Thursday, July 21, 2016

Don't play Pokemon Go while driving or doing research

I have a four-year-old and a technology-geeked spouse, so you can imagine that the two of them are partaking in the latest Pokemon Go craze. Since it came out, I've seen new people walk through my neighborhood playing and already the reports of accidents related to this game are being reported. I've noticed more car accidents lately, and worry that people are actually playing this while driving (but I hope I'm just paranoid). This game is only the latest in a growing technology craze that while exciting can also add to distractions that researchers find when they're trying to focus.

So, I wanted to seize this opportunity to offer some tactics for managing your technology in case you find it starting to manage you.

email for most of us is a looming load of work that is waiting for us each morning and continues pinging you throughout the day. Certainly, it is important and if you ignore it for too long, you're bound to pay the price later (e.g., your Dean catches you in the hall, saying, "Did you get my email?"). So here are a couple of tips to consider to stay effective and still manage your email.
  • Don't check email first thing: for many who are most productive in the morning, it is wise to start with your most important work first thing in the day and save email till later.
  • Set times during the day when you check email.
  • Create an organization system and rules in your email and delete messages you don't need.
  • Turn emails into tasks and then get rid of the email clutter.
  • Close email when you're not working on it. (the sound alert and temptation to open email when you're doing something else can get the better of you).
Now, for many of us, phones are another email device, but it's also your social media device. I sometimes catch myself in a social media spiral where I go from email to facebook to twitter to email again. So, be cognizant of your phone as a distraction. Here are some tips:
  • Be intentional and honest about why you're checking your phone. Is it necessary? Are you procrastinating? And make an intentional decision. (Deschene, 2013)
  • Consider putting your phone on silent and out of view when trying to focus (note: for parents or those "on call" in any sense, this may not be realistic)
  • If you have a social media checking habit, allow yourself to check your phone as a reward for doing solid work on a project. (maybe set a time limit for your reward so you don't get sucked in)
  • Remember, multitasking is a myth, if you're checking your phone in a meeting or while on your office phone, you're not focusing well on anything.
As we're still in summer break, and hopefully you're experiencing a reprieve from student emails, take some time to consider how you will manage your email, social media, and other technologies this year to be your most productive and focused self. And, go ahead, play Pokemon Go when you need a break from your research, or take a peek to see if any pokemon are lurking in your lab or the library every so often, but be intentional and safe about it. :)

Managing email effectively - mindtools
Multitasking - mindtools
Manage your day-to-day: Build your routine, find your focus & sharpen your creative mind - Glei & Belsky, 2013)

Friday, July 15, 2016

What's the NSF about? Science!

Next week begins the due dates for the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant applications. These are prestigious awards for Assistant Professors looking to fund an outstanding research project with an exceptional education component. Now, this blog is not for folks working on their CAREER applications, because those folks are feverishly completing their applications! But, for those of you not as familiar with the NSF, I thought I'd offer a bird's-eye-view profile.

As the title of this blog refers, the NSF is all about Science. This probably doesn't seem particularly insightful, but a couple of years ago, I attended an NSF conference where one long-time Program Officer spent time explaining that at the end of the day, the NSF wants to fund good Science. As a research development person, I'm always prompting PI's to consider the implications or potential impact of their work. And, that is still important to the NSF, but if those implications/impact aren't founded on strong, rigorous, and cutting-edge science, then the NSF will pass on even the most exciting of projects.

Now, as soon as I tell you the NSF is all about Science, I'm going to tell you that they're also about education. Now, again, the NSF is first and foremost interested in funding great science. But, they are also invested in building the pipeline of future STEM professionals. For example, the CAREER awards are given to researchers who propose an innovative research project, as well as an education plan that is integrated with that research. They want to see the research that they fund benefiting and including tomorrow's researchers. They are particularly interested in STEM education that focuses on women, people of color, and others who are underrepresented in STEM.

Broader impact, intellectual merit
Most NSF grant applications ask applicants to define and describe the broader impact and intellectual merit of their project.

