Winning Your First Major Grant [without Data!]
Dr. Charles Daniel Murin, recipient of an NIH R01 for early stage researchers, shares how he strategically used visuals to create a compelling research story in his application, despite having little preliminary data.
So, hopefully, everyone gets a little bit from this, and even though I'm talking from the perspective of someone in America, I do believe that I'll be able to hopefully appeal to people all over the world. Let's see. Alrighty. So I'm going to be discussing part of my journey with getting this R01, and I was the first 1 to receive this as far as I know in the United States as it was just announced at the beginning of last year. So it's very new and not a lot of people know about it. So I hope that people learn a little bit more about the grants, and then also be going into sort of how BioRender was integral into my grant writing process.
So what do you do when you don't have any data and you wanna get an r01? Well, Stephen iKatz was the director of the national institutes of arthritis and musculoskeletal diseases from 1995 to 2018 when he unfortunately passed away. But he's always been a very strong advocate of early career scientists and getting them training and mentoring as well as providing opportunities for getting money for funding their research. And as a part of the NIH initiative to do this, they decided to create a new R01 that would be for early stage investigators. So the point of the R01 was that it would allow early stage investigators that didn't have a lot of data to be able to compete for substantial funding that would not necessarily be available to some of the more tenured professors that would be competing for these same grants.
So these grants would be scored separately and they would have separate criteria. And 1 of them specifically was that this would be a new research direction for the PI. So it couldn't be something that they've already been doing for many years. And 1 of the most interesting and challenging parts of this grant is that no preliminary data is allowed. So I came into this with some great ideas and it didn't have any data after failing to get a couple other grants. And then this kinda popped up on my radar, and I thought it would be a really great opportunity. So I'm not gonna go into all the details of exactly, you know, what is involved in getting this grant, but definitely more information can be found there on that link, and this recording will be available so you can follow that.
So just to tell you what an ESI is, this to someone who has completed their terminal degree, whether that be a medical degree or a PhD within the past 10 years and has not received significant funding. And what is considered substantial. There's sort of blurred lines for that, but myself, I had no funding at all. So I started with finding the PA, which is the program announcing this, and you can find that online still. That gets updated periodically. But right now, I think it's still open until sometime in 2022. From there, I decided to let my admins know about this branch and figured out all the deadlines.
So that was sort of the first big one, figuring out the deadlines. From there, I would encourage everyone to do this 1 starting grant. He did identify, especially at the NIH, who your program officer is. So for the Katz, there is someone you can contact when you go to do your research online, and you can email them and find out who your program officer is. And, loosely, I just sent in my CV and said, this is generally what I'm thinking about doing. And then they will try to match you with someone where they believe you'll be, you know, most appropriately guided. And then from there, I decided to start looking at other successful R01s. Now since there were no other grants awarded for Katz, I had to sort of look at equivalent grants, which are indeed R01s, So I talked to my PI. I talked to my colleagues and started looking at R01’s.
So the grant is composed of several sections. And you definitely need to have all of these that you'll be submitting through an online process. But I'm gonna just point out a few of the ones that are most important and sort of the direction I took for this. So I started with my specific aims, and I'll show you kind of what that would look like and I think this is a great way to sort of outline what you want to do in your grant. Typically, there's 2 to 3 aims. I wouldn't go any more than 4. You can also do sub aims. So that's just a great way to get its 1 page. You start with that, and then you can go from there, and it makes it a lot easier. From there, then I'd write an abstract or project summary.
There's a limit on the number of lines. I think it's 30 lines of text. And this is a great thing to start in the beginning as well once you've done your specific aims because that will be followed up with letters of support. Since this is an early stage grant and you don't have preliminary data, you have to build a story of I've got a network of people that can support me and complete this research, and they'll provide me the guidance that I need going into a new field, a new direction for myself. So having that summary is a great way to reach out to your colleagues or potential collaborators to say, hi, I'm applying for this grant. It's new. And I would love your support in this process.
