NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S2E4: Building a Science Story

February 19, 2021 NINDS Season 2 Episode 4
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S2E4: Building a Science Story
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 their training and career goals and how they tell their science story in the Candidate/Applicant's Background and Goals section. Guests also provide insight on how they aligned their expectations with their advisers' to ensure synergy in the training experience and the application itself.

Featuring Ubadah Sabbagh, PhD candidate, Virginia Tech, Alejandra  Fernandez, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, OHSU, and Laura Ngwenya, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Cincinnati.

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:

This episode will focus on the candidate or applicant's background and goals section. Uh , it has slightly different name depending on whether you're applying to an F or K mechanism, but the purpose is the same. And we'll discuss how to define your goals, how to work with your mentor on this section and how to present your previous research experiences to support your application.

Marguerite Matthews:

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.

Lauren Ullrich:

Our guests today are Ubadah Sabbagh, Dr . Alejandra Fernandez and Dr. Laura Ngwenya. So let's get started with our introductions.

Ubadah Sabbagh:

I am a fifth year PhD student at Virginia tech. Hopefully this is my final year, unless we have another shutdown. This is recorded in COVID-19 times, just to be clear. So I study how the brain makes sense of the world that's around us. And specifically I work on how , uh , information that goes to the eye, reaches the brain, how it's processed, how those connections between the retina and specific parts of the brain, including in the thalamus , uh, how those connections form, what molecules are needed to guide their formation. And then after they're formed, how do they parse that visual input into useful information for the brain? Um, in terms of awards I've applied to at the NIH , uh , I've applied to a lot, but at the NIH, I've only applied to one, which is the D-SPAN F99/K00. And that's the only one that I got. And my hobbies outside of work, besides doing like things like outreach and stuff like that, non a work things, are soccer and , um, running. Running is my de-stressing activity. Painting was a quarantine resolution of mine, but it never really took,

Lauren Ullrich:

I had a lot of those. [laughter] And Alejandra?

Alejandra Fernandez:

Yeah. So first of all, thank you for inviting me. And I'm a four year plus doctoral fellow at the Vollum Institute at Oregon health and science university. So NIH awards that I have received when I was in my--doing my grad work, I received an F31, an NRSA. And then during my post-doctoral fellowship, I received a K01 award . So I'm interested in the development of sensory neurons within the peripheral nervous system. And in particular, I study how signaling pathways that are known to be altered in autism spectrum disorders disrupt the development of sensory neurons and how these defects could contribute to altered sensation in autism spectrum disorders. And hobbies or passions , uh, outside of work. Uh , I have a daughter, so , um, science and a daughter that takes a lot of time , uh, but I'm interested in first helping her to understand science better and also to , um , trying to figure out ways to help, like people that are not very into science to try to better understand science . I'm still trying to figure that out, but I think it's very important for everybody. So that's kind of like my current passion.

Lauren Ullrich:

Ok great.

Laura Ngwenya:

Hi , so I'm Laura Ngwenya. I am a neurosurgeon and a physician scientist at the university of Cincinnati. I'm an assistant professor. In the past. I've had a F31 while doing my graduate work. During , um , my neurosurgery residency I had some research time and applied for an F 32 , which I did not receive. Um , and currently I have a K08. Um , my research really is translational. So it focuses on , um, some of the things that I see clinically in my traumatic brain injury patients, which are , um, spreading depolarizations it's , a abnormal brain activity, we sometimes call them brain tsunamis. And we've found that , uh, these are seen in about 50 to 60% of patients that have severe traumatic brain injury, but there's a lot we don't know about these, so my K grant and my laboratory work actually focuses on a rat model of traumatic brain injury. Uh, we looked at these spreading depolarizations and look at some of the mechanisms behind them and look at how they potentially influence things such as adult neurogenesis and cognitive function. Um, you know, in terms of hobbies and passions outside of work, I keep pretty busy as a neurosurgeon that also has a basic science lab. Um, I do like to travel and it's been a little rough this year because I haven't really been able to get any traveling in, but , um, but yeah, so that's, that's me.

Marguerite Matthews:

Wow.

Lauren Ullrich:

What's your favorite place that you've been to um , recently?

Laura Ngwenya:

Uh , recently, so , uh, last year I went to Japan. I actually went to a conference there and then , um, finagle the two weeks of vacation out of it. So it was , I had never been to Japan before, so it was , that was pretty cool.

