Second Annual Early Career Investigator Lecture for Undergraduate Students

NIGMS' Early Career Investigator Lecture with speaker Namandjé N. Bumpus, Ph.D.

Last year, we launched the NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecture series. Open to everyone in the scientific community, the lectures are directed at undergraduate students to introduce them to cutting-edge science while inspiring them to pursue biomedical research careers. The series also highlights the achievements of some of NIGMS’ early career grantees.

I’m excited to share that the 2017 lecture will be presented by Namandjé Bumpus, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine-division of clinical pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Namandjé is an NIGMS-funded recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Her lecture, “Drug Metabolism, Pharmacogenetics and the Quest to Personalize HIV Treatment and Prevention,” will take place on the NIH campus on Wednesday, April 5, from 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT. It will be videocast and archived on the NIH videocasting site.

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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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More Information About New and Early Stage Investigator MIRA Outcomes

There has been ongoing discussion—both here and in the general scientific community—related to the first MIRA awards to New and Early Stage Investigators (NI/ESI). One question that arose was why applications were administratively withdrawn. Both the NIH Center for Scientific Review and multiple NIGMS staff members, including the program director with a portfolio of grants closest to the applicant’s area of science, screened the applications. Of the withdrawn applications, a majority (~80%) were returned prior to review because they proposed research that fell outside of the NIGMS mission. Others were withdrawn because the applicant was not eligible for the FOA. After review, some applications were withdrawn because the PI accepted another award that was mutually exclusive with the MIRA. As recommended on the MIRA website and elsewhere, we encourage anyone who intends to apply for the Early Stage Investigator MIRA to discuss their plans with the appropriate NIGMS program director to determine whether the proposed research area is within the mission of the Institute and if the applicant is eligible to apply.

A major NIGMS goal is to support a broad portfolio that is diverse in research topics, approaches, institutions and investigators. This means we are looking carefully at the outcomes of awards, including gender and race/ethnicity data. We are also trying to take proactive steps to prevent bias during the review, for instance by covering the topic as part of reviewer orientations that take place several weeks before the MIRA study sections meet.

In our recent summary of MIRA applicant and awardee demographics, we looked to see how applications from underrepresented groups compared to those from well-represented groups (White and Asian). The p-value for a difference between the distributions of funded and unfunded applications from these groups was 0.63, meaning that there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. We also compared the MIRA success rates to those of ESI applicants for NIGMS R01s in fiscal years (FY) 2011-2015 (Table 1).

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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.

Moving Further Afield

In recent talks for iBiology Exit icon  and TEDx Exit icon, NIGMS grantee Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado proposes that because so much of biomedical research focuses on only a handful of model organisms we are limiting our knowledge of biology. He suggests that many important discoveries lie waiting in species that have not yet been the subjects of sufficient investigation. This is a topic of interest to us as well; in fact, Dorit Zuk, director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, is currently leading an internal working group that’s examining the varied landscape of organisms studied by NIGMS grantees and the new scientific questions that could be answered using a diversity of organisms. We’ll be discussing these topics in future posts.

In addition to the number of organisms we study, other aspects of the biomedical research system may be limiting the breadth of our knowledge. For example, does the expectation that junior faculty work on a problem closely related to their postdoctoral research constrain our explorations to “islands” of study, leaving vast areas under- or unexplored?

The forces keeping biomedical junior faculty within their postdoctoral research areas include the expectations of faculty search committees, grant review panels and funding agencies, as well as the promotion policies of academic institutions. Interestingly, in the chemical sciences, junior faculty are usually expected to develop projects that are distinct from their postdoctoral work, which often involves moving into completely new areas of study. Why the sociology of chemistry evolved so differently in this regard from other fields related to biomedical research is an interesting question.

Should the biomedical research enterprise change its expectations to empower junior researchers to move further away from their postdoctoral work when they start their independent research careers? Would this accelerate the pace of discovery? New programs such as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators give us an opportunity to revise our expectations for researchers at the beginning of their independent careers. Would this be desirable? What might we look for in assessing outcomes? If we, as funders, successfully made such a change in expectations, would the rest of the research ecosystem make parallel changes to support efforts by junior scientists to leave their home “islands” and move into new territory?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

MIRA for Early Stage Investigators: FOA and Webinar

UPDATE: The September 27 webinar slides and video, and answers to frequently asked questions have been posted.

We have released the latest funding opportunity announcement (FOA) for the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) pilot program. This FOA, while similar to last year’s announcement, is intended only for early stage investigators. This eligibility change and other modifications were made to further test the MIRA mechanism under carefully controlled conditions. MIRA supports investigators’ overall program of research within the NIGMS mission through a single, unified grant rather than individual project grants. Applications are due by November 4, 2016. The earliest start date is July 2017.

We’ll hold a webinar to discuss this FOA and answer questions about the program on Tuesday, September 27, from 3-4 p.m. EDT. Participants will be able to submit questions using the chat feature. We plan to post the archived webinar and slides on the MIRA webpage after the event.

We receive many questions about eligibility. NIH defines an early stage investigator as one who is within 10 years of completing his/her terminal research degree (e.g., Ph.D.) or is within 10 years of completing medical residency (or the equivalent). The investigator must also have not yet received a substantial independent NIH research award (e.g., R01, DP1 or DP2, SC1). Extension of the period of ESI eligibility can be requested for certain specified reasons.

NIGMS plans to issue additional FOAs for MIRA later this year with broadened eligibility for awards to be issued in Fiscal Year 2018.

For additional information, check the MIRA webpage, email me or call me at 301-594-0828.

Please help us get the word out by sharing this information with your colleagues and anyone else who might be interested in applying.

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.

New Early Career Investigator Lecture for Undergraduate Students

Blake WiedenheftI’m very pleased to announce a new annual lecture to highlight the achievements of some of NIGMS’ early career grantees.

The first NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecture will be given by Blake Wiedenheft, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University who does research on the CRISPR gene-editing system. His talk, “Bacteria, Their Viruses, and How They Taught Us to Perform Genome Surgery,” will take place on Wednesday, April 13 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. EDT on the NIH campus. The lecture will be videocast and archived on the NIH Videocasting site.

Although open to everyone in the scientific community, this and future talks in the series will be geared toward undergraduate students. After describing their research, speakers will discuss their career paths during a 30-minute question-and-answer session.

We’re hopeful that these lectures will help inform participants about cutting-edge areas of science and inspire them to pursue biomedical research careers. I encourage you to tell your students about this opportunity to ask Blake career-related questions. They can send their questions by email to Jilliene Drayton before Monday, April 11, or tweet them with the hashtag #ecilecture.

Editor’s Note: An archived video of the lecture, including the question-and-answer session, is on the NIH Videocasting and Podcasting site.

Early Career Investigators to Join Advisory Council Deliberations

Beginning at this month’s meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council, some of the ad hoc Council members will be early career investigators. We expect to benefit from their ideas and insights, and we also hope that they will get a better understanding of the workings of Council and share what they learn with peers.

As most of you know, the Advisory Council provides the second level of review required before any grant can be funded. The Council also advises the Institute on policy and scientific matters. Regular Council members are appointed by the HHS Secretary, but for most meetings, we invite ad hoc consultants to expand the Council’s breadth of expertise. Both regular and ad hoc members are typically at fairly senior career levels—often full professors or deans. We think there is value in inviting one or two early career investigators to each Council meeting as ad hocs to provide a greater diversity of views.

We’ve identified a perfect pool to draw from: the Early Career Reviewers who have participated in a study section for NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. If you are interested in applying to this CSR program, see How to Apply.