Q&A with NIGMS-Funded PECASE Winners

Each year, NIH nominates outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists beginning their independent research careers. The scientists are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route and community service activities. Among this year’s PECASE recipients (nominated in 2014) are two NIGMS grantees, Tufts University’s Aimee Shen Exit icon (who started her career at the University of Vermont) and Montana State University’s Blake Wiedenheft Exit icon (who was the inaugural NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecturer). Both scientists launched their labs with support from our Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which fosters health-related research and enhances the competitiveness of investigators at institutions in states with historically low levels of NIH funding.

Photo of Blake Wiedenheft (top) and Aimee Shen (bottom).

Below, they answer questions about their research and community service efforts, offer advice to other early career scientists, and share their experiences with the IDeA program.

What is the focus of your research?

Blake Wiedenheft: Viruses that infect bacteria (i.e., bacteriophages) are the most abundant biological entities on earth. The selective pressures imposed by these pervasive predators have a profound impact on the composition and the behavior of microbial communities in every ecological setting. In my lab, we rely on a combination of techniques from bioinformatics, genetics, biochemistry and structural biology to understand the mechanisms that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection.

Aimee Shen: My lab studies Clostridium difficile, the leading cause of healthcare-associated infection in the United States. C. difficile forms metabolically dormant cells known as spores that allow the microbe to survive exit from the gastrointestinal tract of a mammalian host. My research is directed at understanding how C. difficile spores form in order to transmit infection and how they germinate and transform into disease-causing cells to initiate infection.

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Trending Young in New and Early Stage Investigator MIRA

Dr. Jon Lorsch

The MIRA presentation at the September 2016 Advisory Council meeting begins at 17:13.

Following up on the previous post regarding the first MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators, we issued awards to a total of 94 grantees. In addition to ensuring that we are funding the highest quality science across areas associated with NIGMS’ mission, a major goal is to support a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics and investigators. One step in this effort is to make sure that existing skews in the system are not exacerbated during the MIRA selection process. To assess this, we compared the gender, race/ethnicity and age of those MIRA applicants who received an award with those of the applicants who did not receive an award, as well as with New and Early Stage Investigators who received competitive R01 awards in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015.

We did not observe any significant differences in the gender or race/ethnicity distributions of the MIRA grantees as compared to the MIRA applicants who did not receive an award. Both groups were roughly 25% female and included ≤10% of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. These proportions were also not significantly different from those of the new and early stage R01 grantees. Thus although the MIRA selection process did not yet enhance these aspects of the diversity of the awardee pool relative to the other groups of grantees, it also did not exacerbate the existing skewed distribution.

We did observe significant differences among the mean ages of the MIRA grantees, MIRA applicants who did not receive an award and the R01-funded grantees. The MIRA grantees are 1.5 years younger on average than those MIRA applicants who did not receive an award (37.2 vs. 38.7 years, p<0.05), and about 2 years younger than the FY 2015 R01-funded Early Stage Investigators (37.2 vs. 39.1 years, p<0.001). The R01-funded New Investigators in FY 2015, a pool which includes a few individuals older than 60 years, average an age of 45.6 years. This selection for funding investigators earlier is a promising feature of the first round of MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators. As noted at the recent meeting of our Advisory Council, where Jon presented these data, 37 years is still relatively late for investigators to be getting their first major NIH grant. We will continue to monitor this issue with the goal of further decreasing that figure.

First MIRA Awards to New and Early Stage Investigators

UPDATE: The MIRA FOA for early stage investigators has been reissued.

We have begun making grant awards resulting from responses to RFA-GM-16-003 (R35), the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) for New and Early Stage Investigators pilot program. We received 320 applications in areas related to NIGMS’ mission, and they were reviewed by four special emphasis panels organized by the NIH Center for Scientific Review. We anticipate making 93 awards, which is more than we estimated in the funding opportunity announcement (FOA); the corresponding success rate is 29.1%.

The awards will be for a 5-year project period, as is typically the case for NIGMS R01 awards to new and early stage investigators. Most awards will be for the requested and maximum amount of $250,000 in annual direct costs, with an average of $239,000 and median of $250,000. In Fiscal Year 2015, NIGMS R01 awards to new or early stage investigators averaged $209,000 in annual direct costs (median of $198,000) and had a 24.4% success rate. During the same period, all competing NIGMS R01 awards averaged $236,000 in annual direct costs (median of $210,000) and had a 28.8% success rate. Thus, the MIRA pilot program had success rates similar to those of comparable R01 applications and offered some direct financial benefit to this group of applicants. We expect other benefits of the MIRA program, including increased funding stability and research flexibility, reductions in time spent writing and reviewing grant applications and improved distribution of NIGMS funding, will accrue among these investigators and the community at large as implementation of the MIRA program continues.

You can find more information about the awards on NIH RePORTER by entering RFA-GM-16-003 in the FOA field; however, the record of funded grants will not be complete until after the end of Fiscal Year 2016 (September 30). Because the initial budget period of MIRA awards will be offset by existing NIGMS grant support from other mechanisms (e.g., career awards), the first-year budget of a MIRA may be lower than the annual funding level used to calculate the average and median amounts shown above. We plan to post a detailed analysis of MIRAs after we have issued all the awards. We’ve previously posted information on NIGMS R01 award sizes and success rates for new and early stage investigators.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re planning to reissue the MIRA FOA for early stage investigators in the near future.

You can find additional information about the program on our MIRA web page.

Early Notice: MIRA Funding Opportunity for Early Stage Investigators

UPDATE: The MIRA FOA for early stage investigators has been reissued.

Many people have contacted me wondering whether NIGMS is going to reissue the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) for New and Early Stage Investigators (R35). We are planning to further test the MIRA concept for early career investigators and expect to publish a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) this summer. Applications would be due in the fall.

As announced in the notice of intent to publish this FOA, the program will be similar to last year—except that it will be open only to NIH-defined early stage investigators (ESIs). Investigators can request an extension of their ESI status for certain specified reasons. The new announcement will include some other changes, so please be sure to read the entire FOA when it comes out.

Once the forthcoming FOA is published in the NIH Guide, we will provide more details here and will update the MIRA webpage. In the meantime, we encourage ESIs with expertise and insights in any area of science within the NIGMS mission to consider applying.

Know others who might be interested in this FOA? Please share this early notice with them.