Convince me to submit an NSF CAREER proposal

(by Dr Becca) Feb 27 2014

I'm quite serious - beyond general "diversify your portfolio" and "cast a wide net" -type waxing, why would I spend the time writing a grant proposal that would require learning a new funding system, developing a "broader impacts" plan, carefully re-crafting my research narrative to be compellingly non-health-related (which it undeniably is), all for less money, when I could just write another R01?

14 responses so far

You're in!

(by Dr Becca) Feb 20 2014

How often, in this job, do you get to genuinely make another person feel happy? Though I like to imagine that my trainees are dancing on rainbows for a week after I give them a compliment, something tells me such a response is relatively rare. But there's one time I know I get to make someone's day, and that's when I call to let them know they've been accepted to graduate school.

Of course, the debate of whether we should continue to create new PhD candidates rages on. But just for today, let's feel the happy feels, and remember what it was like to get that call.

I was in my apartment getting ready to go to my job at Starbucks, when the Swatch Phone rang.

Pretty sure it was this one.

It was my soon-to-be thesis advisor, telling me I was being offered a position in the neuroscience program at [Classy Institution]. I was in total shock. I do not remember the conversation very much at all (I really hope I said thank you), but I do remember that after hanging up, I got on my bike and rode the fastest I've ever ridden down the giant hill to the swanky neighborhood where my Starbucks was, and burst in shouting, "I AM GOING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL!!!!" It was one of the best days ever.

Your turn - I know you've got some good stories, so share in the comments!

43 responses so far

2014: Pork, papers, and preliminary data

(by Dr Becca) Jan 07 2014

It all started when I forgot the slaw. This amazing slaw* that I'd deliberately made in advance of our holiday trip so the flavors would have time to develop, I left in the fridge at home. The forehead slap that ensued when I finally remembered was likely heard across the tri-state area. Once we got to NY we made new slaw for our fish tacos, and I cheered myself up by thinking of how REALLY developed the flavors would be in the first slaw when we returned. Back home, I did a little pre-blizzard shopping (no, not just bread and milk), wondering what would keep us going if we needed to stay indoors for a few days as subzero temps descended, and that also you could eat with slaw. The answer was clear: pork.

Do you know how cheap pork shoulder is? It is very affordable. I got an 8-lb shoulder for I think $12, and we've now had 5 meals and still have leftovers. Would you like to see all the things we made? They were all amazing.

First we slow cooked the pork shoulder. With a little help from my brilliant sister in-law, I adapted Alton Brown's recipe**. It's technically for smoking, but it works like a dream in the crockpot as well.

Before:

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.30.38 PM

After 8 hrs:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.04 PM

I am so serious, this is the best thing I've ever made in the slow cooker EVARRRRRR. Ridiculously tender, falling off the bone with the slightest touch, and just perfectly juicy and NOOMMMMMMM.

The first night, we made carnitas. We had some in the classic style  (below - corn tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro, and lime), and some with the incredible slaw (flour tortillas, not shown).

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.23 PM

The next night, we made BBQ pork pizza using this recipe*** for the dough because Roberta's pizza is amazing. I am embarrassed to say that I forgot to take a picture, but I think you know what pizza looks like, right? We used BBQ sauce instead of tomato, and put the pork on top of the cheese. After it was cooked, we put the slaw on it and it was all kinds of good.

The next morning, I woke up and thought for a second about eating a yogurt until I remembered that I had everything I needed to have a pulled pork breakfast sandwich! Sorry yogurt, another day. I fried an egg and laid it on top of some pulled pork, which I put on top of the slaw, which I put on a potato roll, which are the best rolls. A dash of BBQ sauce for good measure.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.44 PM

Cooped up in the house for 3 days now, J and I made great use of our Netflix subscription. One show we've really been enjoying is PBS's Mind of a Chef with David Chang, who takes you all over the world to learn about all kinds of crazy food things, and teaches you how to make a bunch yummy things yourself, too. It is both entertaining and educational. The first episode is all about ramen, and once I get ramen on my mind, it is quite hard to get it off. So that night I made ramen. In his cookbook, the recipe for Chang's ramen broth is SEVENTEEN PAGES LONG and requires multiple shopping trips to exotic food stores. One day I'll attempt it, but this was not that day.  I improvised with what I had, and what could be easily gotten nearby.**** It was awesome anyway. Especially that slow-cooked egg, ho-lee cooooowwwww.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.32.28 PM

