Saturday, September 6, 2014

The NIH site-visit: a scientific pilgrimage

Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as "a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs" and I would add that in general you embark on a pilgrimage to ask for something or reach some kind of enlightenment. So it's only fitting that a visit to the NIH to the extramural program of your choosing will resemble a pilgrimage of sorts. Many senior people I know, pilgrims before me, have extolled the importance of this trip on the true path to an R01, multiple R01s or even the elusive P01. So there I went, and back again. It was an incredibly useful experience.

The approach: Some program officers are more helpful than others, but in general most POs I know really want to talk to you about your science. As stated in the bible of federal grant writing, How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded, once you become one of "their grantees" they have developed an investment in your career, and if they believe in your research then it's a critical relationship to nurture. Senior people always say that in the past a good PO could really help develop a scientific career, now with the paylines the way they are, they are probably more frustrated than anything, but most of them still want to help, and they may also help you find other institutes to target if their pockets are too shallow. So, email them and keep them in the loop. If you are a K99/R00 grantee planning to transition to an R01 or an early career investigator looking for your first grant, you should just email them and say that you would like to talk about options. Once you have developed a relationship, I know a lot of people who travel to Bethesda on purpose once a year to talk to POs, so it's not strange to inquire about their schedules and come to talk in person. Of course it's easier to just stop by if you are invited to serve on a study section or are attending the same conference, so if you know they go to meetings you can always shoot them an email "Are you going to XYX?". Remember that your PO may be busy, so if they don't reply it's fine to wait an appropriate amount of time (like a week or two) and try again.

The preparation: If you go to the NIH or meet your PO elsewhere, you should always be prepared. The PO may ask you for a draft specific aims page and if they don't, you should prepare it nonetheless and send it beforehand.  It may not be your best work if you are way in advance before the desired submission date, but it will really help you crystallize your thoughts and will provide a showcase for what you are doing/planning to do. Also, come up with any question you may have about administrative changes in your current grant (budget, effort, supplements, etc), applying for funding for your trainees, whether they know another PO you would like to talk to/try another institute, etc. Try and maximize the time you have with them: prepare well and don't waste your/their time.

The meeting: They may want to put things in prospective, so be prepared to start with your elevator pitch about your lab: what is your overarching question, where you are going and where the grant/project you are talking about fits in the lab. It will help them understand what is going on, but it will also give them confidence that you have covered all the bases and have allocated resources appropriately. Then you can just chat about your specific aim draft and expand on your preliminary data and on alternative grant structures. I find their questions really interesting, because I think they have this birds eye view of what gets funded and by just asking "Are you going to do this?", you start wondering whether that's what you should do...Also when you give them the outline of a hypothesis and a proposal, they can usually tell you very quickly whether it fits in their portfolio or not, and whether you should contact someone else in their institute or another institute.
One thing my PO told me is never to go in for an R01 in the parent call for applications without having a home for it, i.e. an institute and a PO. It's just too risky a gamble, and it's really nice to see a friendly name when it shows up in eRACommons in the right place. It still needs to be good and to get excellent reviews, but at least your precious grant is not lost somewhere all by itself. By doing your homework, you have insured that at least you are proposing something that is in line with the funding priorities, which will increase your chances if your score is borderline.

Despite initially being a little intimidated, I always found my interactions with the NIH and its officials to be very positive and most importantly useful for understanding how the system works. While I'm not sure barging into someone's office would work well, if you don't know them, eventually developing cordial professional relationships with POs could be really important for new investigators. So don't be scared, they are very nice and many of them used to be just like you years ago, so they get what you are going through.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Noncoding ArenaySeptember 8, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    This is a very important post for young investigators. POs are happy to help and one should definitely take the initiative to connect with them. I initiated contact with my PO as a postdoc and even spoke on the phone with them about a grant application I was planning to submit. I was initially nervous about talking on the phone (email is always easier), but after the first phone call I thought it went great and since then I would rather talk to the PO on the phone than send 3-4 emails back and forth.

    I hope I can get a chance to meet with my PO at upcoming conferences...