American Society for Investigative Pathology, June 2014, Vol 6, No. 2

Grant FUNDamentals: An Interview with Satrdarshan Paul S. Monga

Satdarshan Paul S. Monga, M.D.
Endowed Chair for Experimental Pathology
Vice Chair of Experimental Pathology
Professor of Pathology (Division of Experimental Pathology)
Professor of Medicine (Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition)
Director: Cellular Approaches to Tissue Engineering and Regeneration (CATER) Training (T32) Program

At what stage in your career did you know you were ready to write your first independent grant?
I did my first postdoctoral fellowship from 1996-1999 and then my second postdoctoral fellowship from 1999-2000. During my second fellowship, I worked on two major projects, one of which was really a project given to me by my Principal Investigator (PI). At the same time, I started using some of the skill sets that I had acquired in my first fellowship to start my own little project on the side. I, of course had the permission of my PI who was very supportive. At the same time I’d made sure that I would never neglect the project that I was hired to accomplish. It was interesting that not only was I able to finish these two projects but at the same time additional observations led me to initiate a third project. As with any new observations, there are always more questions than answers and hence while all projects were interesting, I had to now start thinking of getting funded in order to carry these projects to the next level. I should point out here that as I performed these studies, I always was an avid spokesman for my research and would attend some conferences such as the ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology. This allowed others to get to know me and at the same time, as my projects were needing more money, I knew I was ready for that next step where I needed funding and I needed an independent faculty position to allow me to pursue my research. Towards the end of 2000, I was applying for positions externally and internally at the University of Pittsburgh when I got a break and was appointed as an Assistant Professor (without tenure) in Department of Pathology in early 2001. This allowed me to write my first R01, which I submitted by October 2001 and after one revision and resubmission in June 2002, I obtained funding beginning January 1, 2003. The second project continued to mature concurrently and led to a successful grant from the American Cancer Society in 2004.

In your experience, what are the things that really matter when writing a successful grant?
This really depends on what stage of career one is at! For pre-doctoral and post-doctoral trainees, if they are aiming for F and K awards, one thing that is absolutely critical is a sound career development plan. Just as a reminder, there are two major components to trainee grants including a scientific section and a career development plan and both carry equal weight when study sections assess these applications. Please remember that as existing trainees you are already in a training environment and being trained in a specific area and hence you have to justify how a special grant will allow you to train on top of it. Thus, having a sound career development plan, which may include having a co-mentor, having a mentoring committee, taking specialized courses, attending specific workshops, and having specific milestones, will help tremendously. There are also specific administrative offices at all major institutions that may be able to help in this regard. The other half of the proposal is the scientific component. This needs to be strong and should be supported by preliminary data. My personal experience is that even if a grant does not mandate too much preliminary data, having convincing preliminary data always adds considerable strength to the grant. Another important aspect is feasibility. Very often, proposing too much may work against you, so try to not be overambitious. Lastly, make sure to have established scientists as collaborators or consultants. This is really relevant when the proposal is a little out of your comfort zone, in which case having pertinent collaborators will strengthen the proposal. And, as a member of various NIH study sections for over 8 years, I have found that if you are a senior postdoctoral fellow or a junior faculty and going for an independent grant, having a very strong scientific component is the key. Make sure to have high quality and very clear preliminary data. This will show feasibility. Have a clear hypothesis. Make sure to discuss pitfalls and alternatives. And again, when you are proposing something new for which you do not have a track record, please collaborate and get the right people on your proposal. The review committee is not only looking at your ability to perform the research on your own, but also your ability to put together a team, if necessary, to accomplish the proposed experimentation.

What NIH funding opportunities are available to trainees in various stages of their careers?
The NIH truly has grant mechanisms for trainees at all different levels. I would suggest anyone to visit their website (http://grants.nih.gov/training/FTAwards.htm) for general information on various awards for folks at different stages of their careers. For F awards, which are for graduate students and new postdocs, please visit: (http://grants.nih.gov/training/F_files_nrsa.htm). For more advanced trainees such as senior postdocs and junior faculty, the best grants will come through K mechanisms (http://grants.nih.gov/training/kawardresearch.htm). Additional details on this award can be found at http://grants.nih.gov/training/kawardresearch.htm.