The NSF describes these criteria:
  • Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge.
  • Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. (PAPPG, pg III-2)
Thus, Intellectual Merit includes any aspects of a research project that will contribute to its field. Ask yourself, how will your research move the needle for other research in your area? Broader Impacts is a bit more visionary. What difference will your research make beyond your immediate field? Who will your research benefit and in what way? Might your research improve health, society, technology? Will it save money? Or will it saves lives? All of these constitute your broader impacts at NSF.

The NSF has a diverse group of 10 research areas: Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources, Engineering, Environmental Research and Education; Geosciences; Integrative Activities; International Science and Engineering; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Once you identify which directorate your research might fit in, it's always a good idea to get in touch with the NSF Program Officer in your area.

The NSF is a great organization and makes heavy investment in STEM research, but always remember, when you go to write your grant proposal for the NSF, they are Science first!

NSF Home Page
NSF Research Areas
Additional NSF Resources/Tips - ORDE 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Planning and visioning

Pinned on the wall next to my desk is a messy, hand-drawn career/life timeline I drew for myself on the back of an airplane ticket from Denver to Atlanta in 2012. It goes back to when I was 21 to allow for some retrospect and is mapped out to when I'm 50 (I'm about in the middle of this right now). It includes career benchmarks and anticipated transitions and even when I anticipated having my second child. It then notes how old both of my children would be at these different transition periods.

My inclusion of my children and their ages in my timeline reminds me of something Dr. Jean Kutner, Professor in the School of Medicine once said: "There's no such thing as a work/life balance, there's just life." At any rate, given that we're nearing the middle of the academic summer break, it seems like a good time to think about and reflect on planning and visioning. Below, I walk you through some approaches to visioning and planning

To start off, consider where you want to be in about five years. As a researcher, what do you want to be known for? What projects do you want to have completed? Based on your five year vision, you want to work backwards to identify benchmarks in three major areas: funding, publications, and data collection.

Based on the goals you've identified in year five, begin by identifying what projects you will need to complete to achieve them. Once you've done this, start to identify when you will need to secure funding for the major projects you've identified. Then take another step back and identify the pilot data and/or the publications you will need to be competitive for the funding you will seek, and that should point to where you should be starting.

Below is a generic five year timeline that asks questions at different points that you can use to fill in the blanks:

As noted in the focus and flexibility video below, your research career needs to be "laser-focused," but should also be flexible. You need to be open to the right opportunities and you need to say no to those opportunities that might take you off your course. Always bear in mind your end goal even as it too may evolve.

Rethinking Work/Life Balance - ORDE Seminar with Dr. Jean Kutner
Maintaing Focus and Flexibility - ORDE Seminar with Dr. Jean Kutner
Balancing Competing Professional Commitments - SGIM, Dr. Jean Kutner (See page 9)

Friday, June 24, 2016

NIH Updates: Rigor and Reproducibility

You've probably heard the discussion around NIH projects and the questions around rigor and responsibility taking place in the last few years. But what does this mean for your next grant application?

The updates around rigor and reproducibility focus in four areas: premise, design, variables, and authentication.

Premise: Sure, PIs have always needed to show preliminary data or results when applying to the NIH, but now you need to take it a bit further. In addition to discussing your preliminary work, you must also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of it. You must now vet the foundation of your project in your grant application.

Design: The NIH is expecting more rigorous experimental design; their definition of rigorous includes the use of methods that are reproducible. As they state, "Robust results are obtained using methods designed to avoid bias and can be reproduced under well-controlled and reported experimental conditions." (NIH website, 2016)

Variables: A couple years ago, Sally Rocky, former Director of Extramural Research at the NIH, reported that a good majority of projects funded by the NIH did not include female animal models. In response to this particular overarching bias, the NIH now expects that sex as well as other relevant variables be accounted for in project design in funded grant applications.

