren Ullrich:

Okay. And that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you again to our guests this week for sharing their expertise and a big thank you to NINDS program director Dr. Bob Riddle, who composed our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle the specific aims and research strategy.

Marguerite Matthews:

You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more grant application resources on the web at ninds.nih.gov. Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and at @NINDSFunding, you can email us with questions at [email protected] .gov . Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app of choice. So you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.

Intro
Introductions
Q&A
Advice
Outro