Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where do you find grant money for your lab?

As a young principal investigator (PI) you have to find money wherever you can. In addition you have to start thinking for places for your lab peeps to look for funding also. This is in no shape or form a comprehensive list, but they are places that have helped me stay funded during my postdoc and places where I have been trolling for grants as a starting investigator. I work on the genetics of neurodevelopmental disorders so the funding sources are skewed towards my interests, but a lot of info is available on the NIH website ( Just look for the disease or organ you are interested in and each page will have a list of foundations and patient organizations relevant to the disease. Also remember the Career Development Awards (K Awards) from the NIH which you can obtain during your postdoc and transfer to your new institution: the K99/R00 Transition to Independence Award which I discussed in previous posts (here and here), and the Mentored Career Development Awards, K01 for PhDs and K08 for physician scientists.

Note: as I pick up information along the way, I have started a parallel post with helpful dates on the timelines for the foundation grants which vary widely, since it can be useful for planning when to write them. I will populate it as I go along, so please do not hesitate to post your experience on some of the other grants.

Career development awards:
Other government grants:
Foundation grants:
Fellowship resources:
  • post-doctoral fellowships for European postdocs:
     2. Human Frontiers Science Program:
     3. Marie Curie Global Fellowships: 2 year abroad and 1 year back in home country
  • pre-doctoral fellowships:
  1. NIH NRSA fellowships:
  2. NSF Graduate Research fellowship:
  3. HHMI international student fellowship:
  4. Ford Foundation Diversity fellowships:
Hope this helps and please leave a comment if you have any suggestions.

Picture credit: By Victor Dubreuil (Private collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Are you a manager or a leader in the lab? What is the difference and how to make the jump

I guess that if you went to business school management jargon and strategy would become second nature, but as a scientist you are not trained either to manage or to lead people, and when you start your lab you are thrown into the lion's den to fend for yourself. You are asked to develop a nationally and internationally recognized research program which will lead to amazing breakthroughs and revolutionize your field. You are given money to hire people and buy equipment and shape your lab as you please. You have to define your identity and can finally make your voice heard to assert your opinion on scientific, administrative and policy issues. But how to navigate the transition? Apparently it is not easy for anyone, even in business, and it was the topic of feature in the Harvard Business Review in June 2012, How Managers Become Leaders (here).

The author, Michael Watkins, who's a leadership development consultant, identifies 7 behavioral shifts, which he defines as no less than "seismic". I like the word since it implies the buildup to a traumatic break followed by a slow adjustment, but I hope that the process is not as destructive as the crash of two tectonic plates. I tried to adapt the 7 seismic shifts for scientist and since they deceptively sound very similar, I pointed out what I thought he meant needed to be done to achieve them.

SPECIALIST TO GENERALIST: You have to go from knowing everything in your project to knowing a little bit of everything. As your responsibilities expand you cannot keep track of every single detail, but still have to be able to understand where everyone in the lab is going and guide multiple individual projects. Action: learn a bit of everything.

ANALYST TO INTEGRATOR: As a followup to knowing a bit of everything, you have to know where everyone's work fits in the greater scheme of things. You learned how to eviscerate a problem in detail, but now you have to teach others to do that, so that you can focus on the big stuff. Action: guide how the different projects and people in the lab fit together.

PROBLEM SOLVER TO AGENDA SETTER: Which means that you shouldn't sweat the small stuff any more, but let other people solve problems for you, while you orchestrate the direction of the lab (see a former post on unloading some of your problems). Action: delegate and spend more time on defining goals for employees to meet according to the lab priorities.

BRICKLAYER TO ARCHITECT: So what are the priorities? I like the concept of going from a bricklayer building a wall to an architect designing a building, because while you have to know the basics of construction, as an architect you have to develop a vision. A vision for what you want your building to look like, how you want it to fit in its surroundings and what it will look like in 100 years. As the lab architect the PI must assemble the parts according to a blueprint and move in the direction of her/his ideal lab. Action: develop a vision for the lab.