Authentication: According to Hughes (2007), "between 18-36% of cell lines might be misidentified or cross-contaminated." Thus the NIH "expects that key biological and/or chemical resources will be regularly authenticated to ensure their identity and validity for use in the proposed studies" (NIH website, 2016). For AMC researchers, the Barbara Davis Center's Molecular Biology Service Center
does offer authentication services.

The NIH put the following diagram together to look at the various reasons and implications for their new rigor and reproducibility. The link and other resources are available below.

NIH New Grant Guidelines Diagram
Updated Application Instructions
Presentation from the Department of Medicine - Jenny Kemp, PhD

Monday, June 20, 2016

New investigator grants

ORDE has spent the last several weeks updating our New Investigator e-book, which is just out. I thought I would focus the blog on some things to consider when looking for a new investigator grant program. Below are four questions you'll want to answer before applying to any new investigator grant program.

How does the agency define new investigator?
If you're a new investigator, you're a new investigator, right? Well, maybe. Different agencies define new investigator differently. Some are looking at how many years since you received your terminal degree(s). Some are looking at how long you've been in your research position. And, some are looking at whether or not you've received major funding previously.

Is it a mentored grant?
Some new investigator programs are the same sort of research-focused programs as those that are not for new investigators. And others are considered mentored awards, where in your proposal you must address your own career development plan, and also identify a mentor who will work with you throughout the award period. The NIH Career Development or K awards are generally framed in this way. While K applicants must identify a research project in their proposal, the larger focus is on the candidate, their mentor, and their career development. On the other hand, the NSF's CAREER program is research-focused. While applicants are wise to show how their CAREER project fits in with their and their department's larger research goals, this is peripheral to the research project itself. Other agencies run the gamut.

Do your past grants affect eligibility?
At some agencies, the new investigator programs are targeted at bringing very early career investigators and their research up to speed. Thus, if you have shown that you are competitive for major funding previously, this could make you ineligible for some new investigator awards. For instance, at the NIH, if you have secured major funding as the PI, e.g., received an R01, you lose your new investigator status and would not be a good candidate for a K award. But, for the NSF CAREER program, about half  of CAREER awardees have received previous awards from the NSF and it puts them in a better place to compete for the CAREER and certainly does not make them ineligible.

What are the goals of the program?
The questions above really all lead to this question. Before you decide whether or not to apply for a new investigator grant, you must first understand the goals of the agency and the new investigator program. Is the agency hoping to create new independent investigators with their program by funding career development? Or is the agency looking to promote those newer investigators who have already proven that they are independent and productive researchers? When you understand the program, you can consider if it is a good fit for you at your current stage.

New Investigator e-book - ORDE
ORDE Funding resources

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The proposal abstract: Sell your idea early

Last week I attended the annual research development conference (NORDP), and had a chance to hear from my favorite grant coach, Robert Porter, PhD. Dr. Porter was touting the importance of the grant abstract for selling an idea to reviewers at the outset. More specifically, for NIH applicants, he was referring to the Specific Aims and for NSF applicants, the Project Summary. He made the point that when reading grants, reviewers make up their minds about a proposal in the first two paragraphs or at least in the first couple pages. Thus, it is essential that your core argument fall in the opening of your proposal.

Dr. Porter recommended the following three paragraph formula for writing your abstract:

Paragraph 1: Lay out your problem
  1. Grab the reader's interest
  2. Explain why it's important
  3. Summarize the state of the art and limitations
  4. Describe challenges to solving the problem
You want to begin your proposal by driving home the urgency for your project. Explaining what's wrong, what needs to be done, and setting up the importance and need for your research is essential. Porter suggests that you use words like "exciting," or "unprecedented" to convey confidence. However, I find that this language often comes across as hyperbole. It's always better to show how your project is exciting or unprecedented instead of just saying it is.

Paragraph 2: State your solution
  1. Describe your concept and credibility
  2. Describe the project's fundamental purpose
This is the section where you want to put the meat on the bones of your argument. You've communicated the need and excitement for your project, now you have to give your reviewers confidence that you can actually deliver something substantial.