Here is the summary of what I'm planning on doing. Definitely, the most important part of the grant is the research strategy. So I'll detail that out. And you definitely wanna cite as you go. I use a recoup, and I just absolutely love it. So if you've never used or I think it's way better than any of the others I mean, you can fight me on this, but I think it's way better than any of the other citation software out there. And then 1 of the other most important parts and I think that was sort of crucial to me getting this is the new directions page. So this is a special part of this R01 that isn't typically required and standard R01's the it's a single page, and I'll go into detail on what that evolves. Facilities equipment, you can pull from existing resources. Often, there'll be colleagues that you're into that would already have these, wherever you're proposing to do your research.
There's a biographical sketch. This is also standard for the NIH. They just changed the way they did this recently, so you want to make sure that you talk to your PI about how to get that done, do your research on that. But you have to fashion it for the grant specifically. I wouldn't just pull the 1 that you used previously. So just some general strategies on writing the grant and starting with a specific aims page. I actually used a figure that was mostly generated from BioRender and my specific aims page. So it's a great example of showing how much space it actually takes up. So I'm really emphasizing the use of visuals and downplaying words. When I do use text, it's condensed as much as possible. So often I'll write everything, and then I'll go back and I'll read a paragraph and I'll say to myself, how can I push this down to the least amount of text possible? I think that's pretty good.
Then seeing as there's only so many pages allowed. I think there's only 12 allowed for the research strategy and a single page for specific aims but something I think was very helpful in this instance was the use of keywords. So you can see some of those listed there and then they're reflected in my grant page here where I actually highlighted and emphasized these specific keywords that I'm working with. And then using bold, italicized, underlying statements really help these readers, these reviewers hone in on things that are most important and make it a lot easier to read. So from there, you have your significance pages. This is all a part of the research strategy, which is 12 pages total. And again, since this is available, I'm not going to go into these details. But it's there listed for you as just a helpful guide in outlining your own grant, especially if it's your first R01. So there's a significant section which has several subsections that I wrote about a paragraph or so for each one.
Your approach is by far the longest. So this is detailing and, you know, every little thing you're planning on doing. Subaims go here, experimental methods. And then you end with summary and expected outcomes. There's also, I think, a very important section that helped me out a lot with scientific rigor. So how are you going to integrate scientific rigor into your grant? Talking about sex as a biological variable, especially if you're doing biology, It's extremely important to include a statement in there. And then I leave the very last paragraph as sort of the final punch. And you could say really anything that you want to in that section about where you're going in the future and sort of like how you're gonna save the world with this R01.
So as I mentioned earlier, there's also this insert, which is the new directions. And this is really addressing the core of the program announced which is how is this a new change of direction in your research? So I kind of took a narrative approach to this where, again, you can read this if you want later on, but it's really a story of how I came up with my idea through that epiphany moment. And then what you know, how that pivoted me in a new direction.
So a great way to do that was I used this table and again, I just sort of made this up because I didn't have anything to go off of. But maybe this will be a great standard for other people applying. Where I sort of summarize these topics, such as what I'm studying, the type of technology I'm using, the virus in this case, the biology I'm looking at in the field of study and, you know, how I had experience in that area, but, you know, then how I was changing the direction.
And so for reviewers, this makes it very obvious why you're very well suited for this program. And then the last thing I want tp say on this before I go into sort of the figures is I also, then at this point, had decided where I was going to apply so you can find out who's in the study section and start going through who's going to be in the study section.
Look at their own research And two study sections are going to be appropriate for what you're doing, but where you're gonna have reviewers that are most excited about what you're doing. And then you can request in your cover letter for your grant to be sent to that study section. And you can include keywords throughout your entire grant that will be appealing to those reviewers. So my approach to figure making, especially with BioRender, and and anytime throughout my career, has always been that a figure should speak for itself. Anyone should be able to look at this figure and know exactly what's going on without the use of text or explanation. So I really love BioRender for that because they have a lot of standard symbols, especially since I work with antibodies, receptors and cells. It was very, very easy to assemble. I like to hear what I'm highlighting as an overall concept if I'm studying NK cells and infected hostiles. But, specifically, I'm interested in mechanisms. So, you know, it did pop out, and then I'm using colors across the rainbow to indicate these different types of antibodies that I previously studied.
