From Start to Finish: What Goes Into a Study -- Day 216: NIH season

This series of posts is documenting the journey of my first first-author project, from the infancy of the research through publishing. I am highlighting the major checkpoints of the project — when things move forward or backward — rather than a daily update because that would seriously be boring. Just about all the content discussed will be directly related to the project I’m working on.

If you haven’t read the previous posts, check these out!
Day 1
Day 2 – 7
Day 27
Day 82
Day 145
Day 193
Day 197
Day 203

Check out the next day, Day 224.

Day 204 - 216: NIH season

I guess if you are some sort of "chair" or something, you get an extra week on your NIH grant proposals? I'm not too sure how it works, as this was my first time I've been apart of the proposal process. All other projects I have been a part of used either existing money or an internal grant mechanism.

Since this series of posts are suppose to be more about the project I'm conducting, this is a bit tangential. But no project comes without other factors -- other projects, classes, "service excellence" -- and this being my first NIH R21, it makes sense to describe it.

The PI had been working on this proposal since December after some pilot data came to fruition. Since then, I've been getting emails or having conversations that usually include the line You think you can write two or three lines [not sentences, lines] about [insert whatever we were talking about]? 

We spent the extra week on reanalyzing data, just to make complete sure everything was perfect. This is a fairly high-risk study we're proposing (I don't even know what "high-risk" means still, since I think the proposal sounds like something I would do anyway) so hopefully we can convince some reviewers we're cool dudes and can put out some good work. From Tuesday to Saturday, I've put in close to 60 hours of work. That might be nothing for other grad students, but I am a pretty good time manager in lab settings. Generally, 6 - 8 hours a day (excluding data analysis days) are what I normally see. During data weeks (like currently), 10 to 12 hours are normal -- really, expected.

In the mean time, the recently trained RAs have been plowing away on participant recruitment and data collection for my project. One of the RAs finds the mass of computer programs we run a bit daunting. For some strange reason, she's also been randomly getting all of the long, thick haired participants. If you aren't familiar with EEG, long and thick haired people are a bit harder to set up since we use a saline solution to conduct electricity from the scalp. Hair itself is fairly sponge-like, so getting hair soaked (but not over soaked) is a bit of an art. She's been a champ about it, so I figure if she can jump the long, thick, dry hair EEG capping hurdle then she'll be ready for anything (until we start doing data preprocessing and analysis... then we will see what happens). We have another 14 participants before we start on preliminary analyses. Hopefully we'll have some stats to report for this May 8th SfN abstract deadline.

Some tips for graduate students entering into their first NIH season:

Try to be as involved as possible. If you can, try to angle it so you can have your name on as a collaborator (usually comes with a lot of work in terms of preparing your proposal and writing alongside your advisor). The more responsibility you can take on in the front seemingly sets you up to write good introductions to your future papers.

Time manage. Make room for writing or responding to NIH-related emails. I liked starting off my day with twoish hours of writing, reading and responding just to stay a step ahead of the amassing inbox of different collaborators asking me about specifics of the pilot data and experiment design.

Don't be afraid to ask a ton of questions. I was at first, mainly because everyone seems so stressed out about writing and getting data in. But going forward with 5 minute conversations about different experimental designs in the future was really enlightening and helps direct your literature search when looking up somewhat similar experimental designs.

Don't dwell on the hang ups. Sometimes people will be frustrated or angry and this might be directed at you. I took it personally at first and didn't say anything about it, but carried a little resentment into meetings. I realized in the last week that we are all running the same marathon together, so tiny disputes are really just water under the bridge in the scheme of things. Fix problems quickly and be happy about the fixed results, as they will potentially lead towards a project being funded.

In terms of grant writing in academia and earning a wage, I have no opinions yet. I haven't been rejected enough (read: at all; my first application was for the NSF GRFP) so I'm still in the honeymoon phase. I have seen others in the department come into projects as a data consultant or project consultant, earning a few extra dollars for straightforward work. It's not something I'm opposed to. But currently, I still like being a main player on a project. I like the uncertainty. The dilemma. Project drama. It's like being the quarterback in the 2-minute drill, except always. Bottom of the ninth, two on, two out, down three kind of stuff. The 7-10 split of science. The 6-attacker power play. The game winning header. The 8-ball off the break. It's all of that, always.

Check out the next day, Day 224.

Leave a Reply