Monday, October 27, 2008

Grant writing

So, it is official. I suck at proposal writing. I got back my first set of "summary statements" from an NIH grant that I submitted. They basically said "go find a mentor - the science is solid, but your proposal is unintelligible, so we can't fund this piece of crap". Perhaps it was phrased a little better (in fact, the reviewers spent 5 pages reinforcing the concept of all the ways in which my proposal was unintelligible), but that was the gist.

They did give some helpful comments, which I will use in re-writing my proposal. And I knew that this one(s) was a piece of crap. I submitted three proposals in June to three different NIH sections on three different topics. I had never written an NIH proposal before, so I basically had no clue what I was doing. I wrote another one a month or so ago with another (much more senior) professor, and I learned a lot. However, based on the significant differences between that proposal and the ones I submitted in June, I could pretty much assume that none of those were going anywhere.

All of that being said... Waiting for these rejections was almost like waiting to go to the dentist and have your wisdom teeth pulled. You know what's coming, but it still sucks when it actually happens. Especially reading the 5 pages of comments saying things like "if you had only written more background information, then I would have recommended this for funding" and "the PI clearly has a strong track record in this field, therefore, while I believe she can successfully perform the research, she can not write proposals and therefore I can not recommend this for funding" and so forth...

In any case, the main thing I learned: put in as much background as humanly possible. This really showed in the reviews. Both with the specific comments about the lack of background information and the resulting confusion. Also make sure to use the phrase "As the PI has previously shown..." (or similar words) as many times as possible. And make sure the short paragraph in the grant itself about me (a semi-bio) is extremely flattering. These last two things I have problems with. I tend to have problems writing these types of things (especially the latter). I'm going to get my husband to do it. He has no problems. Also, it is easier to write complimentary statements about other people than it is about yourself.

And I wrote his resume last night.

Friday, October 24, 2008


So, I have spent the last 10 days in multiple cities and time zones and being uber-social. While my husband claims I am an extrovert, I say I'm just a really good actress. Oscar-worthy.

The first round was in DC with granting agencies and program managers trying to figure out what they really wanted. Their announcements say one thing, but what they really want to fund can be a little different. But finding out what they really want, can make a big difference. But it is a trip like any other: airplane, hotel, food, etc. All to get 30 minutes of face time with a program manager. After the first meeting, I've found that PM's are much more receptive to follow-up phone calls. But for initial contact, they really like meeting you.

Then I went onto a conference, gave a talk, got the typical "your talk was really impressive. I was really surprised." Um, not really sure how to take this. Now, I just say thanks, and walk away. I used to press the person to actually explain what they meant - try to make them feel uncomfortable and actually admit that they thought I was going to give a crappy talk because I'm short and female. Now, it just isn't worth the effort.

After that, I want to a "school" retreat. School = everyone in my "division", not the whole university/college. This was fun and stressful. Everyone was there, even the dean, and there were a lot of people I had never met before, so many names came at me very fast. And I'm really, really bad with names.

Then onto another conference. One more talk. Again, the "you gave a good talk and I'm surprised" comment. Yes, I know. I look like I'm 18. I'm not. One of these days, I'm just going to lose it. Let's just hope it is post-tenure.

But, now I'm back, and my students are extremely happy. I spent all of yesterday in the lab with them. And I'm hoping to spend part of this afternoon and all day tomorrow in the lab (if they are there tomorrow, it is their choice). But the lab is 99% done, and I want to have it completely done by Monday. I feel responsible for it not being done. If I had been here over the past 10 days or so, it would be done. So I feel really bad for delaying my student's research progress.

Oh, and I had three grants not go through and a young investigator award (YFA/YIA) not go through. Oh well. That's life. But I filed two more grants last week (they had the same due date), and next week I'll file at least one more, and another YFA/YIA.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I have now had many people ask me what it is exactly that I do all day. I can fairly confidently say that I spend a significant portion of my time in meetings. I enjoy the ones with students. The ones with professors - not so much. Especially with groups of professors (ie committees). And there seem to be lots of those.

These meetings appear to have no definitive end time. And sometimes no agenda is sent out (or formed) either. My parents always said a meeting must have an agenda - apparently that concept was lost on engineers. Without an agenda, the meeting meanders from topic to topic like a lost puppy.

In my department meetings, I am extremely fortunate. The room we meet in has a class immediate after (1 hr after the start of the meeting); therefore this is a limiting factor.

However, as an example of the topics covered in the last meeting: status reports from several seminar sub-committees on invites to speakers (speakers invited, dates being arranged), status report on faculty search (reading over CVs), random discussion over assorted yet unrelated topics. The first topics could have easily been reported via email; the second part (random discussion) didn't really need to happen - or at least it didn't really need to involve everyone.

One committee I'm on does everything 90% electronically. It is awesome. I can comment at midnight. And discussions end up being more focused.

The department seminar sub-committees (yes, I'm on these too) actually meet. Why, I have no idea. The meetings last for 45 minutes or so (again - what we talk about for this period of time, I really have yet to figure out - I tend to think of other things. But more importantly, the meetings have tended to take place in the middle of the afternoon, which completely disrupt an entire day. And they often are in a building far from mine. So a 45 minute meeting ends up lasting 1 hr, plus the additional disruption to my work.

In any case, one person commented on the 20% service requirement - this counts service. So, I easily am fulfilling my service requirement (committee work) - I also do other stuff. What is rather interesting is that as you do more research, you have to do more service (if you go by the percentage method). So you end up, in a sense, being penalized for doing research. But really, the percentages are guidelines anyway. The dept just wants to make sure you contribute.