Friday, May 19, 2017

It's not grammar but style

"Summer break" although elusive for many of us, seems like the ideal time to do some reading for pleasure. And, if that is your plan, I don't want to steal your joy, but I'd like to suggest a practical application for your fun-reading. To do this, I will offer a blog series on Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, which I'll offer over the next couple weeks starting today.

In this book, Pinker works at "replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence" (p. 6). Although he lauds the the great style-guide writers, such as Strunk & White, he also cautions against stringent language and grammar rules that seem to regard language as static instead of evolving and suggest that good writing is as simple as applying certain rules.

For me, it's a good reminder. With a technical writing background, I often catch myself offering bulleted lists to grant-writers, including 'get rid of all passive voice' and 'cut out hyperbole.' And, sure, this is in response to the overly complicated and layperson-unfriendly proposal-writing I often see, but I think we can learn from Pinker to find a balance between grammar rules and overly complicated writing that is not accessible to most.

Pinker argues for considering style in your writing for three reasons:
  • to make sure your reader understands: Unless it's in your diary, your writing is meant to communicate, so make sure you're doing that effectively.
  • to build trust: As Pinker argues, sloppy or careless writing also communicates something to employers (or grant reviewers). It suggests that if you can't craft a resume or a proposal well, how can you be trusted to do a good job in the workplace or responsibly manage a research project?
  • to offer joy: If you are reading a great novel this summer, you understand the importance of this, but it's also worth remembering for any other sort of writing, whether that be a publication you're developing or a grant proposal - do not sterilize your writing of your passion. Let your passion always infuse your writing.
Thus, for these reasons, Pinker encourages us in his opening chapter that to become better writers, we must first become better readers. Whose writing do you love? The next time you're reading their work, make a note of passages that jump out at you, ones that you particularly love. Read those passages again and work to identify what the author did that makes you like it so much.

Pinker points out that we're often told that using the passive voice or using alliteration is bad practice, but that's simply not a hard and fast rule, and I'm not just defending alliteration because my name is Naomi Nishi! Instead we need to understand who we're writing for, what we're trying to tell them, and what's the best way to tell them. Oftentimes, in academia and in grant-writing, we think that all emotive words are inappropriate, but is that right even when our goal is to get our reader to feel something? In grant-writing, one of our key goals is to get our reader excited about our idea. Ridding our writing of anything that conveys excitement then is bad practice.

I'll admit something to you. Although I am a card-carrying Technical Writer (OK, I don't have a card, but a diploma), I have never been a stringent grammarian. So, as an experimental psychologist and a linguist, Pinker speaks to my writerly soul in his acknowledgement of the messy and dynamic nature of language where knowing "the rules" is useful, but accepting that these rules are and should be broken when it is for the good of your writing. I hope you will enjoy this series; I'm looking forward to it!

The Sense of Style - Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker's Website 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Research PR Tips

Being able to discuss your research with a broad audience can help you in many ways. It allows you to write for the layperson in your grants. It allows you to tell your story and get the word out about your research. It allows you to attract students and collaborators. After attending the National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) conference, I heard from several RD folks on how researchers can better market themselves and tell their story.

Below are some tips:

Have a website:
A website is an opportunity for you to make sense of your work to people who may be interested for a variety of reasons. This is a place where you can organize your research for non-experts and experts alike. It's a place to link to the press you've received and to market your publications and yourself. One website that I like belongs to Professor Jennifer A. Lewis who is admittedly a research rock star, conducting research on 3D Printing at Harvard. But look at the language and organization she uses to illustrate her multi-faceted research. She makes sense of her very complicated research to a broad audience. She is also using her website to link to all the news and publicity she has received on her work.

Create an elevator pitch:
Certainly, I've said this before, but having a clear and concise elevator pitch on your work can give you a great advantage. This is especially true for when you are meeting Program Officers or colleagues at conferences or when e-introducing yourself to folks who may be able to support you and your work in a variety of ways.