Why is it important for trainees to obtain their own funding?
If a trainees’ future goal is an independent academic position, it is of the utmost importance to have a track record in obtaining his/her own funding. Obtaining a training grant, whether it is through an F or a K mechanism or if one is recruited on a T32 training grant, represents your ability to be able to present your research to reviewers in a way that gives them confidence of its quality, its impact and its significance. So, if you have obtained funding, it means that you have been able to ‘sell’ your work and provided the reviewers with confidence that you are worthy of funding. This is one of many ways to make your job application stand out, as are other things like other awards and distinctions, good quality publications, and presentations at various national meetings. But having an independent grant is probably weighted more and really strengthens the job application. And yes there is another reason as well. In this day and age, when investigator-initiated grants for senior and established faculty have become even more competitive because of budget cuts, the NIH continues to be supportive of various grants for trainees (F’s and K’s) and hence every effort is being made to sustain favorable pay lines for the trainees, making their odds better at receiving career development awards. In fact, some of my own graduate students and postdocs have been able to successfully obtain F and K awards and even grants from private foundations. You can imagine how attractive it will be for a PI to hire a postdoctoral fellow who brings his/her own salary to a lab! Indeed there are several labs that I know of who won’t even take a postdoctoral trainee in their lab unless they bring their own salary support and hence it is yet another reason to write a grant.

As a training program director, what are some of the criteria you take into account when recruiting graduate students to your program?
I am the program director of a T32 training grant entitled Cellular Approaches to Tissue Engineering and Regeneration, or CATER, training program. This program recruits graduate students in year 2 and sometimes year 3 from the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program (IBGP) and Bioengineering Graduate Program (BioE). The mission of the training program is to provide the students from these two independent graduate programs a cross training in each other’s discipline through shared courses and opportunities to network and collaborate to eventually make better tissue engineers and experts in regenerative medicine. This is really an attractive and competitive program for the graduate students as there are a limited number of slots. We do have CATER faculty and the training needs to be in the labs of these faculty only. While students are recruited for 2 years, they are forever associated with the program until they defend and move on to an academic career or a career in industry or other places. When I am selecting students for the program I have to take into account several relevant factors. The students have to be academically sound. It helps if their undergraduate GPA is outstanding and they are from a strong school. Having good scores on the GRE or MCAT also is considered a positive attribute, as are good current grades in the graduate school. Most importantly, the project that a student is proposing with a CATER faculty mentor has to be in line with the mission of the CATER program, meaning that the student will be getting training above and beyond his or her own graduate program and in the discipline of tissue engineering and regeneration. The goals of the trainee reflected in the personal statement as a justification are of high relevance when considering admission to the CATER program as well. In addition, we always look for diversity in terms of bringing something unique and novel such as cutting edge technologies, new animal models, and innovative proposals, because that adds to the multidisciplinary aspect of the program and exposes other CATER trainees and faculty to new topics. Thus multiple things are considered when admitting a fresh class to the CATER program.

Are there non-traditional sources of funding available for trainees, such as grants or awards through foundations, societies, and companies? If so, how do these opportunities differ from government awards?
Yes there are multiple resources for the trainees to explore funding opportunities. The only issue is there is no one-stop shop to obtain such information like NIH where all pertinent information exists at one website with links to various mechanisms. Various societies and foundations do have funding opportunities and the best resource is your PI or mentor. Your PI is usually involved or has information on such ‘like-minded’ societies or foundations that are in line with the research in their laboratories. These will be the places for you to look for funding opportunities. Having a clear and open dialogue with your PI, making him/her aware of your interest and long term goals will keep them searching for the best funding opportunity for you. Being in the area of liver biology, I have worked closely with American Association of Study of Liver Diseases, American Gastroenterology Association and American Liver Foundation. Similarly, working in the cancer field I have worked with American Cancer Society (ACS) and American Association of Cancer Research. I have also written many support letters for trainees applying to the American Heart Association. All of these societies and foundations have various funding opportunities for trainees. I also should mention that these awards are highly competitive but that should not hold you back and sometimes you can apply for the same or similar project to two different organizations, although you can only accept one if both are funded. I still remember that I submitted my second grant to ACS, NCI, and NIH; NCI and ACS loved the grant and NIH hated it. I guess it is all about the priorities of an institution at any given time and of course since all these grants are peer-reviewed, the reviewers can have their own bias about the significance and relevance of a particular grant. But none of that should deter anyone and one should just focus on writing a best possible grant proposal.

How has your track record of successful funding helped your career?
I do think it has helped a great deal. I have been passionate about research, about asking both small and big questions, about questions that have biological implications and about questions having translational implications. Of course to find an answer to these questions, one must have the tools and resources and grants are really the way to get there. Successful funding has helped me elucidate some of these biological mechanisms that I am interested in that have led to important publications. And as with all good research, each question we have answered has led to more questions, which has required additional funding in the form of competing renewals of grant applications or new grants. I do truly believe that having continued research funding, which has required very careful and proactive planning, has been a major contributor to my career advancement. But I consider myself fortunate to be in the right environment in the department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, where the department has been extremely supportive of my research endeavors. And as Vice-Chair of Experimental Pathology, I too am committed to the research in our department and support our faculty - especially the junior faculty - in helping them establish their research programs.