New mentorship program, boot camp help researchers with grant proposal process
The R01 boot camp connects early-career investigators with senior faculty for support.
Aug. 3, 2022 — With a record $121 million in National Institutes of Health research funding in 2021, the UF College of Medicine is home to dozens of top-funded researchers across several specialties who annually contribute groundbreaking research to their fields. Now, the college is turning to these experts to serve as guides for the next generation of medical researchers.
As part of a new research training and workforce development program spearheaded by the UF College of Medicine’s Office of Research Affairs, a new project under the research pillar of the college’s strategic plan aims to make what can be an intimidating process — completing a grant proposal for R01 funding from the NIH — easier, and even fun.
The NIH awards R01 grants to support specific health-related research and development projects in line with its mission. The College of Medicine’s new R01 Boot Camp teams up early career investigators with senior researchers at the college, as well as other UF and external subject matter experts, to assist researchers who are applying for grants, through all steps of the process and provide them with feedback. Teams also meet monthly to have informal chats and discuss big-picture ideas, such as giving an elevator pitch on research topics.
“The goal of this boot camp and the other projects in our research training and workforce development program is to engage with faculty and really empower them to do great research,” said Azra Bihorac, M.D., M.S., senior associate dean for research affairs and the director of the umbrella program. The Office of Research Affairs also leads programs including an artificial intelligence boot camp, a team science boot camp and the AI-PhD Emerging Scholars Program. “We are creating these projects to invest in our future and the next generation of the research workforce.”
Along with Bihorac, Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D., and Dan Wesson, Ph.D., serve as co-directors for the R01 boot camp project, which recently introduced 28 mentees to senior colleagues as part of the group’s first cohort. That group will conclude its work next summer.
During the nine-month program, the mentors meet monthly with small peer groups and hold meetings to track the progress of participants’ grant proposals. This is a much different experience than most researchers have when applying for their first major grants.
“Writing an R01 can be an exceptionally lonely endeavor,” said Sayour, an associate professor in the departments of neurosurgery and pediatrics. “It’s a ton of work and there’s often a lot of rejections along the way. That can be grueling. What we’re hoping to achieve with this is to create a community that can really help serve people long after a grant is submitted or even funded, as a support system.”
Wesson, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics, said UF’s grant proposal mentorship program is a unique experience that he wishes he could have had as an early-career investigator. Now Wesson has the chance to give others the advice he would give his younger self.
“I never had anything formal, like a boot camp process, where there’s a whole team of people who have been assembled to cheer you on along the way and help guide you through the onslaught of documents and requirements that are needed to submit a successful application,” he said. “I really enjoy the process of competing for grants. It’s a lot of work and the chance of failure is extremely high, but if we instill a culture of happiness and of putting out quality products that excite reviewers, hopefully this will lead to funding to support our research. At that point, the boot camp has succeeded tremendously. We’re hoping to instill that confidence and spirit of competitiveness in our early-stage investigators.”
Some meetings during the boot camp focus specifically on the importance of writing strong statements of purpose and investigation for the grant application, since the NIH significantly considers the real-world impact of each proposed research project.
“At the end of the day, you have to sell a story with your research grant proposal,” Sayour said. “When you’re telling a story to a brand-new person about your research, you have to do so in a way that really packs a punch with few words, like what we see all the time in books, movies and shows. There has to be meat on the bones, in the form of preliminary data, but good science, like a good story, will resonate with people and have a greater impact. Those are the projects that will get funding.”