Jul 25, 2014
By Thomas W. Flaig, MD, and Wells A. Messersmith, MD, FACP
University of Colorado, Denver
For many academic physicians, obtaining your first research grant as a young faculty member is an important personal and professional milestone. Recognizing the significance of this event, many granting bodies provide special programs or status to young investigators to support and foster these early awards. ASCO offers Young Investigator Awards (YIAs) through its philanthropic arm, the Conquer Cancer Foundation (CCF) of ASCO. YIAs are one-year grants for $50,000 starting on July 1 of each year to support clinical oncology research, including laboratory work that will lead to patient-oriented clinical research. Applicants must be a physician in the last two years of their final subspecialty oncology training.
Having served on the Grants Selection Committee for CCF as well as other granting organizations, we have seen some common mistakes that early-stage (and some late-stage) investigators make which significantly weaken their application. The points below are applicable not only to the YIA, but to most early-career development awards.
1. The mentorship plan isn't well defined.
Nearly all successful academic physicians can point to one or more professional mentors critical to their career development. In acknowledgment of the importance of mentorship to a successful career, the YIA requests a training plan for the applicant. This is usually outlined in the mentor’s letter of support. The lack of a detailed mentorship/training plan can become a major concern when young investigator applications are reviewed. When this concern arises, it can take much enthusiasm away from an application—and raise questions about the mentor’s level of commitment to the applicant. Applicants to any early-stage award should specifically discuss their ongoing mentorship and career training with their mentor as an early step. Although this section is often addressed in the letter of support, the applicant should comment on the mentor’s role and their career development plan in their personal statements as well. Meeting with a mentor to discuss this issue, agreeing on an ongoing meeting schedule for guidance, determining the role of any didactic work in career development, etc., are important ways to manage this part of the grant. Reviewers look for answers to questions such as: How often will the mentor and applicant meet? Will the applicant take any classes, or leverage training programs at the institution? Have the mentor/mentee worked together? Will there be additional mentors to address any gaps in the primary mentor’s expertise? Is there a mentoring track record? The lack of a clear mentorship plan is not uncommon and can be damaging to competitive grants if missing.
2. Statistics seem like an afterthought.
A statistical analysis section is required and all YIA applications are reviewed by a biostatistician. One common mistake that can be highly detrimental is the lack of a professional statistical plan in an application. It can be very disappointing to see a great idea, a novel approach, and an otherwise strong application, but no statistical justification for the project design. Surprisingly, it is not uncommon to see applications with a very bare-bones approach to statistical considerations, despite directions in the application to include this mandatory section.
Meet with a statistician at your institution early in the process. If you don’t have a current collaborator in biostatistics, work with your mentor to establish this critical relationship.This is a great opportunity to start a robust collaboration with a statistician and many will be eager to assist a young investigator if given enough time to do so.
3. The proposal seems infeasible.
One question reviewers ask of any grant is, “Can the proposed work actually be done?” Sometimes this is a theoretical question about the general resources of the institution or mentor. A description of the mentor’s expertise and the applicant’s own background in training can assist with these questions. If a clinically trained physician is now proposing an entirely bench-based research project, is this feasible, and is there an adequate support structure to enable a successful outcome?
Other questions of feasibility are more practical, such as access to an investigational drug or compound. If you are proposing working with a specific agent in your research, you need a clear letter of support from the provider of the agent. It is most useful to have the pharmaceutical company involved directly write a letter of support stating the agent will be supplied. Occasionally, the pharmaceutical company will say some generally positive statements in a letter (“We are interested in the proposed work”), but a specific commitment from them is key.
4. The timeline is unrealistic.
The YIA may be your first extramural oncology award application. You want to show passion and productivity. As you make your grant timeline (and include deliverables as appropriate), remember that the YIA is a one-year grant. The most common mistake here is being overly ambitious in the amount of work that can be accomplished in that one-year period. Realize that this grant and most early-career grants are intended to fund you as you start to transition into a faculty position. Major projects or career-defining research will not be accomplished in one year; however, a reasonable timeline which will lead/support future work in a clear career-focused manner will be well received. You don’t have to do it all in a year.
5. The applicant's ownership of the project is not clear.
This is one of the difficult issues in an early-stage award—what is the applicant’s ownership of the proposed project? By definition, all applicants are just starting their careers and many of their research ideas have been influenced by their mentors. Previous publications in the general field of proposed study by the applicant, even if with the mentor, can provide real evidence of project ownership. Another way to address this issue is to clearly state the applicant’s role and the mentor’s role in each component of the proposed work. Additionally, by describing your career plans and how this project will help to move those forward, concerns that the work will not lead to future independence will be allayed.
There are many themes that run through these observations: Start early. Pick your mentor carefully and develop a detailed and specific career plan with them. Use this as an opportunity to forge a new collaboration with a statistician. Be realistic about timelines and deliverables. Also, remember that applying for grants is a special skill which takes practice. Have others read your grants (with plenty of time) and take stock in their advice. Good luck!
For more than 30 years, the Conquer Cancer Foundation Grants & Awards Program has been accelerating breakthroughs, launching careers and improving cancer care. Their prestigious grants, including Young Investigator Awards (YIAs), support the work of the best and brightest researchers throughout the United States and around the world, building the future of cancer science and cancer care.