 

The next night, we were still feeling Chang fever, so we made Bo ssam, which is basically lettuce wraps of slow-cooked pork shoulder and fancy accoutrements. Even though we didn't have everything to make the sauces exactly right*****, these lettuce wraps OMG, just some of the most interesting and delicious flavor combinations ever. The scallion-ginger sauce****** will make you cry, it's so good.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.32.50 PM

Alas, the happy porky days are over, and today I had to go back to the office. But I'm not too bummed - in fact, I'm pretty sure 2014 is going to kick ass. First and foremost, the lab's very first legit research paper is IN PRESS, BABY! At like, a really good journal. I am at long last a last author! And the other authors are my awesome grad student and my awesome tech. We are officially independent. Two more manuscripts are just awaiting some final bits of data and will hopefully be submitted in the next couple of months. Yay papers!

Second, I'm getting back into grant gear,  planning out how to keep this ship afloat. This is my last ESI year - I must get an R01. My first R01 submission got a solid score, but definitely needs some prelim data from a new technique before it can go back in.This could take a while, but my PO advised me to take my time and make sure that we can convince the reviewers (and ourselves!) that we're capable of the work. In the meantime, my goal is to submit a new proposal for the Feb deadline that builds on the data we collected from the R21 project, and for June - test the waters of a new IC, which means more prelim data. Yay preliminary data! Yay taking the lab in exciting new directions!

And of course, yay for the slow-cooked pork that kicked things off! Cooking notes below.

* I pretty much always use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream.
** In the brine, I used 10 oz of salt instead of 12, and it was definitely as salty as I would have wanted it, and I like things pretty salty. You could probably even go lower if you wanted. I also used brown sugar instead of molasses because that's what I had, and I noticed no difference. For the rub, I used pre-ground coriander and cumin and didn't have any fennel. I used chipotle chili powder instead of regular. Add some water and cider vinegar to the crockpot so that things don't burn, and some chopped onions because they will taste amazing. I seriously think you'd have to try really hard to make this pork taste bad. Save the juices (see below).
***I used all-purpose flour instead of pizza flour and active dry yeast instead of bakers' (aka fresh - use this awesome yeast conversion calculator) and it probably wasn't quite as mind-blowingly amazing as I think it would have been had I had the right stuff, but it was still easily the best pizza dough I've made and WAY better than what you get in the grocery store pre-made.
****I mixed equal parts homemade beef stock and chicken stock that I had in the freezer, and added a few heaping spoonfuls of the gelatinized juices that were left over from the slow cooker to give it a little porkiness. I also added a dash of sesame oil and soy sauce to give it a little more of an Asian flavor, and then a hearty squirt of Sriracha. Just make it taste like you want it to taste!
*****I didn't have the special Korean pastes to make the Ssam sauce, but I googled around for some of the paste components, and made a sauce with finely minced garlic and scallions, sriracha, sesame oil, honey, and then grapeseed oil and sherry vinegar like it says in the NYT recipe. I have no idea if it tasted anything like it was supposed to, but it tasted pretty fucking awesome.
******You may be looking at the recipe and saying to yourself, how can I call this a "sauce" when it is a very large amount of chopped things with a very small amount of liquid? But trust me - let it sit for 10-15 min and then something magical happens. It still may not be the consistency of what you would normally call "sauce," but it is out of this world nonetheless.

 

 

3 responses so far

Some thoughts on recent K99/R00 updates

(by Dr Becca) Dec 19 2013

Even though classes are over and I'm about to leave for a few blissful days of eating and drinking with friends for the holidays, the all-too-imminent Jan 6 start of spring semester here has me feeling like this break is basically a joke. My goal is to have one paper, one foundation grant, and one R01 submitted by Feb 5, which is essentially tomorrow. However, I felt compelled to pop in here for a moment to make sure you saw the recent Notice of Reissuance for Career Development (K) awards. Most relevant to this blog are a few notes made on the K99/R00, or Pathway to Independence award.