TACTICIAN TO STRATEGIST: This is similar to "problem solver to agenda setter" but has a much broader scope. If you have a far reaching vision, how do you get there? You have to stop thinking in term of tactics (this experiment will lead to that experiment) and develop a strategy about the direction of your field and how you want different projects in the lab to contribute to it. Action: think long term about the implications of the work and move towards your vision.

WARRIOR TO DIPLOMAT: You know how to get what you want, how to hoard the right reagents, how to put your foot down for equipment time. You have learned to navigate the quirks of your current lab and you have found your niche. If you have students/techs working for you, you know how to command them. As a professor and leader, the forces pulling you from left to right will multiply, you'll need to work with superiors, colleagues and collaborators, you'll need to manage post-docs with their own ideas and agendas, you'll need to balance the time devoted to teaching and service. Everyone above you and below you will have to work towards the goal of making your lab run smoothly and of advancing your career. Action: listen to what everyone has to say and find a good compromise.

SUPPORTING CAST MEMBER TO LEAD ROLE: Being a lead in a movie or a play may sound like a dream come true, but how many movies have you seen what the main actor had just made the big jump from TV and was not up to the task? Being the lead is not easy, because it's all on you: you're supposed to carry she show.  Being a leader also implies that you have the make the ultimate call on decisions and set the tone: you get to hire people, fire people, make though calls, and if you're wrong, take the responsibility of driving everyone into the abyss. Psychologically it's a very different ballgame. Action: find your inner star and grow into your new role.

I thought this article provided some really great food for thought. Getting all this done sounds like a Herculean task, but we can always try, right?

Image credit: Guggenheim Museum, New York City, by gomattolson, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A valentine to the Applied Biosystems Veriti® Thermal Cycler

I can grow very attached to PCR machines. A large part of my undergraduate thesis revolved around running PCRs on Applied Biosystems machines and I was trained from a very young age to be very picky about where I put my reactions. After a few years of struggling with the lack of reliability and availability of the Bio-Rad Tetrads® we have in my post-doc lab, I just bought a couple of Applied Biosystems Veriti® Thermal Cyclers from Life Technologies. Granted it's just been a week and I'm still in that happy and dazed phase, but I can barely contain my excitement.

You know how as a child you see things adults have, and as a grown-up you buy the same things so that you feel like an adult? PCR machines are it for me: a lab is not a lab without one. We demoed a Veriti® last Fall and really liked it, then got an offer that we couldn't refuse with a bonus on the 2-for-1 end-of-year special, which made them really affordable.

What is so special? Well, first of all, as you can find in a handy video here, the Veriti® is really easy to use, you plug it in and 5 minutes later you are running your samples. The interface is completely intuitive and the touchscreen is very responsive. THEN, with the VeriFlex™ block you can use 6 separate temperatures for two 8-well strips at a time. This means not only that you can run a precise gradient to test your conditions, but also that you can run multiple reactions at different melting temperatures as long as the extension is the same. We tried both these things with our very difficult genotyping reaction and I almost wanted to cry it was so beautiful. We ran both the wild-type and knock-out reactions on the same block with a 50 and a 58 degree melting temp at each end and everything worked. Since some of our more complex breeding needs up to 4 different PCRs to capture all the alleles, we would be able to run everything at the same time on 1 or 2 machines. We have not tested neighboring strips yet for consistency and interference. They claim you can do completely different temperatures, but we just built a consecutive step gradient and used opposite ends so far.

Finally, apparently you can plug the machine into the Internet and there is software available so that you can run it remotely or have it send you an email when the reaction is done. This is a little creepy. I'm not sure I want a thermocycler to have that much control over my life, but it could be a handy feature if you are doing a lot of things and tend to forget, or if you're going out for dinner and want to know when to get back to the lab. Though I think the 4-10 degree hold should be sufficient for that...DNA is pretty stable....

Remember to look at the Lab-things we like page for more products and reviews.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Submitting your R00 proposal to transfer your K99 to your new job: a survival guide

You were awarded a K99/R00 Transition to Independence award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and you even have a tenure-track job lined up!! You have survived writing your K99 and you think you got this whole NIH thing down. Think again...

