Thoughts during NIH study section - part 2 about the role of Mentors

Jun 30 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had a lot of thoughts, so its easier to break them up by topic. This one is about the role of mentors in R-mechanisms from Early Stage Investigators or Early Career Researchers. These are, as the NIH PO repeatedly said, are NOT MENTORED awards. The PO is the one who should know. The PO is the one who is going to recommend the final funding decisions to Council. Thus there is no formal role for a mentor. But, postdocs can apply for this particular award, with the goal "to facilitate moving to an independent career".

So, the role of a mentor is contentious. It produced discussion amongst the panel, and some of the discord among reviewers. The proposed work could be done in a mentor's lab, so that the larger shared resources (for example, expensive equipment) can be shared. But the work should represent a new and towards-independent direction for the applicant. The question of independence itself was seldom an issue. All of the proposals seem to get that right, even the ones with other significant problems.

The biggest concern came with problematic proposals, in the logic of experiments, the logic of hypothesis testing, what the analysis results would mean. When these things weren't strong, reviewers questioned whether the mentors actually looked at the proposal. Yes, the mentor wrote a walk-on-water letter, and made it clear about resources available. But why then, were there such significant flaws in the logic of the proposal?

In some cases there was a large "team" at one place - maybe 2-3 major PI's working on similar issues, with different  expertise. One did proteonomics, one did imaging, one did molecular magic. When there was a proposal from a young person, with letters for all 3 Big Dogs, all R01 funded, there was a fine, and difficult line for the applicant. Reviewers needed to be persuaded of independence of the young person, and that this was not just a ploy to bring MOAR MONEY! into the senior labs. Yet, if the proposal was poorly done, then it was asked, did the mentors have enough time to read the proposal and point out the flaws?

This sounds like a very hard, almost insoluble problem. But its not. One: you must make your proposal as strong as possible. The logic from premise and justification through the hypotheses, testing the hypotheses and how data will address them must be strong. Can the PI do the proposed work? If the PI does the proposed work/experiments/data collection, will the questions be answered and hypotheses tested? The issue of mentor seemed to arise when there were problems answering these questions. So get your mentor's help. The next step is how to show independence when you are working with a mentor.

There a number of things that show independence in this situation. Firstly, having published a paper (preferably with  Young  Padawan PI as first author) that is different, a new direction, or something that distinguishes from mentor(s)'s ongoing  line of work. A published track record is almost always the best thing to support anything you propose to the NIH. Secondly, have the mentor, in their letter of support, state not just that its new/independent, but WHY it is: "I've never thought about including the biomechanics of claw strength in my studies of bunny hopping, until Young Padawan joined my lab and pointed out the significance of this feature". How do you make sure the letter gets written this way? Write it for the mentor. Or given them a bullet list of points to include. We've talked about this before, here.

More on mentors, soon, very soon.

3 responses so far

  • wally says:

    Your posts on this are super duper helpful! I am applying for an F32 soon, and have been scouring the net for any advice I can find. I luckily have very involved mentors and am getting a ton of feedback and help. I can't imagine doing this without it.

  • Dave says:

    Always thought having a previous post doc mentor write a letter for an R grant was risky because of the Independence thing.

    • potnia theron says:

      R-awards don't need/require letters. BUT, if you are sharing resources, or having a consultant, you need a letter for that. In the case(s) described here, there were lots of shared resources and letters indicating that the shared-ness would work are essential.

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