Many people will tell you that a K99/R00 is a necessary thing for getting a TT job. While this is demonstrably false (mine was triaged), I can't deny that they help  A LOT, and I think if you're eligible, you should definitely apply. But are you eligible? It seems that NIH has started tightening the reins on what makes the perfect Kangaroo candidate, and I find some of the new bullet points here noteworthy (bold mine, italics theirs):

  • Candidates for the K99/R00 award must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research training experience at the time of the initial application or the subsequent resubmission.
  • Although the duration of postdoctoral training may vary across scientific disciplines, candidates must propose a plan for a substantive period of mentored training not to exceed 2 years.
  • It is expected that K99 awardees will benefit from no less than 12 months of mentored research training and career development before transitioning to the independent, R00 phase of the program.
  • Individuals who are close to achieving an independent faculty position, and cannot make a strong case for needing a minimum of 12 months of additional mentored training, are not ideal candidates for this award.
  • If an applicant achieves independence prior to initiating the K99 phase, neither the K99 nor the R00 phase will be awarded.

So! Let's work backwards here. You must have fewer than 4 years of pd training before submitting, including your A1. Best case scenario you're looking at 8 months in between A0 and A1 submissions, since you'll get your summary statement from A0 too close to/after the immediately following submission date. So be sure to submit right around the 3rd year mark, hopefully after you've gotten one or two nice papers out from your post-doc so you actually look competitive.

The 2nd bullet point is not that interesting.

The 3rd, however, I believe has gotten a little stricter than past iterations. You have to NEED that K99 phase, folks. At least a year. But what that really means is that at the time of applying, you need at least 2 years of subsequent mentoring, because of the math described above. So you should, I suppose, figure out what you're going to learn in the time the proposal goes through review and council, and then what you'll still need to learn after that.

"Close to achieving an independent faculty position" is such an interesting choice of words, isn't it? What does that even mean? You've had a couple interviews? Your big Nature paper just came out? I have no idea how anyone without an offer letter in hand could claim to be "close" to having a faculty position.

And if you do happen to sign that offer letter after applying but before accepting the award, NO GRANT FOR YOU! This I find very interesting, and perhaps a little confusing. I can understand that the NIH really wants this grant's primary purpose to be to help people get TT jobs, and so if you get a job before you get this grant, yay for you! Go write an R01 like the truly independent investigator you are and let some genuinely needy but exceptional post-doc have your money. But I can also imagine a scenario in which someone gets a great score and an offer letter sort of at the same time, and maybe that person works out a deal with the hiring institution to defer their appointment for a year so that they bring all those juicy R00 funds (and indirect costs) with them.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Interested to hear yours, and what your current experience with the kangaroo has been. Oh, and happy holidays!

23 responses so far

How do you choose a post-doc mentor? A guest post by SciTriGrrl

(by Dr Becca) Dec 06 2013

If you're hoping to end up on the tenure track, the work you do as a post-doc is arguably the most critical factor in whether you'll get there. Picking the right lab, then, is huge. But how do you know what the right one is? And is there just one? Weighing in on her experience is semi-regular guest post-er and all around amazing person NatC, aka SciTriGrrl.

How I chose a Post-doc lab [The most unhelpful post on choosing a postdoc that you’ll ever read]

This follows from a tweet from @TellDrTell quoting a speaker on the importance oc choosing a BSD for a post-doc. @dogwearingahat wrote about his experience and rationale for choosing a smaller lab.

At grad school, I started in the lab of a BSD.

It didn’t go well.

So I changed labs, and ended up with Professor X who was established, as yet untenured, had just gotten enough lab space to expand her lab, and worked on the topic that I super ridiculously interested in.

Reader, I was her first grad student.

I got a lot of advice when I started looking for a post-doc - on how different (or not) the research should be from my PhD, on what kind of lab I should join, what type of person I should work for, and where I should live.

My PhD advisor’s advice (because she is TEH BOMB) was simply this: go and do the research you’re interested in, somewhere you think you can do it well.

(For the record, my PhD advisor is now a BSD. And she is till awesome.)

