Back to Her Roots: Natasha Halasa
Natasha Halasa’s parents emigrated from Jordan to the United States to make sure their children had a better life. Within one generation, via vaccine and other studies on respiratory illness and acute gastroenteritis in young children, Dr. Halasa is improving the lives of children in both the United States and Jordan.
“Respiratory illness is the number one killer of kids under five worldwide, and diarrhea is number two,” says Halasa, who currently works with a cohort of children under two in Jordan to discover if Vitamin D could be a way of reducing respiratory illness burden in this population. She also leads the New Vaccine Surveillance Network, a CDC-funded project with national reach that helps define the burdens of respiratory illness and acute gastroenteritis in hospitalized children. As well, she is PI of several studies investigating the efficacy of high-dose influenza vaccines.
“My dad’s a microbiologist, and he worked in a children’s hospital for over thirty years, so I was exposed to infectious diseases (no pun intended),” she says when asked what drew her to the field. When she was in grade school, “some of our science projects involved looking at the best mouthwash to eradicate Group A Strep, or the best over-the-counter antiseptic cream to kill staph.” She likes dividing her time between seeing patients and conducting research, feeling that work in each area helps answer questions in the other. “It’s also exciting to see…a burden decrease” because of policies introduced based on her research, she notes. “You can make an impact on individual lives.”
When it comes to writing grants, Halasa values having time and “the amazing resources at Vanderbilt” to prepare. Before she even came to Nashville, she identified mentor Dr. Kathy Edwards and the two wrote a grant together while Halasa was still a third-year resident. Working with an experienced grant writer was invaluable, as was receiving formal training via activities like a grant writing class in the MPH program or from writing workshops. Halasa also looked at many examples of successful grants. And practice, she says, makes perfect. “With each grant you write, you learn how to write a grant.”
Even though her not all of her previous grant applications were successful, she says that the practice gained through each and every proposal better prepared her to succeed. “All the different little components,” such as writing a biosketch and putting a budget together, are vital to a good application and best learned through direct experience.
Also essential is making time to receive feedback from seasoned PIs and edit accordingly, says Halasa, who put together an “informal studio” of readers when she was writing her U01. And starting even further back, cultivating relationships with people who could provide letters of reference—ER doctors and primary care providers, in Halasa’s case—was also critical to her success. The take-home? Do your writing early, and do it often.
With her drive to learn something from every grant she writes, Natasha Halasa will be making an impact on children’s lives for years to come.