Marguerite Matthews:

That's great. Did you get to travel around the country?

Laura Ngwenya:

Yeah. Yeah. I traveled around a bit. Yep .

Marguerite Matthews:

Nice.

Lauren Ullrich:

Definitely on my bucket list.

Marguerite Matthews:

Allright. Well, could each of you share your goals, sort of maybe more broadly what your career goals are and specifically how you approach defining and refining your goals for the purposes of your NIH grant application?

Ubadah Sabbagh:

So , um, again, so I'm a PhD student, so my career and the mechanism that I was applying to, which is, again, the F99/K00 , uh, the D span fellowship is aimed at , um, helping trainees transition from pre doc to post doc stages of their career. And so I stated my goals like as threefold , actually one is to run my own lab , um, after my post-doc as an independent investigator. And I specified the kind of institution also that I would ideally want to have a lab in. I also said that one of my career goals is to build a research program in a lab environment that empowers trainees from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds , uh , and marginalized groups. And so this was a really important thing for me to say in my grants , because I think it's something that I want to carry through my work throughout my career. And so those were like kind of the overarching goals. If you're talking about goals of skills to develop and things like that, that went into the training plan. I can talk about that too.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. Why don't you expand on that a little bit?

Ubadah Sabbagh:

Okay. So I have five main categories of goals that I specified, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the first of course is the obvious one, which is technical skills. Developing those is really important for any kind of research. And so , uh, I was proposing work tha,t a lot of which I was familiar with how to do, and then some work that is new to me, and some work that is new to my lab in terms of , uh , laboratory techniques involved in that work. And so I talked about my goals of learning those techniques and how I'm gonna approach that. Uh , whether it's taking a course, that's offered like a graduate level course, if it's some kind of data analysis like computational tool, then taking some training on that or collaborating with somebody. So any, any kind of way that I can develop those technical skills. Another category was my critical thinking and intellectual skills, which are also really important for thinking about how to design experiments and new questions to ask. And those , um , can be developed by things like journal clubs or presenting talks and attending talks that are internal and external to the institution. Um , and then many other things like that. And then communication skills of course, for how to present my work in written and oral form. And so a lot of that comes with practice and there's also workshops on science, communication and data visualization and things like that. And then the fourth category was mentorship and training. And that's because I , you know , one of my goals is to be a mentor to other students and postdocs down the line. And so it's kind of a skill that needs to be developed, and there's nothing inherent about the process of grad school or postdoc that makes you a good mentor. And there's lots of training that is out there, but you kind of have to seek it out. It's not, as I see, it's not like , uh, intrinsic to any programs that are out there that I'm aware of. So I talked about what kind of mentor I want to be and where I'm going to go to start learning skills and receive training on how to be a better mentor. And then the last category is teaching and pedagogy, which is another thing I value as a scientist and educator. And so I talked about TAing as a student and also talked about guest lecturing , um, as a student and as a post-doc . So those were like the skill set categories that I talked about developing. And I think for me, they were a good fit after thinking deeply about what I'm lacking as a student , and then also having conversations with my sponsor.

Alejandra Fernandez:

So for me , um, my long-term goal is to develop , um , independent line of research studying , uh , how altered circuits is affecting behavioral, phenotypes in, as I said, I'm very interested in autism. So the way that I divided my, my section is I use two paragraphs to pretty much state my goal . And then I divided that in three specific goals that I would like to achieve with the award. Uh, so it will be to develop that technical expertise, to acquire more knowledge about the subject and to get additional career development skills. And this would be going to conferences, opportunities to talk about my research. So that was kind of like my overall goals that I wanted to achieve. I also used the section to talk a little bit about what made me suitable to do the project. So my expertise in the field--I'm a postdoctoral fellow, so I wrote about my dissertation project and how was it related. And although it is not directly related, the set of skills that I developed as a graduate student are useful for my research now. So I talked about that and I also talk about what skills I want to develop during the award. So I'll be able to achieve my goal for the next level, so as an independent investigator. That was kind of like how I divided the section. So for that last part, I added that I wanted to get technical experience on experimental design. And I talked about how I was gonna work with my mentor to develop the experiments and what techniques are we going to be using, and also what pitfalls we may, encounter and then I think a very important thinking science in general is quantitative data analysis. Uh, so that's something that I, I really emphasize on my application, what I was going to do to learn, to be able to do the data analysis in a statistical very significant way. Overall, that was my focus. So first describing my, what skills I had and then what I wanted to do , uh, what I wanted to achieve and then what I needed to do to achieve my goals