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

My very good friend the Swedish postdoc told me that his criteria were (1) being able to have a good working relationship with someone; (2) doing good science, that you were interested in; and (3) being in the lab of someone that is around to be a mentor.

The mentorship thing was big for me - partly because of my first unhappy lab experience on this side of the world, but also because what I wanted to do was keep one foot in the kind of research I had been doing, while simultaneously moving the other foot into a square over *there*. And I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was putting that foot into.

At that time, there were few labs doing exactly what I wanted to do. There were a couple of BSD labs, and a couple of others dotted around, and a fair number that started a couple of years after I began my post-doc, but 8 or 9 years ago, there weren’t many. But there was one person, Professor Z, whose work I knew, was already an established scientist, but still untenured, moved to the US

What sold me was that upon meeting Professor Z is that we were able to discuss science, ideas, have a drink and a meal. At my interview, she and I argued about my dissertation topic for so long that we were late to my talk. Any by argue I mean in the best possible kind of rigorous discussion. It was fun.  I joined her lab because of these things, plus (and this was critical) the timing and the funding worked out perfectly. When I joined her lab there were three of us.

In the lab of Professor X, I learned all I know about what is now a huge component of what I do, while simultaneously able to be productive. I worked on projects that ended up going on winding paths and ending up in entirely unexpected places - and I would not have been able to get there without her knowledge and mentorship, which for me was a balance between plenty of freedom, with the support to ask questions and discuss issues when they came up (and the occasional swift kick in the arse, applied with love). Later, with her encouragement, I was able to start, and get funding for, a crazy project, with several collaborators in entirely different fields.

One of the unsung advantages of doing some training in a smaller lab is that you learn how to set up or make things work with what you have. I was also able to learn from her experiences in dealing with the US system for the first time, and departmental politics, and the importance of getting everything in writing.

It worked out for both of us - I am a n00b TT faculty, she is now a full Professor.

More importantly for me, I had one of the best post-doc experiences of anyone I know. It wasn’t that I worked less hard or was less productive, it was that my mentor was around to be a mentor, and that she is an amazing and wonderful person - and I was so lucky to find someone I get along with so well.

My take on finding a post-doc that the thing that matters most is you - what do you need in a mentor and in a lab? What do you want to do? There are different advantages in different types of laboratories, and things will change dramatically over your post-doc - the lab you leave will be a very different place than the lab you joined (when I started in the lab there were 3 of us. When I left, there were 9) and your PI will be in a different career stage (unless you’re working with BSD).

As was pointed out in the twitter discussion, not everyone from any lab - BSD or not - has a fantastic postdoc, or chooses to try to stay in science. Telling people there’s a formula for a post-doc is complete bullshit. Similarly, some people have a great post-doc experience, and for others it sucks, and it more depends on personalities involved (and luck) than on the type of lab you choose.

So my 2 cents is this:

Want to succeed in science? Then you’ve got to want to stay in it. To do that, do research you are interested in, in a lab that you can grow, and in a place you’re going to enjoy. Listen to all the advice, then make up you’re own damn mind, for your own damn reasons.

So you don’t need a BSD, HHMI, Nobel-laureates lab to succeed. But if that’s the kind of lab you want to work in, go for it.

6 responses so far

Why is this important again?

(by Dr Becca) Dec 05 2013

And....exhale. Classes are over, my final exam written, and in 3 days I head for the sparkling sands of [redacted] for the annual meeting of Very Exclusive  Organization that Doesn't Seem All That Impressed With Me But Which I Continue to Jump Through Hoops For Anyway.

JK, I'm not really relaxing all that much. In fact, my blood pressure remains quite high, as I'm not only waiting on a summary statement for a very good-but-not-amazing score on my first real R01, but also a score on another big grant, my first manuscript decision, and a couple of symposium proposals. My 3rd-year review is coming up in less than 4 months, and I really need to push--papers especially.

To that end, I've started writing up the results of our first data set from my R21, which has been hugely productive.  In fact, the results are pretty awesome, and we're going to shoot pretty high with this one. Which means this paper needs to be impeccable: not just beautiful figures and compelling data, but tight, persuasive writing that will make the reviewers feel as if they've been raptured. With words.

