NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S2E2: Building a Target for Your Aims

January 22, 2021 NINDS Season 2 Episode 2
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S2E2: Building a Target for Your Aims
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 discuss how they approach writing the Specific Aims and the Research Strategy and how to determine the “right” amount of work for a research proposal. We also discuss tips on how to approach pitfalls and alternative approaches to the experimental design.

Featuring Maria Ali, Neurobiology PhD Candidate at the University of Virginia, Brielle Ferguson, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, and Nathan Smith, PhD, PI at Children’s National Hospital and Assistant Professor at George Washington University.

National Research Mentoring Network: http://nrmnet.net/

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



Lauren Ullrich:

Welcome to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder's 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.

Marguerite Matthews:

Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a scientific program manager at NINDS.

Lauren Ullrich:

And I'm Lauren Ullrich, a program director at NINDS. And we're your hosts today.

Marguerite Matthews:

This episode, we will talk about the specific aims and research strategy of your application. We'll focus on how to craft a specific aims page, how to choose the right scope for your research strategy and how to integrate that research strategy with your training or career development plans.

Lauren Ullrich:

And of course, our disclaimer still applies: everything we talk about may only be relevant for NINDS. So if you're applying to a different NIH Institute or center, it's always best to check with them about their policies.

Marguerite Matthews:

And our guests today are Maria Ali, Dr. Brielle Ferguson and Dr. Nathan Smith. So let's get started with introductions.

Maria Ali:

Hi, I'm Maria. I'm a current PhD candidate at the University of Virginia in the Kucenas lab. In the Kucenas lab, we use zebra fish as a vertebrate model to study all things glia, basically. So I study all the progenitor cells or OPCs, which are a group of glial cells in the central nervous system that migrate rapidly throughout the brain and spinal cord. We're able to observe this migrating or tiling during development. However, we don't know much about how this is regulated molecularly. So for my PhD, I've been investigating various molecular mechanisms surrounding tiling, including proliferation, migration, and contact-mediated repulsion. So I actually received an F31, diversity F31 for this work. And one of my hobbies outside of work is I love watching horror movies with my friends.

Lauren Ullrich:

Oh, what's your favorite?

Maria Ali:

Um , honestly don't really have a favorite. I just watched Hereditary, which was really good and Midsommer, which are by the same director and they're creepy, but not too much. I just really liked the story of both of them.

Lauren Ullrich:

Nice.

Brielle Ferguson:

Hi everyone, I'm Brielle. I use she/her pronouns and I'm a postdoc at Stanford working in John Hugenard's lab. In the Hugenard lab, we study absence epilepsy where, instead of the classic convulsive seizures that many people are more familiar with, patients have these brief periods of unconsciousness, where they lose consciousness and motor function, and this can happen hundreds of times throughout the day. Outside of when they're having those seizures they also have attention impairments, which can make it really difficult for them to perform at a level that's comparable to their peers, whether that's in the classroom, in their interpersonal relationships or even on the job force. So my project is trying to understand why do they have those attention impairments in the first place, and can we figure out how to treat them? So to do so, I use a genetic mouse model of absence epilepsy, where we have mice that have a mutation in a gene that's also present in patients and the mice have both absence seizures and attention impairments. Then I train the mice on automated attention assays, and I either record activity in their brain or I manipulate activity in their brain to see how it affects their attention performance. My goal is to identify patterns of activity that are associated with successful performance. And with the goal that by identifying these, I can use those to better develop treatments that can work both in absence , epilepsy, and disorders with attention impairments across disease states. I've received an F31 and an F32 and diversity supplements for R01s both during my graduate work and my postdoctoral work. I think it's important to note that I applied for my F31, three times before I got it. So keep that in mind, definitely be willing to try again. It's very likely that you won't get it the first time and that's okay. That was a tough lesson for me, but once I realized that, it made it a lot better. You go into it, knowing that that's a part of the process. Hobbies and passions outside of work, I love doing yoga and I love plants, I have about 40. They make me happy and there's something I can tend to inside, and if that's an activity that still works during the pandemic.

Marguerite Matthews:

What's your favorite type of yoga? I like a Vinyasa yoga. I can tell you my least favorite type is hot yoga. I hate sweating. [Laughter] But just like the Vinyasa or powerflow. Yeah, I enjoy Vinyasa also.