Laura Ngwenya:

My , uh, my goals were kind of similar to the other two speakers. So , um , I set mine up in terms of sort of short-term and long-term goals. So for my short term goals, I really focused on sort of the additional technical skills or, you know, kind of techniques , um, experimental design type of things that I wanted to learn as, as part of my K. Um, it included, you know, details on different electrophysiological techniques, even learning some bioinformatics, things like that. And , uh, with those goals, I had sort of detailed ways in which I would learn those. So whether or not it was, you know, direct interaction with some of my mentors versus going to particular courses, attending seminars, et cetera. And then my , my long-term goals, you know, I want to have it independently funded laboratory, but I have that goal as one, that's a laboratory focused on translational research. For me as a, as a neurosurgeon scientist, it's really important that my basic science lab , um, continues to be dedicated to, and sort of relate it to what I do clinically. Um , so I want to actually learn how to actually , uh , work on that translation and to be successful sort of in both spheres. Um, so I had that as one of my goals. And then I also had as a long-term goal that I wanted to work on being a leader in , um, an academic neurosurgery. This is one of the things that's important for me because there's very few , uh , neurosurgeon scientists. And I feel like if I'm going to take on this role and if I'm going to be successful , um, I have to be able to be successful in my, in my field as a whole, not in each sort of little silo. So for me, it's important for me to actually get to a point where I'm recognized as sort of a leader in my sub-specialty. Um, so I actually had in my , um, development plan things such as , um, leadership courses and things that would actually help me to, to not just learn the science, but to actually advance as a leader in academics.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah. That's a great point. We're seeing a lot more incorporation of more leadership focused skills in, especially in K awards , um, and certainly more opportunities and programs to get those, those skills. So that's great that you were ahead of the curve. Now I want to talk a little bit about the candidates background section. So, you know, usually this is a summary of your research experiences thus far, and I wanted to talk and get your perspective of how you approach this section and how did you make it exciting and engaging, especially when thinking about the background and presenting your research experiences in the context of the current application that you were writing, how did you sort of tie them all together? Or did you try to tie them all together and how did you approach that section?

Ubadah Sabbagh:

So, in my application , uh , for the F99 K00, I kind of started my background at my first summer research experience. It was chronological. I went into my undergraduate research experience, which was brief, but very important to my development. And then I, my graduate program has rotations in the first year of your PhD. And I felt that every rotation I was in, each lab that I, that I spent time in , I learned some new techniques or some new skills of doing research, not just like collaboratory techniques. And so I, I broke it down in that way. So I had like a category of , or a section for doctoral research experience. And I broke up that section into three subsections that had each of my three labs very briefly, like one paragraph for each what I worked on there. What was my goal? What did I come out of that experience having learned? I even would underline or bold. I can't remember which, but I did, I basically highlighted somehow the sentence, the one sentence that says, like what I came away from that experience with and how that's relevant to what kind of scientist I am now and propose to be in this, in this proposal. And in fact, one of my rotations, the project was a complete failure and I had zero data at the end of it. Um, and it was like me trying to do something like way, way different than what I'm used to. And so , uh, I talked about that and I talked about what I learned from it. Um, and I talked about what I take from that experience to , to develop my current project and my current , um , doctoral lab. And then after that in the F99, because of its structure, I talked about my current research. There's a section in which you discuss your dissertation research or your doctoral research up until now , uh, at the point of application. And so I talked about that too . What I've I worked on so far in the lab and , uh, if there's any products from that, I mentioned those. And then also what techniques I took away from every project I've worked on, whether it's writing or whether it's some new, like, I dunno, in situ hybridization or some other like, technique, all of those. I mentioned them. And I think my goal during the whole applicant's background section, my goal was basically to paint a picture to the reviewers, that all of my experiences have been meaningful, even if they've been unproductive, for example, in terms of publications or posters, but they have been meaningful because I took away XYZ things from each experience, and it shows them that you can identify the value and the skills that you're learning. And also that you are learning that you are getting training. And so then getting more training through such a fellowship would be a good thing

Alejandra Fernandez:

In my case , it's , it's similar in the K01. Uh, so my goal for the candidates background , uh , section was to try to convince the reviewers that I am capable of doing the work that I propose to do. So I used a session to elaborate more on what my previous project was, my dissertation project was, and then what techniques and what experiments I have gotten from my previous work. And how was I was gonna use those to , uh, apply them to my current application. And so for my rotations, I did , uh, very different things that were not related to my dissertation, but at the same time, it was very useful because I got to learn different techniques that I didn't actually use during my , my dissertation research. So there was a lot of imaging involved and there's also a lot of imaging involved in my current work. So I focus on that particular point to let the reviewers know that although the imaging experiments that are I was proposing to do in the K01 were not something trivial, I was able to learn, given that I had the experience with different , um , imaging techniques.

Laura Ngwenya:

My section was , uh, was very similar to what others have said. So I, I did also kind of do a survey of all of the, you know , research that I had done up to the point of application, but I tried to focus it so that it sort of filled in the gaps that aren't necessarily sort of apparent just in looking at my NIH biosketch. So , um , for instance, if you just look at my CV or my biosketch, it's not necessarily clear that everything is really related and , and how I've gotten to the point where I am now. So I really used the section for the candidate information and background to really talk about the research experiences that I've had, how they're related, and how it brings me to this sort of translational research that allows me to do research as a, as a physician. And then I, I really tried to also sort of explain how , um, having the opportunity to do the K grant , um, would, would sort of enhance my knowledge, not just in different techniques that I would learn, but really allow me to do this, this sort of translational research and would, would also , um , allow me the time to do it, cause for a K um , one of the important things is , is that as a junior faculty, you actually get dedicated time to do research. And for me as a neurosurgeon, that was super important. So I used that background section to really explain everything that I had done up to now, how it led me to this sort of translational research and to sort of show how I would benefit from having this protected time.

Marguerite Matthews:

Since each of you have an award that has a mentoring component, how did you work with your mentor in order to lay out many of these things and write them out? And is there anything that you felt was a struggle to deal with? You know, maybe you were not seeing eye to eye on a piece of the project, or perhaps , um, there were some things that you think needed to be more clarified in terms of your goals and how your mentor would fit in. Um, what was that process like?

Laura Ngwenya:

For me , um , as I worked with my mentor--I actually have kind of a mentoring team, so , um, I have my main mentor, but actually I have a lot of mentors and they all , um, a lot of them actually helped as I was kind of compiling this application. So one of the things that I struggled with was how to , um, how to set up the goals, because on paper it looks like I don't need any additional training, cause I'm already a neurosurgeon, I already have a PhD. So, you know, there was this, okay, how do we set this up to show that I'm actually going to learn from this? And this is actually gonna help my career. So , um, we spent a long time really thinking about the different techniques that I would be learning. And, you know, my mentors worked with me in terms of, as I was writing , um, what those goals were sort of explaining that, you know, for instance, I talk about electrophysiology and EEG. And even though I'm a physician, I don't currently actually read EGGs on patients. So just talking about how this actually is a, like something new that I would be learning, that it's not something that I already do and already know, and that there's value there. And then , um, the leadership thing actually was something that , um, I kind of struggled with , uh , between myself and my mentors. We were trying to figure out what to do with that. One of the things that, as I was thinking about, you know, being a busy neurosurgeon and getting a K and thinking about, am I going to construct a plan that requires me to take additional coursework or, or go to seminars? You know, what, what would I actually want to be working on? And I discussed with my mentor that one of the things I really would like to do was to take classes on, you know, leadership and so forth. And , you know, we debated whether or not that was something that was appropriate for a K, but in discussing it, we finally decided that we thought it would work. And we, and we worked that in as a goal. So it would allow me to , to say that I would be taking classes and doing things that were in line with stuff I actually wanted to do so that I'm not saying I'm going to take a bunch of classes that I didn't want to take. But it did take a lot of work. And my , my mentor worked with me a lot on that.

