Mentorship of Young Investigators and NOHR

by Richard Salvi, Ph.D., Hearing Research Lab, University of Buffalo (NY)

A few days ago, I received a phone call Gerry Fox, Director of NOHR informing me that two young investigators at the University at Buffalo, Dr. Wei Sun and Dr. Samson Jamesdaniel had just received grants from NOHR. I was delighted to hear the good news particularly at times like this when grant support is difficult to obtain.

Gerry asked how young investigators were mentored at our Center and why so many new investigators had been successful in obtaining NOHR grants in past years. I had never given this much thought, but looking back I can identify some things our senior scientists have done to mentor young scientists in the art of submitting a successful grant.

I think the first step is to make young investigators aware of the many small grant programs that are available from nonprofit organizations such as NOHR as well as federal organizations. If you don’t know what grants are relevant to your field of study, you won’t know where and when to apply. Small grants have the advantage of being more focused, shorter in length and less challenging to write than large grants from NIH, NSF or DOD.

We talk to our young investigators and encourage them to apply for a grant by making them aware of the funding deadlines and application materials. New investigators are given copies of old grants to help guide new investigators through application process. More senior investigators often ask graduate students and young investigators to assist them with their grant applications; this gives the beginners a chance to participate in the preparation of a grant prior to assembling their own application. Young investigators gain experience and insights on how to write the specific aims, formulate hypotheses, describe their methods and prepare budgets and other administrative documents are submitted to the university and funding agency. Young investigators not only read grants that were successful, but also ones that failed.

An extremely important aspect mentorship is advising young investigators on how to identify a research problem that is scientifically exciting, clinically relevant and technically feasible based on the applicant’s track record and available resources. Even exciting, well written grants are unlikely to get funded without pilot data to support the aims of the grant and results demonstrating technical competency.

Prior to submission, new investigators are encouraged to have their application reviewed by several seasoned researchers. A well written grant is one that has a clear and compelling message, persuasive pilot data and well thought out plan for evaluating and interpreting the results to address the specific aims.

With funding rates of 20% or less, most grant applications are likely to fail of the mark on the first submission. When a young investigator reads a negative grant critique, they tend to over react and perseverate on the negative criticisms rather than taking steps to address each limitation point by point. At this stage, the mentor’s task is to assuage the investigator’s anxiety and to encourage the applicant to concentrate their efforts towards a thoughtful revision of the grant. When a new investigator receives a grant we bring out the champagne and celebrate!

At the Center for Hearing and Deafness we emphasize teamwork, cooperation and collaboration. Modern science is so complex that few individuals can master all the techniques needed to carry out a high impact research project. Mentorship is the art of transmitting new ideas and successful research techniques to the next generation. Once someone has perfected a method in our group, we encourage others to learn how to do it and improve on it. Because equipment funding is limited, there is no need to purchase a microscope for each individual lab. Equipment sharing not only save money, but it also helps new users learn how to operate equipment from experts.

Cooperation and collaboration can be summed up in the advice of my father. Take one small stick, and a man can break it. Bundle all the small stick together and they are unbreakable.


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