Sunday, November 15, 2015

Things I've learned from my first R01 submission: grantsmanship is a moving target

My first R01 submission is now complete (review, summary statements and PO discussion) and I am entering resubmission mode. As I start thinking about the resubmission I would like to take stock of what happened, since I have learned quite a lot and there have been a few surprises. I thought it may be helpful for the other novices out there, and maybe for some of their mentors.

Just to put things into prospective this is what happened. I wrote a very ambitious proposal on a little studied gene with direct human disease relevance. The proposal spanned basic cell biology, biochemistry and behavior in animal models. Because the review process is so study section specific, a lot of effort was taken in learning everything I could about the intended study section and writing the proposal being mindful of the roster. There were a lot of discussions with senior advisors about making sure the big picture was always present and eschewing too much experimental detail (some if it summarized here in a post I wrote about the multiple versions of my Specific Aims page). I made choices based on the advice I was receiving, wrote a very detailed cover letter requesting two institutes with two program officials (POs) I had been talking to and who had expressed interest in my work, plus the intended study section, and sent the grant off in June. First glitch a couple of weeks later: the assignment went to a third institute, but the study section was fine. Second glitch a couple of months later: the Center for Scientific Review decided my proposal was more suited for a different study section, which I've heard compared in the past to one of the rounds of Hell. I panic, my chair panics, frantic calls to the SRO with no avail. Everything is now wrong! The focus of the study section is different, my proposal has the wrong tone and scope.

So we wait...

Study section comes and goes. After 12 hours I get my score (yes, new investigators have priority and get their scores right away). It was discussed! I'll get detailed comments. OMG, my impact score and percentile are so low, I didn't even think they could ever get that low if a grant was discussed. They hated it!! They thought it was overambitious. They didn't understand what I was trying to do. They thought my gene is useless. They thought I'm a loser!

I get the summary statements late at night a week later and I consider going to bed without reading it, because I wouldn't be able to sleep. But imagining the horrible horrible things that could be in it would also not allow me to go to bed. So I open it very cautiously...

Reviewer 1 loved it! WHAT?! HOW!? Overall they all thought it was a great project, very clear disease relevance, very cool experimental design, very promising your investigator...very poorly written approach. Ha...The choice to keep the tone big picture as advised by senior colleagues, backfired BIG TIME!! And in fact senior colleagues were shocked by my summary statement. But it all made perfect sense. The study section members don't know me, and my publication record, while very productive in other realms, has been slower on this project as all the papers are in the pipeline right now. The burden of proof is entirely on me. There was no trust that I could do any of the things I said I would do. There was no trust that I could even design appropriate controls for the experiments.

Good news: They liked the study! They liked me! According to my PO is a very viable proposal. It just needs more preliminary data and a thorough rewrite.

What have I learned from this?

1) The study section will dictate what you need to do. You can try and game the system predicting what they will say, but your grant may be sent somewhere else and you'll get a different batch of people. So just listen to the batch of people you get. Unless the assignment is so wrong that you need to go somewhere else.

2) Take all advice you get while writing with a grain of salt. As I have said in other posts about grant writing, each single one of your advisors will tell you to do what worked for them and they will all be different. So try to figure out what will make sense and then go back to point (1): do what the study section wants.

3) The expectations for new PIs are very different from those for senior PIs. The burden of proof on a new PI is much bigger especially if you have limited publication in the proposed field. I was shocked that they thought I could not even set up a control, so I'll have to show them that I can. Be wary that your senior advisors may not know this, and this could also be very study section dependent.

4) A score doesn't mean much unless it's <10%. Unless it's a fundable score, it seems that a score can be a suggestion, or a message, or a warning. I knew from a friend that this particular study section gives ridiculously low scores, so I knew not to be completely dejected about mine. My impact score also had very little to do with the scores I got from my reviewers. The panel must have decided it was not fundable and needed a lot of rewrite, and they made it clear by giving me a Poor rating. Nobody seems to think that's a problem, so I'll behave like it's not...