Alejandra Fernandez:

So for me , uh, it was , uh, a process in which , um , my mentor was involved throughout the entire time that I was writing. And we went back and forth trying to put together , um , the training plan and write it in a way that it will make sense and will fit with the research plan. So I, the first thing that I remember doing is that from day one, I told my mentor, well, my goals are very specific. This is exactly what I want to do, or I want to go and get a , uh, an independent lab at some point. Uh, so that was kind of like the focus of the whole proposal, right? Um, so because of the, because, because of the, because the research plan doesn't--has some techniques that I don't really , uh, have mastered, and also the lab doesn't work in those techniques, that was kind of a crucial part of the, of the plan. We needed to bring people in and have a mentorship committee. So I have my, my principal mentor and then I have , uh, other professors that are also part of the committee. And the idea was that these other people were going to contribute , uh , to my training and that's for the technical training and also for the career development training. Uh , so the whole process of just , uh, it was kind of like a dialogue with my mentor. So the whole process of just building together the proposal , um , just revising it over and over until everything fit together and made sense , uh, that helped a lot. So my mentor could also understand , uh, what my goal is in like where the proposal should be going.

Ubadah Sabbagh:

Yeah. So , um, much like what Alejandra just said, I did coordinate a lot with my mentor as, as I wrote this. And in fact, the first thing I did was write the aims page. And then right after that, I started with the training plan , um, before the research strategy, because honestly, I think a lot of people when they're writing this, they think they have an idea of the research they want to do. They have a good idea, but the training plan, especially for fellowships , um, is it really crucial component and , uh, takes a lot of thought and at least in my case, some backwards planning. And so I just stated my broad goals to my mentor. We talked about them a little bit. And then, and then I just went and I started writing about what strategies I will use, or what approaches I'll use to like address each, each training goal that I have or training objective. How am I going to start developing that? And then I think about--this is again, the F99/K00 is a transition mechanism. And in this grant, you have to talk about also your goals for your postdoctoral phase, which you're still a grad student, you don't even have a PhD yet, but you got to think about, which is really useful. And so you think about what techniques are involved in the kind of research that you want to do as a post-doc . And what conferences are, are, are, are around that are relevant to your research now, and that would be around to your research later. Um, and so I also like even drew out an illustration of a timeline that had , um, all the meetings that I would want to attend, including like Society for Neuroscience, of course, but also like other like smaller things like a Gordon research conference or, or a course, maybe . So I said, I wanted to attend a summer course at Cold Spring Harbor that's related to my like very niche field, which is visual neuroscience. And then I also like plotted out where would I have opportunities to give talks internally and externally? So I set goals for myself of like, okay, I want to , I want to give talks at , um, these internal symposia that we have, or seminar series, and also like at these meetings, I want to aim to give talks. Of course you have to have it accepted. And then I would go back to my PI and we would talk about those goals. And we would talk about that plan and whether they come in at the right times and which meetings are better than which, and whether I'm overloading my year with conferences , um, giving me very little time to do the actual experiments that I would be presenting on. And then of course, we talked about how it would break down my efforts, my percent effort each year, in terms of how much writing, how much research, how much mentorship and how much professional development efforts I'll have each year. So I used those four categories and it was an important discussion also to have with my mentor. And then the last thing, which I think is , uh , another like specific thing to this mechanism is that you need to think about how you're going to identify a postdoctoral mentor as a PhD student. And so that also involves, you know, ideally, conversations with your mentor and I, and so I, I did have those conversations and whether it's meeting them at conferences or whether it's networking , uh, when they come to your institution and give talks , uh, you know, sometimes trainees have lunch with them and stuff like that, or whether it's like saying, you know, I'll tap into my PIs network of colleagues, if that's still the field that you would want to postdoc in. And then you talk about also, what are your criteria for a postdoc mentor? You know, do they have the big lab, or is it small, you know, are they super senior established investigators or are they more early career researchers? And what kind of institutional environments are you looking for? And so on. So those were also conversations that had to have with my PI. And so it was constant, like, revision and then having a conversation, revision, having a conversation, kind of what , like, what Alejandra said. And , um , I think that that really helps develop a coherent training plan that shows that you're being very thoughtful and very intentional about the next, in my case, it was six years, which is crazy. 'Cause I never think that far ahead for anything, but like six years of your career, you know , what are you going to do each year? And what , what are your goals for each year and how are going to achieve them?

Lauren Ullrich:

So besides your mentor, was there anyone else that you asked to give feedback on your grant and were there any revisions that you made in response to that feedback and especially thinking about this background and goals section, was there anything that you thought was clear that wasn't, or, you know, they identified that something was missing? Do you have any experiences like that?