Nathan Smith:

Hello, I'm Nathan Smith. I'm an assistant professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and health sciences, and also a principal investigator at Children's National. My lab that is neuro-glial interactions between astrocytes, microglia and neurons on the normal physiological conditions. And then look for breakdowns in communication between the three major cell types in the brain, in order to understand disease pathologies , such as attention deficit disorder, epilepsy, depression. As a graduate student, I applied for an F 31 the first time I applied, it was not discussed. The second time I applied, it was funded. I applied for a F32 as a postdoctoral candidate. It got a score, but it wasn't funded. And now as a principal investigator and an assistant professor, I applied for an NIH KO1. The first time I applied it wasn't funded, the second time it was funded. And on the side, when I'm not doing research or science, I have a black belt in mixed martial arts, so I do martial arts.

Lauren Ullrich:

Wow.

Marguerite Matthews:

Can you tell us what got you into martial arts?

Nathan Smith:

I started doing some karate in college and everything else, but when I got to graduate school, I needed an outlet for, you know, all the stress and I took up more and martial arts and throughout graduate school, right before I graduated, I transitioned over to my black belt and it really did help a lot. Let me tell ya. [Laughter]

Lauren Ullrich:

So this episode, we are talking about specific aims and research strategy. And one of the questions that we get a lot is, you know, is there anything different about the way that you write or conceptualize specific aims when you're thinking about a fellowship or career development award versus a research grant?

Marguerite Matthews:

And for those of our listeners who may have never applied for a research grant, who may have seen it in your PIs grants, there's one page it's kind of a summary page of what you plan on doing and why you're going to do it.

Nathan Smith:

I took a stab at this a nd t hat since I 've done the research grant and the career development grants, u h, and I would say, I don't think t here i s a difference, because the major component of those proposals are research, and basically you structure your specific aims exactly the same. And so there's no difference in if it's a career development award or a research grant, u h, you still have to, you're addressing a problem and y ou're proposing what that problem is i n that specific aims to get the reviewers to say, okay, let me read more of this to see if this is interesting, right? In this particular sense. I don't think there's a difference.

Maria Ali:

I think the only thing I would add is when I was writing my fellowship, a lot of the advice that I got was to make sure within your research grant, you were kind of highlighting the techniques that you were going to learn, finding a balance between the techniques that you already know, but also making it clear that a lot of your aims were going to teach you new skills or help you acquire new skills in the lab and kind of showcasing why you need a training fellowship. I think that was the only difference, the advice that I got.

Nathan Smith:

I think you could take both steps to do this, right? For the K01, I structured it just like I would do a research question. As I moved from the specific aims to the major proposal, I did discuss more of how the specific techniques I wanted to learn during the career development will help me reach my ultimate goal. So I think you can do both, in other words, I should say.

Marguerite Matthews:

So In thinking about writing your aims. How did you approach that? We often hear about having difficulties with aims or sometimes more descriptive aims. Is there a way that you think about how your a ims should be structured or even how many aims to include, what was that process like for you?

Brielle Ferguson:

Luckily, I was told this before writing both of my F grants. So I was careful about this before starting, because it's really easy to fall into that trap. You write a grant in many ways, like the best case scenario of this beautiful story that you could tell if all of your hypotheses and predictions play out. So it's tempting for that to want to read like a story, right, where you have chapter one, where you have very important discovery, number one, and that leads you to important discovery two. And it's way less fun to write: first, I will find groundbreaking discovery, number one, and then I will find completely unrelated thing, discovery number seven, but there's a way to do this, right? Like you make it all about hypothesis one, but then go at that from different angles. So my primary techniques and kind of modes of investigation have been physiology or imaging and then behavior. And so I've written grants using both of these to either look at behavioral and circuit mechanisms of two related, but distinct behaviors. Or I have an aim focused around the physiology and the imaging and while the other one is focused around the behavior and maybe some type of circuit manipulation. So when you structure it that way, the aims work together towards a common goal, but are still interesting on their own and not dependent on one another

Nathan Smith:

I completely agree with Brielle . I think it's very important because you do fall in that trap of dependence on one another. And that's the trap that all the PIs should tell their trainees: Remember these specific aims, they cannot be dependent on one another and then you break it down on why they can't be dependent on one another. And the simple fact is if one fails, then the whole grant falls apart, right? And so when you break it out in those terms like that, build it where they're not interdependent on one another. So if I say, I'm going to do calcium imaging, looking at an astrocytes and it's pertaining to certain cells, my second aim will not be dependent on what the calcium imaging is doing in that first aim, because if the calcium engine doesn't work or something fails, then as I said before, the whole, whole grant basically falls apart. And when it gets to study section and I was putting my reviewer hat on, you will be dinged for something like that.