Paragraph 3: Create a vision

  1. Show how your work will advance the field
  2.  Envision the world with the problem solved
This is really the icing on the cake that directly relates your vision for your project with that of the agency to which you're applying. Show the big picture of your project; let them know that this is the just the exciting start to even larger results. But, at the same time, never forget that your agency also has a vision and a plan for what they want to do. Your vision should be aligned perfectly with theirs and you should say how they are aligned directly.

Crafting a Sales Pitch for Your Grant Proposal - Robert Porter
Six Critical Questions to Launch a Successful Grant Proposal - Robert Porter

Friday, May 20, 2016

Getting and giving peer feedback

Peer feedback is really a crucial tool for faculty researchers. It is core to the review processes for publications and for grant proposals. But even beyond this, peer feedback is essential for getting your manuscript or your grant proposal into shape before you submit. However, giving and receiving feedback is oftentimes an overlooked skill, but one that can make all the difference for you and your colleagues when employed well.

At ORDE, we recommend that PIs get three internal reviews of their grant and integrate the feedback before submitting. One of your reviewers should be a layperson and the other two should be experts in your field, but not familiar with your project (you don't want your peer reviewer intuiting things in your proposal that aren't there; you want them to identify what's missing).

Getting feedback
When asking for feedback from your peers, be specific with the kind of feedback you want. I've found that when asking for feedback on my writing, if I don't explain what sort of feedback I'm looking for, my reviewers tend to resort to their grammar school training and focus on punctuation and spelling rather than advising me on clarity.

Along with giving your reviewers instructions on what you want them to look for in your proposal, also give them enough time to adequately accomplish the task. If you're waiting till the last minute to pull things together, and then dropping it on your colleague's desk, not only will you frustrate that colleague and likely get sub-par feedback, but you probably won't have time to really use the feedback they do give you. On that same point, give your colleague a heads up. Ask them if they can review your proposal weeks in advance, tell them when you will send it to them, and agree on when they can have feedback back to you.

Lastly, be sure to thank your peer(s) for investing their time in you and your proposal. Make sure you offer to return the favor and let them know how important their feedback was to you. And, circle back around when you get that grant to thank them for their role in your success.

Giving feedback
When your colleague comes back around to ask you to review her proposal, some of the same tips apply. First of all, ask your colleague to plan ahead to ensure you have adequate time to review the proposal and she has adequate time to incorporate useful suggestions. Also, ask your colleague what she wants you to look for. Is she still tweaking her idea? Is she open to methodological suggestions? Does she want feedback on clarity or persuasiveness? If she asks you to proof it, you may want to suggest that they find an editor for that.

Giving feedback doesn't seem like a difficult concept, but many folks are uncomfortable with giving constructive feedback to a friend or colleague. You don't want to hurt any one's feelings after all. I actually think the reason people stick to grammar and spelling feedback is because they're nervous about offending a colleague. Yet, constructive feedback is essential to get better. However, good editors or reviewers understand how sensitive people are about their work. The editing adage, "murder your darlings" is often used, because getting feedback on your latest pride and joy can feel quite personal.

So, to deliver your necessary but perhaps sensitive feedback, some suggest a sandwich approach. Begin by telling your colleague everything you liked about their proposal, then move into some constructive critique, and end with more positive. In using this approach, it's important to be sincere in what you found as strengths. And, instead of dividing up the positive attributes, share all of them at the front end and finish by describing how excited you are about their project.

Also important to giving good feedback is being specific with your critique, and making sure your advice is usable. We don't call it constructive criticism for nothing. Negative feedback that is not useful or can't be applied is just mean.

I included a discussion of getting and giving feedback, because to be successful, you need to do both. If you make it a habit to ask for feedback but never find time to give it, then it won't belong before your peers are too busy to look at your proposal. Reciprocity is the name of the peer feedback game.

Giving and Receiving Feedback: A Guide to the Use of Peers in Self Assessment - UTS
The Delicate Art of Giving Feedback - Harvard Business Review