Alejandra Fernandez:

So for me , uh, people from the lab were , um , very nice , uh, and instrumental , uh, while I was revising this, because I pretty much just ask everybody to just read , um , my, candidate's background section and just tell me whether it was clear, whether it made sense? It is, it is sometimes , sometimes when you're writing, what you're writing seems clear to you, but it may not be clear to everybody else. So having , uh , other members of the lab, like, from students to post-docs everybody just look at it and say whether it was clear or not, that was very useful for my proposal. Of course. Uh, I had to make changes based on that, but I think that will, that exercise made my proposal , uh , more clear.

Ubadah Sabbagh:

So I , I definitely echo the fact that what might be clear to you is not going to be clear to other people necessarily. And often I think it is not. So I had, I have people read over my training plan that were PIs at my institution, including of course my mentor, but also people who are not involved in my mentorship and also are not in my field at all. And so , um, I had somebody who was a cardiovascular biologist read my proposal. And , and then I also sent it to, I think by the time I was done with my training plan, maybe six people had seen it and given me comments and , uh , some of them were graduate students I know at other institutions, some of them were like post-docs , uh, but again, none of them are in my fields because the D-SPAN F99 is a neuroscience-specific study section, but it's not a , um, any kind of like discipline specific one. And so that's why I wanted to have people who were not necessarily visual neuroscientists or sensory neuroscientists review the writing and see whether it makes sense. And I think something that I benefited from that, besides people, you know , helping me with like grammar and whatever it is, but like the explanations of what I learned or the explanations of what I did in the, in the background section needed to be succinct, but also informative. And so sometimes when we're trying to be succinct, we use more jargon because like a big word is equivalent to many smaller words, but then it doesn't make sense to anybody unless they're in our field. And so it was helpful to have people look at it that weren't a visual neuroscientists. And then another thing I would suggest, and I advise everyone to do this is to try to find somebody who's gotten an award that you're applying to and get their feedback on it. Um , if they have the time, of course, you know, see if they, if what they think of your proposal and if it makes sense, or if you're writing along the lines of what's, what's appropriate for that proposal.

Laura Ngwenya:

Yeah. I guess , uh , my comment on this one, I'll kind of go off of the last thing just said I had a , um, a colleague whose office is next to mine who has a K23. So , um , his is a little bit different because it's clinical research, but I had him look over the , um , candidate background section of mine to see what his thoughts were , um , and to see if he thought that the way that I had set up sort of a career development plan made sense. So yeah, I echo that. I think if you know, someone that has a similar grant and is familiar with sort of this background section , um , having somebody else give it a read is , is great.

Ubadah Sabbagh:

And if I could just , uh , I would say for the F's , at least I know like , uh, if you know, somebody who sat on any F grant study section really great to have them look at it. And also if you don't know anybody who's ever received the award that you're applying to, there's also, it's also, okay. I've learned, to just like kind of cold email people.

Marguerite Matthews:

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom with us today. Um, and since so many applicants seem to have a problem with talking about themselves and thinking about , um, ways in which to approach the candidate and applicant background and goals section, can each of you give us one last piece of parting advice, especially as it relates to being confident about approaching this section?

Laura Ngwenya:

Yeah, so I think it is really important to be able to write about yourself in a positive light, and also be able to show , um , your strengths and show what you'll learn to gain from the development award. Um, I did struggle with this a bit, and that was something that my , my mentors were able to help me with. In addition, you know, I think, you know, my advice to people would be essentially just to, you know , write this section first, actually. I spent, I think more time on this section than I did on the research strategy , um, because it , it really is harder to write and it takes some time to really think about what are your goals, what's the development plan. Um, so I, I really actually spent more time writing this section and I did this one first, just because the , the research and the science , um , comes, comes across pretty easily. And that's the part that , you know that part, but this is something that's sort of almost weird and different to have to think about and write . So yeah, that would be sort of my kind of final word. I think actually in terms of the scoring, it ends up being kind of counts as like two sections versus the science, it's just sort of one section in terms of the way the scoring goes for these. So it's super important.

Alejandra Fernandez:

So my advice for other trainees is to start writing early and we hear this a lot. At least I have heard this a lot. And I cannot emphasize how important it is that you start thinking about the process and writing. And this is for every section. So what I usually do is I usually do the specific aims page, and then I start writing like the different parts. And then at the end, if you don't start early, there's not enough time for you to see whether the whole application is coherent. And I think that's very important because I feel that usually people just give priority to the science because that's what you're proposing to do, right? But what I feel is that if you consider that every section is important, just as important as the science, then your application has more chances of being successful. So I would say yes, just start early and get the time to just work through all the sections and through every single detail until you are happy with your application and have enough time to send that out.