Have an FAQ page
When you're discussing your work with colleagues or laypeople, what questions do they ask? What seems unclear to them? Try to make a note when you're asked questions about your research to identify the hang-ups. You can then use these questions not only to revise and clarify how you talk about your research, but consider making an FAQ sheet that you can hand out at presentations or link to on your new website! An FAQ approach can be an easy-to-read approach to offering clarifying information on your research.

Use social media
At the NORDP conference, I was struck by how many folks get their NIH or NSF updates on twitter or how many are discussing research on facebook. If you're not familiar with these channels, try using the twitter hashtag at your next conference. You'll be able to engage and connect with people interested in the same areas as you. You can follow them and they can follow you. After the conference, continue to tweet about your research, especially any updates or publicity you receive.

Making your research clear and accessible to a wide range of people can grow your reach and ultimately your support and network. So, consider these ideas to build good PR around you and your work!

Tips for using social media to promote your research - Nature
Developing a PR Plan - Entrepreneur

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Conference Networking

Well, conference season is upon us. It's a busy time with travel and simply preparing your own presentations, but make sure that you take a bit of time to strategize about your networking. Conferences are an ideal place to meet with colleagues (new and old) and meet with program officers. All of these connections are valuable. Below are some tips to help you make the best of them.

Before you attend any conference, find some time to identify who you want to meet. Are there agencies you're planning to apply to? See if a Program Officer will be there. Looking for a new collaborator with a certain type of expertise? Identify folks who might fit the bill. 

Seek them out
After you've figured out who you want to meet, look at the conference program to figure out where they'll be, whether they'll be presenting or in a round table. Sometimes, round tables or alternative sessions can be a better place to catch up with people instead of panel sessions that can get very large and make it difficult to talk to folks. Also, consider emailing folks beforehand to set up time to meet for coffee or a brief chat.

Name drop
When meeting someone new, bring up any connections you might have. Do you share a mutual colleague? Do you know someone who went to or worked at their institution? Once you've identified a connection, name drop. People are much more likely to meaningfully engage with you and your research if they have a mutual friend or colleague that serves as a sort of validation for you and your work.

Always follow-up with people. If a Program Officer is interested in your work and asks you to send an abstract on your project, email that to them, preferably within 24 hours while you're still top of mind for them. Also, follow-up with notes to folks after the conference. Consider sending "nice to meet you" notes via snail mail to add a personal touch. Although a follow-up email is fine, a hand-written note can be a nice touch especially when folks are sifting through their email after having been out of the office for the conference.

These tips can help you get the most out of your conference experience and networks, and can help you to grow and enrich your network effectively.

Pro tip: How to maximize networking at conferences - Forbes
How to network at a conference - Wikihow

Monday, April 17, 2017

Planning for a Productive Summer

For many faculty researchers, summer looks like a wide open space where one can achieve all of those goals that needed to be sidelined during the busy year. But, oftentimes, come the end of the summer, these same researchers look back wondering "where did the time go?" and feeling disappointed at all the goals they didn't meet.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this sense of regret that faculty feel at the end of the summer is often attributed to unrealistic expectations and a lack of planning at the start of summer. So, as we have the end of the spring semester in our sights, here are some tips for planning a productive summer:

Plan ahead:
This seems obvious, but in truth many faculty put off planning their summer till after their grading is done and the academic year is wrapped up. But, by the time they feel like they've recovered from a hectic spring, weeks of their summer have passed with nothing to show for it. So, although you are in the throes of the semester, try to find time to sit down and map out your summer before it begins.

Be realistic:
Although summer seems like a great expanse of unstructured time, it's not that long. When you start adding up time for vacation, conferences, childcare, planning for the fall semester, you find your summer is whittled down from the start. So, when planning out your summer, first factor in all those things that are going to take time to begin with, identify what you need to complete this summer to feel good and productive about the summer, and work backwards to plan how you will achieve it. Set benchmarks every few weeks to keep yourself on track. If you find you're having a hard time keeping up, revisit your plan and rework it so that you can still feel productive.