Maria Ali:

Right. I took a completely similar approach of, I was like I mentioned interested in molecular mechanisms. And so for one aim, it was looking at potential mechanisms for proliferation. And for one aim, it was potential mechanisms for migration. Therefore, so if you know the gene I was proposing for one didn't work out, then I could also follow up with another gene for a completely different pathway. And so it was all related to OPCs and related to tiling, but it was, you know, different pieces of what's happening in different genes. So really highlighting that it all goes to answering a similar question about tell of interest, but not exactly the same thing and not in like a linear fashion, more kind of attacking different pieces of this process at the same time.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. That's such a grant killer. So I'm glad that all of you thought about that before you started working on your grants. And so, sort of a similar vein, one of the critiques that we see a lot in review is that somebody is over ambitious or less frequently under ambitious. And so how do you know if you've proposed the "right" amount of work, how do you know that you can get it done in the amount of time that's provided for that fellowship or po st-doctoral a ward?

Nathan Smith:

This is always a struggle, right ? Uh , and I struggle with it still today . When you write up the grant and you write up your specific aims and everything else, it's like, you want to show the reviewers that you could absolutely everything. You have all these ideas going around in your brain and you put it all on paper and realistic terms is like, you cannot do everything. So I basically my first draft, I write down everything I , and I step away for one day or two days, because you have to give yourself some time to like process, and then you go and do some self editing. If it's under ambitious, I will add a little more, but if it was over ambitious. I put my thinking cap on it's like, you know what? I can actually move some of this to the alternative approaches. I don't have to put it all in. Cause you know, someone will say this is over in ambitious, no way this person is able to achieve all of this. And once I go through my self edits, that's what I bring in and pass them all along to my mentors. Right. And let them look at it, fresh pair eyes. So always my advice to anyone who's writing grants, don't be afraid to share it or have your mentors look over it because they have gone through this process many times. Right. And so the more eyes and the more advice you get can help keep you from making the mistake's such as under or over ambitious.

Maria Ali:

Yeah. I completely agree with, and I love what Nathan said about, you know, putting it in the alternative approaches. That's definitely something I did as well. I was really interested in these candidate genes that had a lot of, you know, supporting literature about them, but there's always that fear of what if this won't work! And so I also was planning on doing a drug screen and I was talking with my mentor, which is also critical to do. And she was like, you know what, let's put that in your alternative approaches. Let's not make an aim around a drug screen because it is very risky, but we can also use it as an alternative approach. Just say, here's just another way that you're going to tackle this problem without saying, you're definitely going to do it as part of the aims . And so I think another way to make sure you're not being over or under ambitious is if you are proposing a lot of different techniques, like I proposed a lot of like CRISPR CAS 9 mutagenesis, which can sound intimidating and time-consuming, but in zebra fish is actually pretty quick about, you know , three to four months. So I made sure to really highlight the fact that our lab is really good at generating those mutants. And I've done it before and kind of really like giving the confidence that even though this seems like a lot of work, I know exactly how long it should take. And I feel confident that I can get it done within the scope of the time that I was asking for the grant. So actually talking about potentially how long things might take, could also give the reviewers some confidence to know, okay, like this is actually a reasonable amount of work to propose in the time period.

Marguerite Matthews:

That's a really great point, Maria, because sometimes the ambitiousness can be measured both in time. Like actual time that it would take you to be able to run these experiments. Or perhaps you're having to learn everything from scratch. Like you don't do CRISPR in your lab. You have to go to a whole 'nother lab to learn those techniques. You and Brielle could potentially be proposing the same project, but it may take you an easier amount of time because you know those techniques, you have it available to you. But if Brielle has to go to Nathan's lab to learn those, sort of start from scratch, it may take her a much longer time. So it's , I think it's really to think about what you bring to the table and how you're going to learn it. Think about that in terms of both a timeline, but also, you know, is this something that is going to be so layered that it may really take away from this as a training opportunity? Can this be saved for another project?