Lauren Ullrich:

Yeah . Thank you for saying that because that's what we always say, but I feel like people don't always listen to us when it comes to advice from NINDS. So , um, we like to hear it from you all as well.

Ubadah Sabbagh:

Yeah. I , I think , uh , I definitely would say start early. And so the question of, you know , how do you get comfortable talking about yourself? I mean, time helps, but also if it never happens, like it's okay, but you still have to do it. And , um, I think for PhD students, particularly because, I mean , I feel like that's the experience I can speak to at least, you know, grant writing isn't just for getting funding, although that's like great and useful, but it's also like a really good skill to learn how to put your ideas down on paper. And it's a really good skill to learn how to communicate your abilities and your skills and your background. Because by the time you've finished talking about your background and then finished articulating your goals and finished planning out how you're going to meet those goals, you'll feel much more confident. I feel like if you put in the effort into like the writing and the thinking that goes behind the proposal, you'll feel more confident about, you know, your path , uh , as a student and , and what you want to achieve or hope to achieve. And so like, if you're not comfortable kind of talking about yourself, then at least think about it as you kind of coaching yourself and trying to just kind of be your, be your best advocate, kind of. Set your goals and then think about for your own sake, how you want to achieve them. And then the background section, you don't think of it as like a glorified CV. And you're just kind of talking about what you've done, but using more words and talking about what you--like a reflection essay, like what did you learn from those experiences that make you ready to carry out the proposed work that you have? And really, I always tell students the way I see writing grants is like, it's kind of like a , a handholding exercise where I feel like I'm, my goal as I set this whole plan in front of a reviewer is just hold their hand and walk them through my plan. And every time I feel like they might have a concern or a fear that might come up like, okay, well, how's he going to do like whatever, a single cell RNA sequencing or whatever, some crazy technique you're proposing, like, how's he going to do this? Then I have an answer. I'm going to take this workshop. I'm going to take this class. I'm going to collaborate with this one person. And any time you feel like their concerns might start bubbling up, you just like , hold their hand and be like, no, no, no, relax . I got it figured out, I'm going to do this. And that, this is how I'm going to learn and this is how I'm going to train, this is how I'm going to develop that skill. I don't know . It's what helps me kind of think about where potential pitfalls in my plan are and kind of addressing them preemptively so that I don't have to wait to get it into summary statements, which is like what the reviewer feedback is called.

Marguerite Matthews:

Ubadah, you sound like Steve Korn from season one in the sense that he believes that this application process really is about making you a better science and not just about the money, the money is great if you're funded, but that's this entire grant writing process is so much more , um, it really allows you the opportunity to do some self-reflection on your training, your goals, and how to work with your mentor to actualize those things. So, Lauren, what's your advice?

Lauren Ullrich:

Um , I think following up on what Ubadah was saying, also, is really trying to think about what concerns reviewers might have, and instead of trying to hide what you perceive as your flaws, coming out ahead of them, just like Ubadah said, you know, they might have a question about X and so I'm gonna like put it front and center, how I'm going to address X. So you feel like you don't have enough publications. Great. What's your plan to get those publications within the next year? And so too many times we see people trying to , um , sort of hide the fact that they don't have a lot of publications, for example, and reviewers always see through that. So instead of trying to hide, come up with a plan to mitigate. And what about you Marguerite ?

Marguerite Matthews:

I really like the theme of utilizing the people in your community, the people around you to help make your application better. Asking for folks who aren't even in your same research area for feedback about how you talk about yourself, is this clear? Um, and so there are so many folks , um, who may not be on your dissertation committee, who may not be your sponsor or your direct mentor, but who can provide a lot of value to you in terms of support and feedback. Um, and he should definitely tap into those people and allow them to , um , boost you up and help make you a better person, a better scientist, rather.

Lauren Ullrich:

I like that. So that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. Thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. And thank you to NINDS program director Dr. Bob Riddle, who composed our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackled the mentor and sponsor statement.

Marguerite Matthews:

You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more grant application resources on the web at ninds.nih.gov. You can follow us on Twitter @NINDSdiversity and @NINDSfunding. Email us with questions at [email protected] .gov . Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple podcast 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