Set a rhythm:
For your research and writing time, create a structure or a habit to keep with it in the summer. Identify when you will write or research (best to pick when you are most productive in your day), choose the days and hours you will commit, identify where you'll do your work (e.g., a home office, your university office, or a coffee shop), and use that rhythm to stay at it.

Take time off:
One of the worst scenarios for the academic's summer is they flail trying to get so much done, aren't able to accomplish what they want, and come back in the fall feeling exhausted and defeated. To avoid this, make sure you give yourself some time off, some time to relax and clear your head. You'll actually find that if you have this time, you can be more productive when you come back to your work.

So, as you head toward the end of the semester, take some time to plan for a fun and productive summer.

Making Summer Work - Audrey Williams June
How one Professor Avoided Summer Slump - Audrey Williams June
How to Make Time for Research and Writing - Chronicle of Higher Education

Monday, April 10, 2017

The NIH Review Process

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a complex organization, so understanding the ins and outs of their processes can be daunting. But, fortunately, they provide many resources and insights into their review process. Depending on the program, the NIH will at times create special study sections to review applications, like those submitted for K programs or in response to an RFA. But, today, I wanted to offer a snapshot of the NIH review process that most applications go through and point you to more resources to better understand the process from the horse's mouth.

Center for Scientific Review (CSR)
Once you've submitted your grant application to the NIH, it is received by the CSR. In the CSR, PhD-level scientists check your grant for completeness and direct it to the appropriate study section and institute. You can request the study section and institute to which your application goes in the PHS Assignment form. This form is also where you identify any reviewers who are inappropriate to review your grant as well as any expertise reviewers should have to review your grant. This information used to go in your application cover letter, but NIH implemented this new form last year to streamline the process.

If you're unsure of which study section and/or institute to direct your application, the NIH has a neat tool to help you assess this. Matchmaker is a tool through the NIH's Reporter, where you enter your abstract and the database will produce a report on success levels by related study sections  and institutes based on how similar proposals have fared.

Study Section
Once they initially check your proposal for completeness and identify the appropriate study section and institute to field your application, the CSR passes your application on to the assigned study section. The Scientific Review Officer (SRO) is responsible for managing their study section. The SRO recruits the reviewers to their study section and manages any conflicts of interest. They also prepare the summary statements for applicants after the review.

The review process within the study section begins with each application being assigned to a primary, secondary, and tertiary reviewer. A reviewer assigned to an application is responsible for reading and reviewing the proposal and submitting an impact score from 1-9 (1 is the best). Based on these initial scores, a certain number of applications are discussed in the study section meeting, where as those with the worst scores are triaged and not discussed. For those discussed, during the study section meeting, the primary reviewer gives a brief presentation on the proposal and its strengths and weaknesses. The secondary reviewer shares any additional perspective on the grant, and the tertiary reviewer shares any other points not yet discussed. Then the whole study section (30-40 people) scores the application. The final score is an average of all scores. The NIH offers a video illustrating this process.

Institute Advisory Council/Board
The best-scored applications out of the study sections are sent on to the institute to which they were assigned. Once there, the staff at the institute develop a grant funding plan based on the priorities of the institute. This plan is then reviewed and amended or approved by the institute's Advisory Council or Board.

Hopefully then you receive a funding notification for your project. But, if not, you'll receive a summary statement with valuable advice for revising and resubmitting your application and be ready for the next time.

CSR Director Video - NIH
Grant Process Overview - NIH 

Friday, March 31, 2017

You want a grant, so what?

This week I was reviewing a well-written grant proposal. The PI outlined the project and illustrated what she expected to learn from the project as well as some of the publication products she anticipated. But, as I finished reading it, I had a nagging feeling. I realized that the question I was left with after reading the proposal was "so what?" I wasn't clear on what difference the project was going to make besides just understanding something better.

