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Dear GrantDoctor,

I am physical therapist who went back to school and received my Ph.D. in physiology. After graduation I accepted a position as an assistant professor at a small university in a PT Program. My graduate work was on familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and my PT background is in cardiac rehab. Currently I have a large teaching load, but I am also expected to do research. I have several small projects but am currently unfunded. I have recently applied for a grant from the Foundation for Physical Therapy and plan to apply for an American Heart Association New Investigator Award (local and national).

I have heard that the AREA Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a good place to start for someone like myself, at a small university. What other sources of funding would you think I would qualify for? I have thought about applying for an R01 but I don't know if there is much hope without a postdoc experience. Also, I have considered applying for a K01 award, but don't know if these are reserved strictly for physicians or if someone with a different professional background could apply. What are my possibilities? Thanks.

--Chris.


Dear Chris,

Many nonexperts know familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as a cause of sudden death for young athletes who didn't realize they had a heart problem. Genetic mutations cause a thickening of the wall of the heart, reducing its capacity to deal with accelerated heartbeats. Scientists have recently learned that there is another form of the disorder that doesn't manifest itself until middle age, which opens up new avenues of research. There's a lot going on in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy research right now. It's a good field to be in.

As a small-university scientist, that doesn't necessarily work to your advantage. You're likely to find that most of the money for this sort of research is given out in big chunks to researchers at big research universities and teaching hospitals. There's an easy way to illustrate the problem: A search of NIH's CRISP database on "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy" results in 43 hits from the current year, but almost all of those are R01's (research grants), K08's (mentored clinical traineeships), or P-series program grants. Currently, only one faculty member at your institution has an R01; there are no K08's or P-series grants.

As a rule, NIH research grants are given out to the people who are in the best position to get the work done. The lack of postdoctoral experience is not a death-knell for your R01 chances. Unfortunately NIH guidelines put a lot of emphasis on your "environment," which is a way of saying that they avoid giving full research grants to faculty at institutions that may be inhospitable to high-test biomedical research (including, in particular, institutions with a large teaching load).

You asked about the K01 award: The Mentored Scientist Career Development Award is NOT reserved for physicians (among the Career Development Awards only the K08, K11, and K12 are strictly clinical, though some of the other awards are almost always given out to MDs), but the K01 award is reserved for scientists whose career objective is primarily in research: "The candidate must be willing," writes the NIH, "to spend a minimum of 75 percent of full-time professional effort conducting research and research career development during the entire award period." That's a tall order when with a heavy teaching load, and NIH knows it.

If your colleagues aren't receiving R01's (and, in general, they aren't), then you're probably better off focusing on awards that are intended for scientists at smaller institutions. As you note, the NIH has just such a program. Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA), aka R15's, fund up to $100,000 in direct costs (up to four $25,000 "modules" within NIH's modular system) spread out over 3 years. AREA awards reflect NIH's recognition that a significant portion of the nation's biomedical scientists get their undergraduate education from schools like yours that often aren't competitive for full-bore NIH funding. AREA grants are intended to expose students to biomedical research when they're still undergraduates. AREA's are reserved for institutions that have received less than $2 million in NIH funding during the last budget year. Your university is eligible; indeed, in 2001 scientists at your institution received at least seven R15's, as well as one R03 (a small research grant) and, as I have said, one R01. (That R01, by the way, indicates that there may be an R01 award in your future, once you've built a record of research accomplishment.)

When you write your AREA application, keep in mind the purpose of the awards, captured by this passage from the program announcement: "It is anticipated that investigators supported under the AREA program will benefit from the opportunity to conduct independent research; that the grantee institution will benefit from a research environment strengthened through AREA grants and furthered by participation in the diverse extramural programs of the NIH; and that students will benefit from exposure to and participation in research and be encouraged to pursue graduate studies in the health sciences." Also keep in mind the following issues that reviewers are encouraged to consider when writing reviews of AREA applications:

* Is the principal investigator's experience appropriate for supervising students in research?

* Assess the suitability of the applicant school/academic component for an award in terms of strengthening the research environment and exposing students to research.

* Does the applicant document the likely availability of well-qualified students?

* Does the applicant provide evidence that students have in the past, or are likely to pursue, careers in biomedical and behavioral sciences?

In other respects, the AREA program works much like other NIH grant programs. Applications are evaluated in four areas: significance, approach, innovation, and the qualifications of the investigator. Application for AREA awards is made using form PHS-398. There are three deadlines each year for receiving AREA applications; applications must be postmarked by 25 January, 25 May, or 25 September. AIDS-related applications have different deadlines. Don't forget to recommend an appropriate study section and institute (probably the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, though that isn't the only possibility) in your cover letter.

When preparing an R15 application, recall what I wrote toward the beginning of this column: In 2001 no R15s were granted for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy research. This kind of research is usually carried out in bigger laboratories, by investigators with smaller teaching loads. One of your main objectives in writing your R15 proposal must be to convince reviewers that you can make a serious contribution in limited time with a limited budget. The research you propose should be important, but limited in scope. Carve out a small niche for yourself. Other possibilities: the American Heart Association's Beginning Grant-In-Aid. The AHA has regional offices so you won't have to go head-to-head with researchers at megacenters in Boston, the Washington, D.C., area, and San Francisco (though you will have to compete with some formidable Chicago-area institutions).

Finally: Investigate your university's policies on pretenure leave. Many teaching-intensive institutions with research requirements allow young faculty members to take a partially paid leave during the probationary period. One or two semesters as a visiting scientist at a high-profile laboratory will do much to mitigate the lack of postdoctoral experience and enhance your research competence and competitiveness for research grants.

Best Wishes,

The GrantDoctor


Dear GrantDoctor,

Is there a grant or fellowship that I can apply for to support summer faculty fellowships or a travel grant to facilitate collaborative efforts between the U.S. and Singapore? I have recently set up my lab in Singapore in molecular neuroscience. I have spent a year in the lab of a prominent U.S. researcher at a major school of medicine. Our collaboration has been very fruitful, resulting in a paper published in Nature.

In order not to be isolated from the international neuroscience community, my American colleague has offered to host me and/or my postdocs each year so that we can maintain ties and continue ongoing collaborative projects. My colleague is also planning to come to Singapore to help train my staff.

I am interested to find out if there may be some granting program that may help fund my travel and work at Johns Hopkins University for a short period of time over 3 years?

Thanks so much for you time.

Tuck Wah Soong


Dr. Soong,

You don't say whether you have a medical degree, but if you do, you're in luck. The National Medical Research Council of Singapore offers Medical Research Fellowships for overseas attachment. The research fellowships are opened to medical doctors who are registered or are eligible for registration with the Singapore Medical Council.

You should also consider writing a joint application for an NIH R01 grant. R01 research project grants are NOT limited to U.S. institutions, so you can, in principle, write your own R01 application. But the best strategy would be to write an application for a project based at the U.S. institution with a "substantial foreign component," in NIH-speak. Your R01 could, among other things, pay summer salary for you at the U.S. institution, as well as salary for your postdocs and your colleague during his Singapore visits. Be sure to explain in your application why your contribution is essential to the project's success; NIH funds international science, but it prefers to spend its money locally unless there's a good reason for spending it elsewhere.

Speaking of Singapore ... The GrantDoctor would like to welcome the Singapore science community to Next Wave; last week marked the official launch of Next Wave's Singapore affiliate.

Best Wishes,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!