Brielle Ferguson:

Great answers, both Nathan and Maria and follow up points by Marguerite. I just would , re-emphasize just having as many sets of eyes on your proposal as possible, because I think if you've never written a grant before, or you're an early stage trainee, this can be really hard to gauge, like what's a reasonable amount or like a feasible amount of experiments. So for version one of my F31 grant, I had, similar to what Maria was saying, I had a lot of ambitious things proposed, but the difference was it was techniques that had never been done in my lab or even my department, as soon as someone else read it, it was immediately flagged like this is, girl this is too much, and t hey w ere right. But I think like as you get more experience and you become a senior graduate student or post-doc, you get a better sense of this one piece of advice t hat I got recently that was really useful a s that reviewers, when they're g auging the, if the amount of work that y ou've p roposed i s feasible, they'll also look at your previous productivity. So if you've been, in my circumstance, a post-doc for a few years and you haven't published yet, but you say you're going to publish three papers[laughter] in the next couple of years, like there might be some s ide e yes which are reasonable, but I also think we know as scientists that productivity often is not linear, especially as a graduate student and even as a p ost-doc, you spend some time building up your techniques and your expertise. And so,you may not publish anything for a couple o f years, then you could be super productive in like the later stages. So I think if you can lay out a really clear case for how everything you've done, like very clearly leads up to and prepares you for what you're going to do later in your grant and you can execute that efficiently. I think that can work. And that's, that's worked for me in the past.

Nathan Smith:

Brielle brings about a really important point. Uh, actually I put my reviewer hat on again and it is very important for me 'cause we look at that productivity, right? Cause you say you're going to do all these things and have you published . And I would say, especially to younger trainees, if you have something that's just sitting there collecting dust and you are in a process of doing it, although it's up to the PI , don't be afraid to put things on bioRxiv, put things out there. I mean, cause that's showing something that's more tangible than saying, Oh, I have this paper and revision, you have other reviews , you might be skeptical of this. It's like, Oh, they're just telling us they have this paper and revision. How do we know that? Right? The bioRxiv, although it's not peer reviewed, but at least it shows that you have something in the pipeline. It's not fully developed, but it's there. Right. And everyone could see it. So you're the first person to put it out there and it's index. So I think it's very important for younger trainees, especially graduate students and post-docs to embrace by our archives, especially when it comes to the review process because you have to show us productivity and that can make or break an application . Unfortunately.

Lauren Ullrich:

And just to follow up on that, Nathan. We often tell applicants that, you know publications are obviously the best and sort of the gold standard for productivity, but things like, you know , conference proceedings and poster presentations and talks can also show evidence of productivity to the reviewers.

Nathan Smith:

That is true, but it will always come down to the papers. They, I mean, you can, you put it all in front of us. We were looking at your bio sketch and it was like, okay, comparing with everyone else right? You have to show productivity in that you were making your mark by putting out your original research. And I don't think anything could substitute for that. Yes, it's very important to go to the conferences and put that on their poster presentations, everything else, that's building on things. But for many reviewers, it will always come down to the papers.

Marguerite Matthews:

A few of you have already sort of discussed um ways to approach some pitfalls or alternative approaches, especially in thinking about avoiding being too ambitious, Can you talk about ways that you did approach thinking about those things , um, that would be discussed more in the research strategy ?

Nathan Smith:

I think the alternative approach section is actually really good. It shows the reviewers that you actually put thought into this process. If you propose something--and no matter how well you propose, you show the preliminary data for it, and it's a sound experimental plan that you put together--there will always be pit holes and things that go wrong, right? Because that's science in general. Nothing ever works like we planned it out to be. But to use that specific section, the pitfalls and alternative approach section to show that you actually thought about it. That's why I love the section where I'm writing the section, I put myself into reviewer shoes and I say, you know what? This doesn't work. And I've looked at the literature and everything else, especially if my results are definitely going against something that's already established, that's what you're going to get hit with when the reviewers reviewed this , "Well, someone else showed this and how do you no this is going to work?" But even if you have the preliminary data showing this was working , but I remember my F31 showing how astrocytes can modulate plasticity in a form , but you had people who have published papers that showed well, if you knock out astrocyte calcium, astrocytes, don't do anything. Neurons are still able to function. I had that in my mind, that literature and I went, okay, well then if they showed this, I'm going to show this, this, this, this. I'm going to test that hypothesis that people consider, since it was a science paper, golden standard. And I'm going to test this and show the reviewers. I've done my literature search, as well, of alternatives to what that one paper showed, right? I think you have to do it in that sense. I look at it as being a very important section because it shows that you have put some thought into it. But I've seen sections where people have , they put pitfalls, but they don't address any alternative approaches. And that to me seemed like, well , where was the thought process? Because I'm going into this knowing that every experiment proposed will not work.

