A Student Perspective on Fellowship Grant Writing

By Elaine Shults, Georgetown MS Biotechnology Student

When it comes to landing one of the most prestigious research grants in the nation, your strategy will determine your success. No one knows this better than Eric Berens, a Georgetown Tumor Biology PhD candidate, who recently won The NCI/NIH Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award.

This F99/K00 Grant is awarded to only 30 PhD students in the United States and totals $225,000 in funding for postdoc work. The funding allows postdocs to choose an ideal lab for their continued studies, while grooming them to become future faculty members. Only one applicant from every institution in the US may apply. So how exactly was Eric Berens able to win this grant… on his very first attempt writing a grant?Eric spoke to a group of Biomedical Graduate Students along with his Principle Investigator, Dr. Wellstein, to illuminate the process that underpinned his success. Summarized here are Eric’s keys to grant writing, which all derive from an adage by his co-mentor, Dr. Anna Riegel: “Highlight The Man, The Fans, & The Plan.”

1. Understand exactly what the aims are for your particular grant.

This is crucial. For the F99/K00 awards, the aims were to explain: 1) Dissertation work completed 2) Dissertation work remaining, and 3) Career goals and strategy for postdoctoral search. Every subsequent decision was made with these aims as Eric’s guiding principles.

2. Take stock of where you are.

At the time Eric was applying, he already had one first-author manuscript under review, so he decided to add another cytoskeletal regulator to his research in order to counter the notion that his project was nearing completion. This decision was cohesive and logical.

3. Determine how your current work can get you to where you want to go.

To bridge the gap between his current research and a career path he envisioned for himself, Eric decided to focus on cancer immunotherapy, which was a logical professional progression from his work with cytoskeletal regulators. However, this created a potential problem: Immunotherapy could be considered beyond the scope of Eric’s experience and knowledge. He overcame this obstacle by adding the Director of the Lombardi Cancer Institute, Dr. Louis Weiner, to his grant. This addition increased his credibility, legitimized his interest in immuno‐oncology, and highlighted the wealth of resources available to him.

4. Develop your research proposal.

Crafting your aims is the most important part of the grant-writing process. Define your aims and sub-aims clearly with keeping in mind they cannot depend on one other. Identify areas where your experiments may fail. Avoid “fishing expeditions” by minimizing chance, in other words, keep the plan tight and logical. Emphasizing your training potential is also extremely important in realizing what kind of experience you may need (in vivo, cell signaling etc.), so design your aims to bring experience to those areas.

5. Assemble a star line-up of reference letters.

Name dropping is a “necessary evil” of grant writing and is indicative of the “human” component of science. It also demonstrates that you are competent and realize “who’s who” in the field. Balance “heavy hitters” with more personal, tailored letters, from multiple institutions, if possible.

6. Write!

For Eric, the actual writing took about 10 days and at completion totaled 54 pages. Stating things multiple times will increase the likelihood of them being seen since grant reviewers tend to read quickly and may miss key points. When asked about his biggest regret, Eric recalled how much time and stress could have been saved if he had hired an editor. Once Georgetown University received and approved his grant, it was submitted to the NIH and the nearly 4-month waiting period began.

7. Wait.

Out of all the grants submitted, the bottom 50% from the initial rankings are not discussed. The top 50% are read by 20-30 scientists and scored between 1-­9 where 1=excellent and 9=poor. Eric received a very respectable score of 30 with an “institutional environment” scoring the highest (this is good news for other GU students seeking funding – Georgetown is credible and respected).

Upon receiving initial feedback, be aware that you must “read the tea leaves” according to Dr. Wellstein, in other words—criticisms are often laced in nuance. Eric addressed his issues and reached out to the NIH program officer. It’s important to strike a balance between showing that you care about the application without pestering them.

Eric waited a few weeks after receiving his feedback before emailing the NIH program officer, but just a few moments after hitting “send” on his email, he received a short, elusive reply stating he’d likely receive the award.

7. Celebrate.

Eric expertly navigated the tumultuous waters of competitive grant writing, closely adhering to Dr. Riegel’s adage by clearly articulating, “The Man, The Fans, and The Plan.”During his lecture, Eric frequently gave credit to his many mentors throughout this process. When it comes to grant writing, nothing is arbitrary. Decisions must be logical and cohesive, and you must adhere to the aims within the grant with razor-like precision. At the conclusion of his lecture, when asked how he was able to handle the long periods of uncertainty whilst waiting for a decision, Dr. Wellstein revealed a second Grant-­Waiting Adage: “Whisky.”

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