The K99/R00 is an wonderful initiative that helps young investigators in training to complete their postdocs and transition to an independent position with almost as much money as a second start-up. You are NIH funded which increases your chances of getting a job in the first place, but the NIH never makes up codes in vain and the name K99/R00 means that you actually have to apply for the R00 portion.

If you have done your homework, you have talked to your Program Official at the NIH throughout your job negotiation process and have had them review and approve the terms of your job offer. In fact, they have helped you define what those terms should be so that they comply with the rules and regulations attached to your NIH funding, in the sense that no institution can shortchange you because you already have a K99. I have a lag of almost a year between signing an offer and starting my job, but 6 months before my move, my PO already had me thinking about the transition. The Program Announcement (PA-16-077 as of May 2016) states that "The application for the R00 phase of the award must be submitted no later than 2 months prior to the proposed activation date of the R00 award by the R00 phase grantee organization." However, as always you have to BUDGET TIME well in advance, because since you're not at your new institution yet, everything will take twice as long.

This is what you R00 application should include, with added suggestions from what I just went through:
  • A new face page signed by the R00 phase institutional representative. This is pretty straightforward and Sponsored Programs at your new institution will do, but remember there may be hoops, multiple signatures may need to be collected, last minute questions that send you scrambling from answers, and NIH regulations require everyone on the grant to be trained on Financial Conflict of Interest and to sign disclaimers (which you may have done at your current institution, but need to redo for the new one, so say goodbye to an afternoon).
  • A new project description page (the project summary or abstract should be updated to reflect current plans for the R00 phase). This is fine, just update.
  • Detailed budget pages for a non-modular budget. This is uncharted territory for non-budget savvy and it took me almost 2 full days with the help of a very responsive administrator, despite the fact that I had templates to follow. The K99 budget is very easy, but the R00 includes salaries, equipment, supplies, animals and other odd and ends like publications and travel, and you need to think about it to justify every single dime. You need quotes for equipment, updated amounts for salaries and fringe, estimates for animal costs and supplies. It's one thing if you're there and you can sit next to someone and go through the numbers with them, but if you're not, it can take a while. Also see this post for salary percentage negotiations.
  • Biographical sketches. Just update, but remember that if you already have personnel listed on the grant, they'll need biosketches too.
  • Other support. Just update.
  • A new Resources page. Ha! This was a piece of cake at your postdoc institution, where you just copied your boss' R01. At the new place you have to figure out what's in the cores, where exactly is the equipment you know is there and what kind of access you are going to have. Your facility needs may not be same as those of other people, so you either get multiple lists or you have to rely on multiple people to give you tidbits of information. And again, you are not there. I was lucky as everyone was extremely helpful, but I had friends who had to fly back to the new place and gather everything that they needed in person.
  • A brief description of progress made during the K99 phase that will serve as the Final Progress Report for the K99 phase. If you did a Year 1 report, it's the same format as described in the Program Announcement, but just a final report. You better have done some of the work, because I heard the NIH can give you grief if you have not actually worked on the project.
  • A final evaluation statement by the K99 phase mentor. Nice long letter detailing how wonderful you are and all the mentoring you received during the mentoring phase. Basically take the mentoring plan and rewrite it in the past tense.
  • An updated research plan (the specific aims should be updated to reflect current plans for the R00 phase and the updated research plan should be briefly described in less than 5 pages). I heard conflicting reports on this: some people submitted a slightly modified version of the K99 proposal continuing on that work and some had to do a major overhaul which is equivalent to writing a new grant. I did a pretty substantial rewrite adding new experiments to follow up the old Specific Aims, so it was time consuming. In general I find short formats much more difficult to write and 5 pages for Significance, Innovation, and Approach including Preliminary Data is not much.
  • A letter from the R00 Department or Division Chairman describing the R00 institution's commitment to the candidate and plans for his/her career development. This is similar to the institutional commitment letter for the K99 portion, but it should relate to your new institution. It should also detail the search process to get to you as the best candidate for the position, describe your hiring package and the faculty development programs at the new place. Chairs are busy...letters take time.
  • A new checklist. Sponsored Programs will do when they assemble the application.
  • IACUC or IRB approval. If you work with vertebrates or humans they will ask you for your protocol approval. If you are like most people you will not have started these in advance, but beware since they may hold up your grant until these are approved, which could mean another couple of months.
A friend told me it took much longer that she had anticipated and she was absolutely right. You are getting ready to leave and you have a million and a half things to do in the lab, in addition to dealing with moving your personal life somewhere else. It is true that the R00 is reviewed internally and it's not going to a study section, BUT it's still a major NIH grant and you are asking the government for $750,000, so it should be done well.  Also remember a little known secret, the unspent part of your K99 will go away if you transition earlier than the 2 years, so be warned.