Brielle Ferguson:

I would agree with everything, Nathan said. You know how , um , like you get the question at job interview. And they're like, what's your biggest flaw? And people are like, I just work too hard, you know? [laughter] And it's the worst, cause that's not a negative, but like you get the motivation. And I think like the alternative approaches and pitfalls can be very similar. Like Nathan said, I think you can use it to your benefit because it shows you've been thorough and thinking through like every single part of your proposed aims, and you've really done the legwork to understand and prep for the techniques that you're suggesting, especially if you haven't used them before. I also think it's a really great time to bring in or mention your collaborators or co-PI eyes, especially if you've been listed them for technical expertise on a thing that you haven't done before. So you can say maybe like, I'll have this issue, but this is why I have an agreement person, X who invented this technique or whatnot. So I think if you're really thoughtful in and meticulous in, in thinking through potential outcomes, talking about how you'll address them and like who can help with that, especially if it's a thing you haven't done before, it ends up not being a pitfall, that's more a way to show just how thoughtful you've been. It can also be about your hypothesis too . It doesn't just have to be about your techniques. Not working negative results are also interesting. And I think as a community, we need to get better about kind of hyping them up and giving them their love . So spend some time saying why it turns out to be the opposite of what you propose , why that's also interesting and , and why that's also valuable.

Maria Ali:

Yeah. I totally agree with everything Brielle and Nathan have said, and the only small thing I would add is just when you're actually physically writing it, like highlight pitfalls, don't just fold it in to your paragraphs. Like make sure they know that that section is about the pitfalls. And then the alternative approaches is like a separate section. So that way they're really like you're drawing their eye to it. You're not trying to be subtle about it, that you really are showing that you thought about what the pitfalls are and exactly what Brielle was saying, both technique, but also hypothesis wise. It's not just if this technique doesn't work, but it's like, no, what if the technique works? But your hypothesis i s a nd what you're thinking, how are you going to shift gears? And what is that going to show us? So really being intentional about showing that you put the thought in by highlighting it in the text itself will really help

Nathan Smith:

That's a really good point, Maria.

Lauren Ullrich:

Another thing is that is very important is; very communicating the excitement of your research question. You know, a lot of times reviewers will not be in your field, not be in your specific sub- fi eld a nd not be familiar with, u h , y ou know, the burning questions that are motivating researchers there. And so how do you communicate in your grant? Why this question is so exciting and why they should want to know the answer just as much as you do. I t h ink t he only way this co uld b e done is your storytelling and defend your grant and tell why I gave the score that i gave it.

Nathan Smith:

It is all about the storytelling, but the story is really good. And you get me excited while I'm reading the stories . Like when I read that specific aims and I was like, Oh my God, this is so good. I want to know what's going to happen at the end. And I'm going through all . That is how we are not taught this in graduate school, right? We were robots like , Oh, you have to write a certain way. But I find that the grants, people who have taken creative writing classes, the way they write, it's telling the story effectively and for anyone to understand you do get people who are not experts in the field, that you've chosen to do your research in and you taken a complex story that you want and turn into simplistic terms as possible and creating this beautiful story. That gets me so excited about it.

Brielle Ferguson:

I agree. I would add to that. I'm a big fan of dramatic adjectives [laughter] So these findings will answer a fundamental question or it'll like revolutionize our thinking about this. I think they're useful. Um, it feels a bit cheesy, but I think that they're useful. Like Nathan said, you want to get people excited about what you're doing. Cause if you don't sound excited, there's no way your reviewer is going to want to go up to bat for you and be excited about it for you. So I use a lot of language like that in my specific games. Then I try to circle back to that and my research strategy, I know a lot of people utilize text formatting to draw attention to particular points. So like bolding things or underlining or italicizing or some combination of those things. I don't do that as much, but I definitely see the utility of it, but mostly I just try to be clear that what I'm doing, because typically it's never been done before, you know, and you can say that and say it early and say it often the other thing, it doesn't work for everything. But for my research, I'm always trying to bring it back to a basic research question. So I study attention and I study epilepsy. And even if for some reason you don't care about epilepsy, we all need a proper functioning attention. And so I try to really sell you on the fact that my work will tell you about both and by better understanding this basic process, whatever it is that has tremendous implications across disease states. And so I think if there's a way that you can tie it into a basic function that has implications for everyone, and I think that can be really impactful.

