The grant cycle

My mom often comments that she doesn’t really understand my daily life as a scientist - she doesn’t have an intuition for what the ups and downs are like. And I must admit that the teenage girl who is always inside me when it comes to family has been known to moan “you just don’t understand.” My adult self has countered with “well then, why don’t you explain?” and I’ve decided to take up the challenge. This post is the first of what I hope will be many that tries to bridge that gap and help my mom (and others who are interested) understand the daily life of a scientist.

Last week, I felt a familiar creeping anxiety. It wasn’t front and center and it took a few days to recognize it, but at the edges of my relationship with work, I felt brittle and vulnerable. I knew that the study section group that reviews NIH grants would be discussing my individual fellowship application and the upcoming judgment was weighing on me. The individual applications explicitly evaluate you as a scientist, the lab you’ve chosen, and the work you believe in - it feels very personal. I’d put a lot of time and effort into the application and drawn in the support of several scientists whose work I admire deeply. This application was the first body of work that I’d put out into the scientific community since I switched careers from clinician-scientist to scientist with clinical training and the first NIH application to be launched from my advisor’s lab. All these factors meant that I really hoped for good scores that would put me in the fundable range (and was worried I’d have to overcome the disappointment of bad scores).

But then, why did I put the grant out there in the first place? Yes, to get the individual funding and the recognition that goes along with it. When evaluated along those lines, the scores become all important and anxiety provoking. But there were other goals too. I want to do the science - to discover something new about the world and share it with others. And I wanted the recognition that goes with the individual funding to help advance my bigger goal of doing the science as a leader of my own academic group. With all this in mind, I spent some time last week coming back to my basics. I reminded myself that obtaining an individual NRSA is not the only path to independence. I reconnected with why I love my work - the beauty of the images we create, the care that goes into designing analyses that are valid and rigorous, and the fun of being a part of a team. (I also made time to get out of thinking mode and spend time doing yoga and biking – activities that refresh me mentally and physically).

This week I got my scores - and they were good. Not only good, but much better than I had even considered hoping for. I got an impact score of 17, which placed me in the top 5th percentile (at NIH, lower is better). In the past, the funding cutoff for this type of grant at this NIH institute has ranged from the 20-30th percentile. To be realistic without counting any unhatched chickens, my scores mean that my application is well positioned for funding. And I’m delighted! I had prepared myself to keep moving forward even if I got a dreaded “not discussed,” but instead got a huge boost. After taking a risk and leaping from the clinical training train, this result feels like a validation that I’m on the right path. But the life cycle in the lab means that I pretty quickly moved forward and focused on new challenges - figuring out an analysis before an upcoming conference, scheming to apply for another (more competitive) grant, and generally pushing my project forward on all fronts. We’ll celebrate at lab meeting today with pastries and an image of the score report went into my “Feel Good” email folder for when I need a confidence boost – and then it’s back to work.