I'll follow up on what happens with my application. Remember to visit the Writing Grants page for more posts and links.
Note: around 5 weeks after submission my R00 was approved with flying colors....and no funding was cut because of sequestration! 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Some things I've learned from communication breakdowns

In the past few months we have had a few major communication breakdowns that severely affected a part of the project. Experiments were working erratically and when we started troubleshooting, we discovered multiple issues. Standard operating procedures were not set up correctly or changed because of outside advice and experiments were conducted in a sub-optimal (or not greatly controlled) way. Reagents were not working as they used to, but nobody noticed or thought that it was important to mention it and get it rectified. All this cost money, long hours of work to do the experiments in the first place and more hours to perform controls to figure out what was happening, call companies to discuss reagent issues, and it eventually delayed the completion of our project.

The breakdown of communication happened at multiple levels:

1) Incomplete Pass: I, in the first place, ignored one of the most common advice given to a new investigator: "Your hires are not you". I assumed wrongly that something was obvious, because it was obvious TO ME, when in reality it was not obvious for the person asked to perform the task. I did not double check the protocol or personally follow the experiment the first time. I trusted the trainee with a new task and the task was performed wrongly for a couple of months until someone else came in and saw what was going on. Once that I realized what happened, I could only be angry at myself, because I had made an assumption that they were going to read my mind.

2) Sideways Interference: Someone else recommended a protocol which was used for while and I thought my protocol was being used. The new protocol missed a few key steps which could have led to the observed variability in the results. I had trusted that my protocol was being used and was completely blindsided.

3) Unforeseen Sack: We received a few new reagents in October and I heard that they were not performing perfectly, but it wasn't until I had to run that type of experiment myself in early January, that I realized that there was something terribly wrong. Emails, phone calls, hours of tests and 3 weeks later we figured out what the problem was.
The vendor: Yeah, we've been having issues with it depending on the lot.
The New PI: But I've been using this reagent for 10 years and never had an issue. We compared it with the new, improved and recommended version a few months ago and they were identical.
The vendor: The new version is actually the old formulation because we changed formulations recently and the new one has this problem, but it still has the old name.
The New PI: Ah, I see. Can I return the bad stuff (new formulation/old name) and get some of the good stuff (old formulation/new name)?
The vendor: Sure! Here is a full refund!!
Despite the aggravation, the big problem here is that people noticed something was off, but nothing was done for months, actually making some experiments impossible because the reagent was so off to be unusable for some of our needs.

To continue with the football metaphor: What was wrong with the design of my plays? What is wrong with the team?
Two issues that I can see:
1) My players are rookies. They are learning and show a lot of promise, but they are at that training wheel phase when you can ride a bicycle pretty well and sometimes still lose control when the terrain gets rough. I failed to support them and follow them.
2) My plays need better planning and more coaching. During leadership training, I learned that good leaders have contingency plans and my plans have not been fully worked out yet. Also, I cannot just dole out instructions without making sure that people understand exactly how and why they are doing something. I still need to teach.

I guess I'll never stop learning how to manage people, but these were a few good months of errors to learn from.

Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Herbert D. Banks Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons