A Peek Inside Study Section: The Riff Raff Edition
Study section…the great mythical society of uber academics. Everyone wonders what they are up to, but they are sworn to secrecy in a private ceremony in which members turn over their first born to Francis Collins and assure him his haircut is super flattering.
Big news, friends. Study sections for the grown up grants just got way less elite, because I ad hoc’d on one last week.* So let’s pull back that curtain a bit, shall we, and wait for the NIH police to come round me up (take a number, coppers!!).
First thing you need to do is go to the hotel bar. Once you’ve dropped off your suitcase, take thee to the hotel bar. Before you get all judgey on me, someone I used to be friends with insisted that the best way to meet the awesome people is to check in and have a seat at the bar. This seemed unwise and a better way to end up as a member of AA.
I had worked like a dog for weeks on the grants I reviewed. I looked up the papers applicants referenced and studied every grant like I was about to take my qualifying exams. I decided to risk it and reluctantly took my place at the hotel bar and ordered an (amazing) steak salad and broke out my ream of grants and laptop. I was fairly stressed by this point, because I now had an extra 80+ grants others had reviewed and commented on, and I felt I need to know them as well. My last night to study like mad. In retrospect, I likely looked like a squirrel on crack.
Mercifully, I met the coolest guy in the world, Mike Oakes (@), at the bar.
He laughed so hard at my noob strategy of cramming for study section I thought he might pee himself. He gave me the best advice I would get. “Have a drink,” he said. “You are going to be with top notch smart people .Listen to them. Ask questions. The questions are bigger than you can approach by studying this way.” He was right. I’m glad I studied and knew those applications, but ultimately I was staring at trees and missing a forest. At this point, I would recommend the French 75 cocktail. It is delicious. I would also recommend the hilarious political pokey epidemiology and public heath tweets of a dood who runs a 10million Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Program for Robert Wood Johnson; follow @Oakes007. I wouldn’t have met him if it weren’t for the hotel bar. I got much more sleep that night than I was planning on getting and felt way less stressed out.
Next, you’re going to show up bright and early and it’s frosty. Not the people. The room. I was cold AF and, in spite of my mental pleading, no one sensed my pain and wanted to be my big spoon. They also put out the campfire I set up under my desk almost as soon as I got it started. Mercifully, some magic fairies got us a vat of coffee, water and granola bars. These faries are not standard!! Mom was right. Dress in layers. Day two I wore three sweaters and looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I could barely drop my arms to my keyboard.
Third, reviewers cheer for applicants. I had a running list of low blows I was bracing for as soon as the first grant was discussed (‘Riff Raff, anyone?). This didn’t happen. At all. There were no Steven McKnights and if the riff raff on my panel were chosen for anything, it was painfully obvious that they were selected for being fair, smart and kind. Like, ridiculously kind. Even the most introverted person on that panel went out of their way to welcome me, come and talk to me about grants we scored differently and make sure that I knew how much they appreciated me helping them (which is mind-numbing because I got so much more than I gave). Famous, smart and kind? My kind of riff raff.
Things I did not hear:
- “This PI hasn’t published well.”
- “There aren’t enough glam journal papers.”
- “Their work isn’t highly cited.”
- “They only have [#/kind] funding.”
These people want you to succeed. At least the people in the room I was in did. I left there so much more stoked about the future of science than I have been in years.
Fourth, the “death spiral” is real, fast-moving and will pull you, your crappy figures and small fonts down. Trust me, kittens, one thing you do NOT want to have happen to your grant is a reviewer say, ‘”Their hypothesis interesting and I wanted to like it, but it is based on the staining/expression /profiling they show in Figure 2. It’s just so hard to see, and they don’t describe it well.” Cue 25 really smart scientists pulling up Figure 2 and everyone throwing in two cents to figure out what you are doing. This conversation invariably ends very, very poorly for you. Your figures need to be tight AF and include clear legends. Put those legends in four point font to “save space” and you’re four points of effed.
Fifth …Fives shouldn’t hurt. A 5 won’t get you funded but they shouldn’t hurt that much. When you are on the receiving end of a five, all seems lost. But that’s not true. On the scoring matrix a five is considered a good grant. I have not resubmitted grants where I was scored, but I got a five in an area. I was wrong. I should have resubmitted. My new rule of thumb is that if you are discussed, send that grant back in next cycle.
I’m going to post a few more blogs over the next two weeks about study section. I have grant reviews to spiffy up during the revision time. But if you have any question….throw them out there. If I don’t know or can’t answer, I’ll rustle someone up who can.
I had no idea that they throw a parade at the end of NIH study section. Our panel was held in New Orleans and ended on the first day of Mardi Gras. I told the organizers I was a scientist and got to ride a golf cart in parade. I consider this a major win for science and it should be the new standard for how we end study sections.
*Full disclosure: I’m not a complete study section noob. I’ve been on American Heart Council and BRAIN study section for 10 years and also was on NINDS K99/R00 study section. None of those groups had a parade. I feel robbed.