But again, using pre-made BioRender icons that are in their standard colors that are already well chosen and appealing to the eye. No need to change any of that really helps with this. And again, sort of the minimum use of words. And just trying to keep the core concepts very simple. I like doing these circles or or or blowouts where you can sort of indicate things like that. But I think that just having a figure that speaks for itself is crucial when you're applying to a grant with a broad audience of reviewers.
So developing a figure in BioRender, I always start with the sketch. So this is an early sketch of 1 of the figures I wanted to make showing the sort of, like, technique that I was planning on using. And obviously, it's very, very rough. And I did kinda go through rounds of this working. This isn't working. But unfortunately, I didn't I guess, it didn't save those. I only have sort of the final figure But I guess the point I wanted to make here is that sketching out your ideas and then using again, like, pre-made symbols in BioRender makes it very, very easy. You can just simply take an element from your sketch, search for what you think that is. In this case, you know, I say, like, apoptotic cell, there's a really great image of that and it makes life really, really easy. And also, it's a lot easier to sort of organize how things are going to be laid out in a sketch and then go from there. So the big thing about this grant is that I didn't have any data but there was data that existed in the limiter. Specifically, I was using a new type of microscope called MINFLEX.
And this is a really great figure from one of the seminal papers on MINFLEX, but some of the questions I was asking is, you know, what would the data look like in real life? And, you know, here's a great example. What worked and didn't work in their figures? And how can I distill this down to something that's going to make sense to reviewers? And specifically, I want to make sure that it's understandable, not just to an expert, but to you know, a general audience. And so then you can be sure that even though your scientist reviewers are very, very intelligent, They may not know a lot about the subject. You're not going to be insulting their intelligence by distilling things down. So then you know, I translated into, you know, what I would say is fake data. What do I expect to see? So I had a nice 3 panel section where I showed the experimental setup, a detail of what I think, you know, what the hypothesis is of what I'm gonna be looking at, and then how that translates into quantifiable data. So, again, I have the instrument I'm gonna be using. What does this look like? How do I set this up? Again, I used color to depict time, there's great tools in BioRinder for making this happen with gradients.
All of my labels were done in BioRender, and then that's translated to obvious phenotypes that I'm trying to see where I've got 1 high ADCC with fast motion, 1 with low motion, no ADCC. So very obvious differences in phenotypes with colors. Visual depiction of your hypothesis, sort of just lining things back up.
And then using preset colors again, really pleasing colors of contrast that are already set in BioRender, preset shapes, and then the use of curves made this something where I basically went from, what does the data look like in the real publication to what do I expect to see in my particular instance? And then the last thing I'll kind of close it up on before I take some questions is the great templates that BioRender has been acquiring.
So one thing I wanted to show in my grant was how this new technique of minFlex was different from typical techniques. And there's a great template on what Storm is, which is a type of super resolution microscopy. So I kind of then picked and chose what I liked and didn't like, added in some real data from confocal instead, and influx data and and then, you know, put it together for myself. These are very easily editable templates and there's, I think, probably thousands of them at this point.
And then the kind of final figure in my grant got distilled down to something that was really simple, which is, you know, what is this and how does it work? So with that, I'm gonna just close-up, but I wanna think people at Columbia and Scripts that wrote me letters, guided me. I did a lot of editing. I started very, very early and I had a lot of help from my administrative staff. I talked to them before after they told me that they were in the room and my grant was being reviewed. That there was a lot of excitement about it, and they just were so important to do this process. And then you can find me on social media. I'm working on starting a lab, and I'm applying for faculty positions. Website is coming soon.