Maria Ali:

Yeah. This was really challenging for me. And it tends to be challenging for us because we study like, you know , basic developmental biology, which we love. We just want to know how these cells do what they're doing, but especially when you're applying to, you know, NIH and N I N D S there seems to always be like some sort of disease angle that you have to incorporate. And I appreciate that, so what I really tried to nail home was we studied these cells a lot in disease context , but the truth is when you look at the literature, we still don't know a lot about just how they behave basically. And so that was kind of my way in of, we just need to know what they're doing. We just need to know what's regulating these cells, how these cells are working in the basic state. And then we can use that to inform how they're behaving in all of these diseases. So it kind of is just what is the hole that you're trying to fill. And just really highlight why you want to answer that question.

Nathan Smith:

To bring it all back to the specific aims page is so important because it's the first thing a reviewer will read that's why, when you're telling your story, you have to have the hook and you hooked me from the beginning because the story is so compelling, th en t hat makes me want to read the rest of it right, and I get so excited about reading an d i t 's l ike, oh, this is great. Oh this is wonderful. I ca n't p ut this down, right. That's important.

Marguerite Matthews:

Well, it sounds like two of the key things are one being clear, right? Like I shouldn't have to find the thing that is important about this work, right? It should be laid very clearly, very plainly for me to see as a reviewer, but also I'm sort of, to Brielle's point. It should be in your voice, right? Like this should be coming from you . You're going to communicate why the work you're doing is important and why you are the person to do it's You writing about it. So I caution our listeners to use other people's grants wisely. Their format may work for their project and for the way they communicate what they're doing, you have to find the right thing for you. If bolding works for you, because you think that if you read nothing else, this is the one thing that you should see.That's great. But if that's not how you feel like you can communicate or there's other ways for you to do it, I say, feel free to make this your own and not on "prescribed" methods of doing things. There's no right way to do this. And I think just having this conversation between our guests really shows that there's a lot of different ways to approach this. So you don't have to stick with one thing or the next, just because someone else did it and they get every grant they applied to on the first try.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yes. I have seen this , um , in action where it's very clear that somebody is copying someone else's template and it doesn't work for them. And even though, you know, that template got funded, maybe he got a 10, right? Maybe he got a perfect score, but it wasn't the template. It was the ideas and the content and all the formatting in the world can't make up for something that just doesn't jive with the way that you need to tell your story. I do think it is helpful to look at other people's grants, but look at a lot of other people's grants because you'll see that everyone approaches this very differently. Despite the fact that you all [laughter] are mostly agreeing with each other, in terms of the advice, when , when you look at the actual product, it can differ quite substantially and they all, they're all successful in different ways.

Marguerite Matthews:

Yep . I would agree. And look at the grant as a total thing, not as a way for you to write your own, but how do they explain this? How do they tackle some of the pitfalls or alternative approaches? How do they state their hypothesis and then show how they were going to test it, which I think can be helpful looking at it with all the context provided and not just, Oh, well they put a graphic in here. Oh, they listed these sections in this way because not all grants look the same.

Nathan Smith:

That is true. A nd Marguerite touched on something that was really important at the end of her specific aims, right? You ha ve t h is i mpact statement and stuff like that. And when she said, tell the re views, why you are the only person that ca n d o this. An d f or me, that was always hard because it's like, Oh, I know I'm th e p erson to do this. And I remember several times as working on my specific aims page. When I come to that, now it does, it comes a little easier now because you have to sell yourself, tell us why, why are you the person that we should choose that's the best person to do this particular research? And I think that's really important. And that also goes in line with the storyteller , right? But you have to do it in your own voice . I completely agree with what everyone said. You just can't look at someone else's style. Look at the entire package, look at how they told their story. Because I know sometimes when we write, we think we're writing for the audience that are experts like us in this particular area that we're proposing to study. And we have to get beyond that. And when I started writing, I wrote only for astrocyte people to understand, but I took several grant writing courses. And I think one of the best this, the national research network that writing course, the P three is amazing. And as I went through that to hone my grant, writing skills, you learn because you have different people and who studied in different things, all looking at your grant and you actually learn how to write for a general audience that for anyone who read it can understand it rather than always thinking in complex terms. I , I definitely had an issue with that for a long time.

Marguerite Matthews:

Well, Nathan, we know that [laughter] since you have written grants and you have also reviewed them, we know you think about the reviewer . When you write your grants [laughter] Are you thinking about the reviewers or the study section when you're writing your applications?