But when you've been thinking about your own work for so long, you can forget how exciting, novel, and important it is. As I slogged through a draft of the intro yesterday, I whined to my colleague that I wasn't sure it had enough oomph. Her advice was so freaking brilliant that I had to share it with all of you: go read the summary statement. 

I mean, is that genius or what? Here are ten pages full of things people wrote about how your science is so exciting, novel, and important that they thought the government should give you HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF US DOLLARS to do it! I have to admit, it was a great little ego boost to go back and revisit all the nice things they said. In addition, I think it's useful to keep in mind what other people find compelling about your work. Whoever thinks "the science should speak for itself" is delusional (I may need a separate post on this attitude, which I encounter all too often).

Consider this little nugget of wisdom my holiday gift to you, lovely readers. Have a super December, filled with below-payline scores, manuscript acceptances, festive foods and beverages, and lots of  happiness.

2 responses so far

Does your grant ever get that....not-so-fresh feeling?

(by Dr Becca) Oct 19 2013

If you submitted your beautiful, perfect grant this summer like I did, then chances are its review date fell during the government shutdown. Word came down yesterday via notice NOT-OD-14-003 that instead of rescheduling 2 weeks' worth of study sections, NIH has simply bumped all of those beautiful, perfect proposals to join their Oct/Nov-submitted brothers and sisters at February's meeting dates. Which means that in comparison, your now 8-month old grant may be...not so fresh.

Aha! But the sensitive folks at NIH have seen the inequity in such an arrangement, and tossed us the tiniest of bones in anticipation of our rage: the opportunity to "refresh" our submissions (their words), with a new, fresher, Nov 20 deadline.

I hate everything about this. First, it means that I absolutely have to do it. If I don't, my proposal gets judged against others from my cohort who did, putting me at a disadvantage. So goodbye, whatever I was planning on getting done in the next 4 weeks (which, btw, overlaps completely with the Society for Neuroscience meeting), and hello scrambling for preliminary data and updated figures. Second, whether conscious or not, the reviewers will almost surely add a 6th criterion, "progress since original submission." So, those who, hypothetically speaking, spent the summer fighting with their university's biosafety committee over the meaning of "replication-deficient" instead of making actual progress on the proposed work are again at a disadvantage.

Basically, we are fucked. But I guess I'd better get going on all that refreshing.

Slide1

21 responses so far

Branching Out

(by Dr Becca) Oct 16 2013

There is much going on in the world these days--both actual and virtual--that has induced extreme levels of grumpiness in yours truly. I would very much like nothing more than to sit around in my comfy pants with my cat, play Candy Crush, and whimper all day, but alas, 'tis not a luxury I can afford. I am in the 3rd year of my position, and though the government may be shut down and my R01 application hanging in study section limbo, my tenure clock ticks away.  Indeed, it is my Tell Tale Heart - keeping me awake at night, until I resignedly join my insomniac husband for the last half of Eyes Wide Shut on IFC at 4 am.  In this metaphor, I suppose the body lying in pieces below the floorboards is my career - is it dead? Is it alive? I won't really know until the police (tenure committee) arrive in a few years. Yes, I am having a cocktail at the moment, why do you ask?

One thing that could undoubtedly help to silence that incessant ticking would be the influx of about $250k/year for the next five years, and so I continue to seek the assistance of the government. They have been relatively generous so far. But up until now, including grad school and post-doc applications, my grant proposals have gone exclusively to a single NIH IC, and I think it's time to start reaching a little. But how?

I gave a talk at a small meeting last year, and a program officer from not-my-normal-IC approached me immediately afterward, saying "I want you to do exactly what you just talked about but in the context of my IC." I was totally flattered, but also more like um, OK except I have no background in your thing and I could maybe see that as being a problem? I mean, who is going to fund an application whose Aims the PI has no track record of being able to achieve? At that point, too, I had just gotten the lab going, and so my first priorities were doing the things I'd originally set out to do - I'd worry about branching out later. Well, it's now a little later, and my goal for the February cycle is to submit an application to this IC. The challenge is convincing the study section that I can do it.

