These days, biomedical scientists are taking longer to score their first major research grants than they used to. According to a widely disseminated statistic from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ph.D. biomedical researchers are, on average, 38 years old when they get a permanent faculty post and 42 when they get their first major research grant. That's why, 2 years ago, NIH introduced the Pathway to Independence award. Modeled after a successful program run by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, which has since refocused its awards on physician-scientists, the Pathway program provides up to 2 years of funding for postdoctoral trainees--the K99 portion--followed by 3 years of R00 funding for continuing research once the awardee lands a faculty position. NIH aims to award between 150 and 200 Pathway grants each year.

In 2007, the only year for which award data for the program have been fully compiled, NIH reviewed 893 applications and issued 183 awards for a 20.5% success rate. At the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which awarded 16 Pathway grants in 2007 and the same number in 2008--more than any other NIH institute except the National Cancer Institute (NCI)--the success rate was a smaller 13.2%. Because the competition for the K99/R00 awards is so stiff, Anthony Carter, a program director in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at NIGMS in Bethesda, Maryland, has been encouraging some prospective applicants who are eligible for other training grants, such as K08s, to go after those awards instead.

"Anybody who gets a K99 should consider it pretty prestigious," Carter says. But prestige isn't--or isn't directly--the point. The point, rather, is to get researchers into faculty positions sooner, with a better shot at succeeding. Is it working? Early indications are that scientists who manage to win the awards are, indeed, reaping its intended benefits.

Enhanced training

Anthony Carter

Pathway awards are intended, NIH officials say, for postdoctoral scientists who can demonstrate that they need more training--and also that they have a viable plan for independent scholarship that will advance their field. Balancing these elements presents challenges for reviewers, Carter says. Reviewers at his institute have not favored applicants who don't seem to need further training. "We don't want to hold people in a postdoctoral position if they're ready to move to independence," he says.

Other applications, he notes, fall short because they don't set forth a compelling mentoring plan. "Because the funding mechanism is new even to the mentors, a lot of times people will apply saying, 'Dr. X has been doing great research in my lab and will do more of the same.' " But that's not good enough. Reviewers want to see evidence that the mentor has creative plans for enhancing the applicant's career development--say, by sending the postdoc to technical training courses or to lab-management workshops.

Indeed, such experiences can make the difference between following in an adviser's footsteps or blazing a new path. Psychologist Rebecca Spencer, who was a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, had been studying the role of the cerebellum in movement and the perception of timing. But in 2007, she applied for and won a K99 award from the National Institute on Aging to pursue a new interest in age-related changes in how memories are consolidated during sleep. This research drew on many of the same tools she was already using in her research, but because her adviser didn't do sleep research, she used her Pathway grant to beef up her background with additional courses, attend a major scientific meeting in sleep medicine, and buy just enough equipment to start some pilot research. "It was enough for me to get my hands wet," says Spencer, who landed a tenure-track job at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, this year.

Satinder Singh, a postdoctoral fellow in structural neurobiology at Oregon Health and Science University's Vollum Institute in Portland, applied for a Pathway award from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the summer of 2007 and went on the job market that fall, mostly to test the waters. Both gambles paid off. She got the award in the spring of this year, and with the award in hand she interviewed at Yale University. She got the job and then decided, with Yale's agreement, to defer it for 2 years so she could finish her obligations to her postdoc adviser and the postdoc portion of the award. She plans to spend the next 2 years gathering preliminary data and taking advanced neurobiology courses, knowing that her next step is secure. Yale was "very happy that I got the K99, and they were more than happy to delay for as long as I needed," Singh says. "If they were not willing to wait, I would not have accepted the offer."

A clear pathway to employment

Courtesy, Rebecca Spencer
Rebecca Spencer

NIH won't begin evaluating the program's success formally for another year or two, but the program seems to be working as intended, says Walter Schaffer, senior scientific adviser for extramural research in NIH's Office of the Director in Bethesda. "Many awardees have been able to leverage the award to go on the job market right away." More than half of the postdocs who received K99s from NCI in 2007 and 2008 have already negotiated tenure-track positions or taken up faculty posts, says Nancy Lohrey, a program director in NCI's Cancer Training Branch. Requesting anonymity, one source indicated that the proportion may be higher still, because some awardees may be keeping NIH in the dark about their appointments so as not to endanger the K99 portion of their funding.

The awardees' success isn't surprising, given the weight that hiring committees place on researchers' ability to fund their ideas. When Spencer went for job interviews, she says, few faculty members knew about the K99/R00 program--but when she explained how the grant works, she says that "their eyes would light up." Jarred Younger, a neuroscience postdoc at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was awarded a K99 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2007, says that having K99/R00 grants puts recipients in a stronger negotiating position not only because it signals to hiring committees that an applicant's ideas are fundable but also because the award demonstrates that the applicant has the chops to write an R01-sized grant. Also, he says, job applicants who come in with a grant may be better able to negotiate for reductions in teaching assignments, giving them more protected time for research. "It's easier for universities to reduce the course load if you're bringing in money that would allow them to cover courses through other means."

Time to think

Courtesy, Joe Manns
Joe Manns

Besides increasing awardees' stock on the job market, applying for and winning K99/R00 grants can offer other, equally substantial--if less obvious--benefits. Joe Manns, a memory researcher who got a K99 from NIMH in late 2006 while he was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University, says that applying for the award required him to spell out a detailed research agenda. It also prompted a discussion with his postdoc adviser about what intellectual property was the adviser's and what ideas Manns could take with him--a dialogue that too seldom occurs as explicitly or as early as it should, Manns believes.

After he got his K99, Manns found that he had a new player on his team: his NIMH program officer, who helped him think through his professional options and weigh offers. (In fact, Carter observes, even applicants whose Pathway grants don't end up getting funded can benefit from having the opportunity to establish relationships with NIH staff early in their careers.)

Having 3 years of funding also allows new junior faculty members to focus on a long-term research agenda instead of scrambling for immediate funding. "I see that frantic search for money in other junior professors, and it makes me appreciative that I can focus on my research program," says Manns, now in his first year as an assistant professor studying neuroscience and animal behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. "I have time to ask myself, 'How do I want to influence my field?' If you're forced to jump into grants right away, then the question is, 'What's the most likely opportunity to get grant money?' "

Confidence builder

Cancer biologist Emily Wang, who received a K99 from NCI in July 2007 after 5 years as a postdoc at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says that applying for the grant helped her find her compass. Although she had a solid publication record, "I had barely thought of the timeline I gave myself to set up my career and become independent. I am the kind of person who only plans for the next year or so," she says. But as she wrote the proposal--a K99/R00 grant requires developing a detailed time frame for accomplishing specific goals--she says, "that was actually the first time that this plan actually formed in my mind." The knowledge that she could spend no more than two more years as a postdoc focused her energies. That was just a year ago, but she already started a faculty job this fall at City of Hope cancer center, near Los Angeles, where she's collecting data and eyeing her first R01 application. "This was the first award I ever applied for," Wang says. "It gave me optimism for applying for other awards."

Like Wang, Singh found that the Pathway grant gave her greater confidence--in her case, the ability to network with potential collaborators. "People won't think that I'm just talking about ideas that probably have no future," she says. "They'll take my ideas more seriously."

Photos, top to bottom: Comstock Business Impacts, NIH/NIGMS, courtesy of Rebecca Spencer, courtesy of Joe Manns

Siri Carpenter is a freelance writer based in Madison.