Maria Ali:

I guess yes and no. Like I definitely am always thinking of the audience. That's going to be reading it and therefore it will be the reviewers and kind of just what we've addressed and making sure it's clear, making sure it's understandable, making sure we're addressing pitfalls, but I guess nothing ever really specific. I'm not really trying to like figure out who's in that study section and how specific it could be. Just more trying to make it like a really strong grant overall. And I just wanted to highlight something. Nathan also mentioned critiques in general. I didn't say this at the beginning, but I also had to submit mine twice, like in resubmitted and getting critiques is the best because it tells you who the things to focus on and what's going right. And what's going wrong as opposed to just feeling like you're in this void. So you need help. This is not a solo endeavor. You have to get other people's opinions, other people's eyes on your writing, whether it's your mentor or a grant writing course. And just like be excited for critiques, you know, take them seriously, whether you agree with them or not, but just look at it as a way to get a clearer lens on the direction your grant should be going in.

Brielle Ferguson:

Yeah, I would agree. It's similar to Maria. I'm not as much thinking about who Specifically is on the review committee, but more so just trying to craft a good grant with all of the things in mind that we've talked about today, which means that you're always thinking of how your audience and like what specific things they'll be looking for that you're like checking all those boxes to go back to another point that Nathan made about the storytelling aspect of the grant and illustrating that like you are the one person who can take this on. I think that's a bit of a balancing act for any training grants, because in some ways you have to be like, I'm the only person who can answer this question, but then you also have to be like, but I need a little bit more help, [laughter] which is a little tricky. Um, so it's important to remember that you are trying to sell it , like you're the person to do the work, but at the end of the day, it's a training grant and that there are also all of these things that you have to learn to be able to answer that question.

Nathan Smith:

I know when I first started writing my 31 in grad school, I was not thinking about the reviewers at the time. Right? Until I finished it, submitted it to the first time we got the critiques back and then my mentor went through it. Then I started putting the pieces together, right. Because it was like, Oh, I can do this. I can do this all alone. I was like, no, you can't. I mean, it came back, not discussed, but it went from not discussing that 14 percentile when they went back and after I incorporated the reviewer's comments, I think Brielle and Maria said it best. Yes. It hurts. They get critiques back. If you think you wrote it and you think it should have been funded on the first time. And sometimes it never happens like that. The first day was like, if you lick your wounds and then you just like, okay, now I'm gonna put myself in the reviewer shoes. And I see it from their point of view, be open to receive constructive criticism and let other people look at your grants. Also have, you know, someone who has written a successful grant that you're interested in applying for, ask that person to see their grant. Don't be afraid. The worst thing that could say is no, they can go to the next person and then go to the next person. A lesson that I learned from my mentors,If you don't advocate for yourself, then no one else will.

Brielle Ferguson:

I would add to that, that Twitter is a really beautiful place for things like that. So I am writing a K award and I just put a call out on Twitter. And I was like, hey, who's has a successful application. Or even not as successful application that you'd be willing to share. And I had like 30, 40 people slide in my DMS offering to send me their applications. So that was super, super helpful. And it allowed me to see like a range of different types of applications that I wouldn't have seen if I had just asked people in my lab or like in my immediate network. So, utilize Twitter.

Marguerite Matthews:

Hard agree. Sort of back to this idea of making the case for you, why you are the right person to do this proposal. How did you all integrate the research strategy with your training and or career development plans, which as you all know, but maybe our audience doesn't know, you have to have some sort of training or career development plan for these training awards, whether it's a fellowship or a career development award.

Nathan Smith:

All right . I can go first cause I just did the career development for the K01. So I got that last year, right? And the one thing is I utilized my strengths from what I've learned from my graduate training, what I learned from my two postdocs that I did. One of my strengths is in vivo calcium imaging. I could do that with my eyes closed, right? But in grad school, I also touched on , um , some aspects of the field recordings, right? And so for my K, I wanted to expand my electrophysiology background , right? In order to answer these questions. I have the bulk of my skillset that could answer, but I still need a little bit more piece of that electrophysiology in terms of whole cell patch clamp. But I do have electrophysiology background. And so, therefore I will build on that background I already have, and I spin it from that angle and it actually work.