5) Make good use of your chat with your PO. I knew from my K99 application, that discussing your summary statement with your PO really allows you to develop a very clear action plan to turn a proposal around. This time it wasn't different. Prepare your questions and voice your doubts, and make sure you listen to the comments on how the panel viewed the grant. If there's hope, try again!

And so we try again. Wiser and still little bit confused...

Friday, November 13, 2015

A day in the life of a scientist in pharma medical communication

A guest post from PharmaFriend about a day in her life in big pharma medical communication, aka marketing (Sunday 11/8).  BTW, this was her great post on applying for jobs outside academia.

Hello Dear Readers,

PharmaFriend here to give you a glimpse of my day while I’m at a scientific conference. I’m a few days late; so, please accept my apologies. There are a few differences between attending a congress as a participant/scientist, vendor for pharma client, and actual pharma client. The biggest difference is how much time I spend working before the actual meeting starts. So let’s take it from the top:

4:30-6:00am. AWAKE. Jet lag is killing me, but I try to be somewhat productive and do some emails.

6:00-7:15am Jog to Pier 39. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that I have a lot more stamina when I work out during the meetings. Fortunately, the jet lag has worked in my favor and I have been able to get some good calorie burning in before this long day begins.

7:15-8:15am Cleaning up my inbox. I did not put on my out of office notification (big mistake). This means that I should respond to some of the mails that keep pouring even when I’m away.

8:15-9:30am Breakfast. It’s an important meal and I’m starving after my run. While at breakfast, I confirm that the external clinicians have everything they need for today’s activities. I also catch up with colleagues that have other pre-meeting activities going on at the congress.

9:30-10:30am Film crew prep. We are doing an activity that requires interviews with several medical experts. So, I need to brief the film crew and go over the discussion guides. The facilitators are not really subject matter experts; so, I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not doing the interviews myself, which tweaks the control-freak within, but I move on.

10:30-12:30am The shoot. All goes really well. Everyone was engaged and we got some really good footage. The crew and doctors got along fine and I can calm down about part 1 being all done. This is going to be a great piece when it finally hits the internet.

12:30am-1:45pm Dim sum. We are in San Francisco after all and it’s delicious.

1:45-2:30pm Walk the congress center exhibition floor. There are 2 reasons for doing this. 1) Competitive intelligence and 2) Figure out who has the best coffee. Hey, the learned behavior of seeking free food has not diminished since grad school days. It’s just a bit more refined. I ran into an old colleague from my vendor days. It turns out that 4 of us are here and I so psyched to see them all.

2:30-4:00pm Attend some sessions. Finally, I get to hear some data, after spending the day in congress-adjacent activities. Of course I have 2 different sessions on opposite side of the congress hall. My pedometer is getting its fill as it always does onsite. Back when I worked in the ad agency world, I could easily log 30K steps in McCormick Place, alone. My speaker has just told me that she is not coming for her interview tomorrow. She is overbooked and I am panicking a little bit, as this is critical education content for physicians.

4:00-5:00pm Back on the congress exhibition floor. I’m trying to maintain calm and put out this little fire. There is not much, I can do, but I didn’t have transparency into the scheduling issue until now. I actually found the good coffee and I need it since I’ve been up since 4:30. I take a peak of the amount of gaming being incorporated into the medical education. These ideas could be something to incorporate into next year’s designs.

5:00-6:30pm. Downtime before dinner. I do more email cleaning. Thank goodness for Sundays and the lack of new emails. I get my inbox down to something more manageable and send a note to the speaker for tomorrow’s video interview. It’s all a bust; so, I head to Macy’s with a colleague.

6:30-9:00pm. Ladies’ dinner. Nice ladies’ dinner with work colleagues. The food was unremarkable, but the company was nice. I’m still pissed about interview tomorrow, but I need to get over it.

9:00-10:30pm. Nightcap. After a long day, I spend a little time sipping something with bubbles.

10:30-midnight. It’s morning time CET, so, I check in the other half back home and I look at my iPhone. I’ve got to review some documents and take care of some budget issues to prep for the end of year. I really should write up these meeting minutes, but I am super sleepy. Those may have to wait until after the congress is all finished. Tomorrow, I get to do it all again.