I realized that building a case for a grant is really about comprehensively answering the question "so what?" To demonstrate the importance of this question, I turn to an expert, George Heilmeier. Heilmeier is the former director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and is known in the grant development world as he who created Heilmeier's Catechism for grant writing. He asserted that all good proposals answer the following questions:
  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you succeed, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success? 
The fourth question gets to my "so what?" It asks, who will this project make a difference for and why is that difference important? The National Science Foundation (NSF) core criteria parallel the "so what?" as well. For most proposals to the NSF, PIs must describe their project's intellectual merit or the "so what?" for their field and the broader impacts or the "so what?" for the larger society, nation, and/or world?

So, given how grant funding agencies, such as DARPA and the NSF really stress the importance of the "so what?" I wanted to offer you a simple exercise to better hone your answer to this question.

Step 1: Describe why your research project is important and to whom
Step 2: Based on your response, ask yourself, "so what?"
Step 3: Repeat step 2 until you can't come up with anything else
Step 4: Integrate the key stakeholders and important contributions your research will make into your proposal

You can do this exercise in your head, or have a colleague ask you the questions and they can vary the "so what?" type questions based on your answers. But, make sure to capture your responses so that you can use them when you're writing up your case in your proposal.

The Heilmeier Catechism
How not to kill a grant application: The facts of the case thus far - Science

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tips for writing your Specific Aims

I probably don't need to talk about the importance of the Specific Aims section of an NIH grant application, but I will. Remember that when your proposal is reviewed by an NIH Study Section, there are usually three reviewers assigned to read and review your application, but a group of 30-40 reviewers in the study section that score your application. That larger group will usually only see your Specific Aims.

Aside from this, reviewers report they read the Specific Aims first in an application and they often know from the Specific Aims page if they will like the rest of the proposal. The Specific Aims then is the overview of your entire proposal. It's where you first make the case for your project. It's your chance to leave a good first impression.

So, below are some tips to help you strengthen your Specific Aims:

Create a hook:
Start your Specific Aims with a bang. Grab the attention of your reviewers fast. One strategy for doing this is to illustrate the severity of your problem. Often, PIs think that everyone knows how bad the disease they study is. But the truth is there are probably reviewers who don't know. So share the statistics. How many people die or are afflicted by your disease/problem? Or, what are the current costs of addressing it? You want to use your hook to evoke a feeling in your reviewer that something needs to be done!

Describe the state of the field:
Now, if the disease/problem you're studying is so bad, other people have probably been working on it. Briefly describe what other researchers are doing to address the problem, to offer context and to show that you are steeped in the cutting edge research.

Show the gap/need:
After describing the current research, you need to make a case for your project, and this is best done by showing the need or the gap in the research. What has not been done yet that needs to be done to make significant gains against the problem or disease?

Present your solution and show how it meets the need:
After you've shown this need and made the case for it, you're ready to present your project in terms of stating your hypothesis or hypotheses and outlining your specific aims that speak to your hypotheses. Also, as you describe the state of the field, the gap or need, and your project, you also need to show that you or your team is the ideal group to meet the need you describe.

End with your vision:
In many of the Specific Aims pages that I review for our faculty before submitting, I often see them end with their last specific aim. I suggest to them and to you that this is a missed opportunity. People tend to remember what they read first and last, and in a document as important as the Specific Aims, you want your concluding statement to be powerful so that it will stick. So, sum up your aims and then in one or two sentences show the larger vision of your project and your research. 

As you develop your Specific Aims, reach out to colleagues and read as many examples as you can. Note what the author does that is compelling or distracting and integrate the best strategies into your own work. Below are some other articles to help you strengthen your Specific Aims approach.

The Anatomy of a Specific Aims Page - Bioscience Writers
Crafting a Sales Pitch for Your Grant Proposal - Robert Porter