Brielle Ferguson:

I would agree. I won't say that you can never go in completely another direction, but it definitely helps if you can make the case that it's a natural extension from something that you've already been doing in grad school. For me, it was whole cell physiology and then behavior, but I had never done any in vivo physiology, which would be a way to kind of merge what I was seeing in my slice recordings and behavioral experiments. And so that was kind of like the natural extension and a way to bring it all together. And similarly, now I'm doing a lot of in-vivo fiber photometry and I'm looking at bulk calcium signaling while animals are performing a particular behavior. What I want to do moving forward is look at the single cell calcium imaging while animals are doing certain types of behaviors. So that's another natural extension. Like, it definitely will require a lot of training, but it's not completely removed from techniques that have already been doing. And so I think that helps a lot. And then this is another time again, to like pull in people who can help you. So like your co-PIs or your collaborators, definitely you can tie them in, in your specific aims and in your like alternative approaches, if you might have some trouble, you can be like, I've enlisted this person who's going to help. And then you can also bring them in, in your training and say, they're the foremost expert on this in the field. And this is why they're going to provide me this critical training without which I can't complete this project or move towards independence or whatever your particular goal is based on what stage you're at.

Lauren Ullrich:

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. And can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for future applicants ?

Maria Ali:

Yeah. My biggest advice I would say is start early, like way earlier than you think, especially if it's your first time, it's intimidating. There's a lot of pieces to it. It's confusing. I think even just technically like all of the different parts that have to go in there, so make sure you're starting early to know what you're going to need. And please, please, please make sure you're working with your mentor. Working with whoever is submitting grants. I know we have a specific person who is a grant specialist at my university. Find out if you have those, because those are the people that are going to really help you. And they'll also know who else submitted grants like we mentioned before. And so just start early and get help. Please don't ever feel like you have to do this alone.

Brielle Ferguson:

I would say in addition to that, don't be afraid of rejection. It's coming [ laughter] and it's okay. You know , um, I think a lot of us, we probably come from a background of being like overachievers. And so we're not used to things being just rejected or not discussed. Um, and that's a big lesson for all of us, but, but it's okay and it's going to happen. It's inevitable. Each rejection and critique will, will make you stronger. And in no way is an indictment on you or you as a scientist or any like reflection on your character, who you are. It's going to happen sometimes and each of those rejections will definitely make you stronger. So try to use them as tools to become a better scientist. And don't take it personally.

Nathan Smith:

I concur with everything that's been said by Maria and Brielle. And I think the last point is, I harped on this earlier, advocate for yourself. If you're applying for something go out and ask people who have successfully submitted. And don't be afraid to ask for help because you can't be an island unto yourself. It does take a lot. And so ask for help and be open to advice and critiques.

Lauren Ullrich:

And Margaret , what's your advice?

Marguerite Matthews:

I would say, be comfortable with just proposing whatever's in your brain, right? Like before you submit it, you're going to get feedback. Hopefully you just don't throw this into the NIH void without getting any feedback, but it's okay to be over ambitious in your first draft and you can cut it back. It's okay to think this is your opportunity to get your research questions out on paper. It's almost like a document full of brainstorming because that's exactly what your pitfalls are. That's what your alternative approaches are. This is a chance for you to really just be creative as you need to and think about in your wildest dreams, what is the way that you would like to answer some of these questions? And it's okay to cut back or save it for another project or think about doing it in your post-doc . Don't be so worried about just getting things out for the first time. It may not be perfect. Your ideas may not all the way be solidified, but that's okay. That's how you get better. That's how you strengthen yourself as a scientist, as a researcher and as an investigator. So that would be my advice. What about you, Lauren?

Lauren Ullrich:

I think, you know, I'll sort of piggyback on that and say, you want to propose research that you are excited about. I think sometimes applicants try to think like, well, what does NIH want? Or what do reviewers want? I think those are good things to think about, but ultimately if you're not excited about the science or things that you're learning, it comes across in your grant. And I think Maria, you had a great example of you're doing really basic science and it's interesting to you and you know, maybe zebra fish , aren't interesting to everyone, but if it's interesting to you, then you can figure out, Why is it interesting to me? And put that in your grant then everyone, you know, the reviewers will say like, Oh, actually I never thought about that before. And that's a great feeling as a reviewer to feel like you're learning something new while you're reading a grant, it's almost better than reading a grant that's squarely in your field. So that--I think that would be my advice. So that's all we have time for today o n Building Up the Nerve. Thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. And thank you to N I N D S program director, Dr. Bob Riddle, who composed our theme song and music. We'll see you next time. When w e talk about the biographical sketch.

Marguerite Matthews:

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

Intro
Introductions
Q&A
Advice
Outro