Highlights From the ASCO 2020 Grant Writing Webinar Series

Highlights From the ASCO 2020 Grant Writing Webinar Series

Inas Abuali, MD, FACP

Aug 26, 2020

Each year, Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, hosts a Grant Writing Workshop at the ASCO Annual Meeting that features talks on the essentials of effective grant writing, highlights funding opportunities from Conquer Cancer and the National Cancer Institute, and offers roundtable discussions with experienced oncology professionals. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s workshop was transitioned to a fully virtual format and held as a five-part webinar series.

Personally, I learn best by absorbing smaller amounts of information over time. Therefore, I found this format particularly effective as I was able to learn at my own pace and later re-watch and pause the recordings where necessary. The Q&A session at the end of each webinar was a great way of engaging directly with the speakers for further clarification of the material discussed. Each webinar highlighted a different topic and my personal takeaways from the sessions are outlined below.

Part 1: Grant Writing Pearls

In the first webinar, Dawn Hershman, MD, MS, FASCO, of Columbia University Medical Center, gave an overview of the grant writing and submission process and shared her pearls of wisdom.

  • You must determine whether the type of grant you are applying for fits your research goal and current career path.
  • It is important to carefully read the requirements and application instructions of the specific grant that you are applying to.
  • Create a checklist of items you will need to submit. This usually includes project information, personal statement, bio-sketch of the applicant and mentor, abstract, specific aims, research strategy, references, budget and justification, and the institutional letter of support.
  • Pay attention to the details and start early.
  • Grant writing can take several months, and it is important for you to work closely with your grants administrator and seek feedback from others who can read your grant and provide feedback.
  • From a reviewer’s perspective, the design and strategy section tend to be the most important, but often applicants spend less time on this critical section: beware of this common error!

The key takeaway from this session is that grant writing can be a fun opportunity to learn something new and to collaborate with others!

Part 2: Choosing a Mentor and Obtaining Letters of Support  

In the second webinar, Charles Thomas Jr., MD, of Knight Cancer Institute, discussed the importance of mentorship in early career development and academic productivity. In his talk, Dr. Thomas highlighted the qualities of an effective mentor and mentee pair, as well as the importance of the Mentor Letter of Support in a grant application.

Various types of mentorship and methods of delivery exist, but there are universal traits that can help you identify a good mentor. These include providing a safe and confidential space, offering specific feedback and seasoned advice, keeping track of the mentee’s progress, and assisting the mentee with networking. Regardless of how “good” your mentor is, Dr. Thomas emphasized the importance of having a network of mentors to help you succeed early on in your career. Utilize this template to learn more about developing a personalized mentoring network.

To be an effective mentee, one must engage in a joint discussion of common expectations and goals. Remember to not only discuss your challenges and obstacles with your mentor; it is also important to share your accomplishments and successes with them. Additionally, mentees should seek opportunities and provide feedback on how they utilized the advice given by the mentor. Avoid the missteps listed in the following article. Work with your mentor to develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP) and a Mentoring Partnership Agreement. This can help ensure that your short- and long-term goals are both on track.

The Mentor Letter of Support is an essential component to a grant application’s success. Your application’s letter of support should include the mentor’s qualifications, their introduction of you, a detailed mentoring plan, information on the institution’s level of support and commitment, as well as a description of the applicant’s goals and career plans. Dr. Thomas emphasized that the most common misstep with letters of support is that they do not include enough information on the applicant’s mentoring plan or the institution’s support and commitment to the applicant’s research. These items are imperative and help assure the reviewers that the applicant has the support needed to complete the work in the grant period.

Part 3: Working with a Biostatistician

In the third webinar, Karla Ballman, PhD, of Weill Cornell University, discussed the importance of engaging a statistician on your grant application’s statistical section. Dr. Ballman’s key points are outlined below.

  • When deciding on a study objective, avoid selecting a focus that is too broad, too narrow, or too simple.
  • Your study design needs to yield the greatest information for the smallest sample size.
  • Your statistician should assist with identifying the sample size justification.
  • They should also be consulted on the iterative process of changing endpoints or adjusting the patient population to ensure that you have a feasible study design that can yield the required data within the grant’s timeframe.
  • An appropriate institutional infrastructure must be in place, and the statistician should have experience with the proposed measurements.
  • Do not copy the statistical section from other grants, as minor details can yield drastic statistical differences.
  • Explore available institutional resources when looking for a statistical collaborator and ask your mentor or colleagues for references if needed.

The main takeaway from this session is that biostatisticians should be engaged early on, and frequently, in the development of grant applications to provide input on your study objectives, design, feasibility, and analysis plan.

Part 4: Mock Application Review

The fourth webinar featured a mock review of a redacted, unfunded ASCO Career Development Award application. A panel comprised of two clinicians (Gary Schwartz, MD, FASCO, and Yvonne Saenger, MD, both of Columbia University), a biostatistician (Karla Ballman, PhD, of Weill Cornell University), and a patient advocate (Mary Lou Smith, JD, MBA, FASCO, of the Research Advocacy Network) guided a critical review of this unfunded application and provided detailed analysis of the application’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their primary justification for rejecting this mock application. Please reference the session recording and this summary of common grant application weaknesses for more information.

Part 5: What to Do When Your Grant Gets Rejected

In the final webinar, N. Lynn Henry, MD, PhD, FASCO, of the University of Michigan, provided key insights into why proposals fail and how to move forward after your grant is rejected.

Dr. Henry kicked off the session by emphasizing that rejection in academia is common and that the number of R01 applications have increased over time with a concurrent decrease in funding rate. So, it is something all researchers will face at some time in their career. Rejection is not a reflection of lack of ability or your self-worth, but rather an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Grants are usually rejected due to issues with the quality of the project itself or with the quality of the presentation of the information. Fatal flaws include missing hypotheses, lack of alternative strategies, lack of an original and innovative idea, insufficient preliminary data, unclear methodology, or inadequate institutional infrastructure and support. More minor flaws include inconsistencies across the application, inadequate formatting or adherence to submission guidelines, and an unrealistic timeline or budget.

Upon rejection, you should review your application and any reviewer feedback with your mentors and coinvestigators, and if possible, the program officer. You then have a few options to consider:

  • Revise and resubmit to a new funding source: Be sure to tailor to the new application and funding source.
  • Revise and resubmit to the same funding source: In your new application, include a cover letter highlighting how you addressed the issues in your previous application.
  • If there are fatal flaws that cannot be addressed, decide to scrap the project or start over.

It is important to note that grant writing is a skill that will improve over time with more practice. When you receive a rejection, take a deep breath, do not take it personally, learn from your mistakes, and simply try again. In the webinar, Dr. Henry reminds us of this quote from Sophia Frangou, MD, PhD: “Success in academia is a triumph of determination and passion over rejection and criticism.”

Learn more about Conquer Cancer Grants & Awards, and contact grants@conquer.org with any questions.


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