I'm getting ahead of myself, of course, because at the moment I still have to figure out what "it" is. Sure, I can incorporate the things the PO I met mentioned, but that alone isn't an R01 - I need a broader question, and then an innovative way of addressing it, and then I need to persuasively argue that I'm the right person for the job.

I'll admit there's a part of me that feels disingenuous actively searching for a way to break into a new field. Shouldn't the content of my grant applications be guided by the burning questions that gnaw at my soul? Maybe that was the way things worked back in the salad days of the NIH (LOL when was that again?), but these days my approach has evolved to, what do I have that will be attractive to this IC?  And so I looked for RFAs and PAs from this IC to give me a sense of what kinds of work they're currently looking to fund (RePORTER is of course another great resource for wrapping your head around what gets funded), and lo and behold, a PA that may as well have been written just for me! I reached out to the contact person for the PA, who was very helpful and offered to give feedback on Specific Aims once I had them. That was easy!

And so now comes the fun part  - diving into a vast new literature, and trying to figure out where I fit in. It is highly daunting, but I'm going to start with big picture stuff and try to narrow things down once I find something that strikes my fancy. When I do, I still think I'll need to find some folks to sign on as consultants or possibly co-PIs for this first foray into new territory, but luckily I've got a couple of good networking opportunities coming up.  I'm excited about learning new things, meeting new people, and, I admit, planting my flag in some foreign soil. Oh, and MONIEZ.

7 responses so far

SfN-goers, save the date for BANTER!

(by Dr Becca) Sep 06 2013

You guys, BANTER is 4!! These little parties grow up so fast, don't they? What was once a handful of awkward scientists and writers hovering in separate corners of a bar has blossomed into a veritable plethora of social media-savvy brain lovers, sipping delicious beverages and partaking in sausage samplers.

This year, we'll be back in San Diego's Gaslamp district, upstairs in "The Nest" at the Tipsy Crow--described as "the most mysterious level" of the bar. Do with that what you will. Importantly, the kind folks at Frontiers have again generously provided some fundage so that you may imbibe and snack with minimal drain on your paltry salaries. But do arrive on time, as the bar tab will most certainly expire before your  thirst does.

Finally, take special note of our new, later time! We're starting at 8 this year, in hopes that those of you who feel compelled to attend your Monday evening SfN-sponsored goldfish crackers and $7 beer socials can make it. Everything you need to know is in this totally beautiful flyer I made. Tweet it if you'd like! Use #sfnbanter, and bring your friends!

See you there!Slide1

3 responses so far

You are not a bad person if you do the things you need to do to get/keep a job in academia

(by Dr Becca) Aug 28 2013

While the desk-drawer bourbon is still coursing through my bloodstream, I feel compelled to weigh in on a discussion that has been on and off on the tweets and blogs for oh, a long time now. The question is re: whether you are a morally bankrupt individual if you publish in non-open access journals. TL;DR, the answer is a big fat NO. I'm too lazy to storify or whatever, but you should definitely read Dr. Isis's predictably excellent post, which is framed in the context of the choice to go open access or glam mag, the former perhaps/likely crushing her chances of adding to the despicably low numbers of TT Latina women in science.

But I am here to take this mentality a step further. It doesn't matter WHO you are. If you are a person at any pre-tenure stage of an academic career (incl grad students & post-docs), the reality is that you are judged by a finite number of things: 1) where you did your PhD; 2) who you do your post-doc work with; and 3) the IF of the journals you publish in. It's not rocket science/brain surgery, people. Now, there are most definitely arguments to be made that these are not the be-all end-all of ACTUAL merit , but this is the world we live in. If you think these are terrible metrics and wish to push forward with no regard for such customs, I wish you all the best.

Open Access is an awesome thing, and I hope one day that all people everywhere have access to every scientific paper ever written. This might actually happen. But in the meantime, we need to get/keep our jobs, mkay? And this means doing the things that impress people according to the 3 criteria laid out above. You do not need to do ALL of them at the level of like, Harvard/Nobel Laureate/CNS, but if you have the OPTION of publishing in a glam mag as a pre-tenure person, do not fall on your sword for the sake of the general public, FFS! Make yourself the most impressive scientist you can possibly be, because nobody else is going to do it for you, and a whole lot of people are probably going to do it instead of you.

33 responses so far

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