Friday, September 20, 2013

Critical skills for every scientist are obtaining external funding and participating in peer review. Yet new faculty are often thrown into these waters unaided, having received little training or mentoring on these skills.

To remedy this situation, the DeLTA Center, a UI interdisciplinary research center, developed a process in fall 2011 for awarding small research grants to doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars. The goal is to help students and postdocs fund research that addresses important problems in learning and development. The innovative program enables students to write their own grant proposals and conduct their own peer reviews of the submissions in accordance with National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines.

NIH is the primary agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and health-related research. While faculty members and graduate students nationwide apply to the NIH for research funding, many scholars are unfamiliar with the application and selection processes.

This DeLTA Center program provides graduate students with a unique opportunity to gain insight into the NIH grant review process by giving students hands-on experience with NIH grant review.

Bob McMurray, UI professor of psychology and DeLTA Center member, developed the program and facilitates it, though the real work is done by the students.

The grant review process, DeLTA style

Each semester, a call for proposals is sent out to members of the DeLTA center.  The program targets projects that explicitly bridge at least two labs working on similar problems from different disciplinary approaches. This forces students to interact with multiple labs and disciplines to write their proposal.

Once the proposals are received, McMurray selects two scorers per grant application. He is the only person who knows the identity of the reviewers—some of whom are DeLTA Center members and others not.  The scorers rate their own grants using NIH criteria, and then meet as a group to discuss all of the grants, score them all together, and decide which will be funded.  Finally, NIH-style score sheets are returned to all of the applicants to help with revisions.

“The most revealing thing to me about the whole reviewing process is it’s always a mystery about what the reviewer is looking for,” Reviewer No. 1 says. “Being a reviewer made me see that all the reviewers want is a good story that makes sense. This has simplified the whole mystery I had in my mind about what’s going on behind the curtain.”

Grant recipients

The DeLTA Center—funded by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Office of the Vice President for Research, Office of the Provost, and Obermann Center for Advanced Studies—has presented $1,000 grants to four Ph.D. students for interdisciplinary research projects. Work with animals, typical or atypical humans, or computational models are all encouraged. Priority is given to applications bridging two or more labs, but interdisciplinary projects from a single lab also may be considered.

Award recipients include:

Dave Warren, working in the labs of Bob McMurray and Melissa Duff, “Modeling word learning in adults with memory impairments after brain damage.” (Fall 2012)

Shan-Ju Lin, working in the labs of Amanda Van Horne, Susan Wagner Cook and Karla McGregor, "Use of gestures when describing motion events." (Spring 2012)

Tim Wifall, working in the labs of Eliot Hazeltine and Bob McMurray, "How does perceptual and motoric similarity affect learning?" (Fall 2011)

Nate Klooster, working in the labs of Melissa Duff and Susan Wagner Cook, "Gestures make memories, but what kind? The cognitive and neural mechanisms of hand gesture." (Fall 2011)

“More and more students and postdocs who come out of the DeLTA Center are likely to apply for NIH grants down the road,” McMurray says. “This kind of program gives them the first person understanding of the process to help them succeed.”

Graduate student members of the DeLTA Center represent the following departments/programs: Communication Sciences and Disorders, Foreign Language Acquisition Research and Education, Linguistics, Neuroscience, and Psychology.

For each grant, reviewers provide a series of short narratives and a numeric score for eight review criteria:

  1. Scientific impact/innovation
  2. Methodological quality
  3. Appropriateness for DeLTA Center mission and grant program
  4. Impact on research/career goals of participants
  5. Resources and laboratory
  6. Applicant
  7. Budget
  8. Overall

Each grant is scored by two people. The final score is determined following each reviewer’s presentation and a subsequent discussion.

“The students don’t realize the group dynamics that are going on behind the scenes for NIH reviewing,” McMurray says. “Being able to be a part of that gives them insight into the process in a way they wouldn’t get otherwise. NIH reviewers are motivated by the bigger picture questions, not the nitty-gritty questions. For example, they care about if this will make headway about understanding how development works.”

Reviewer No. 2 has learned the importance of writing grant proposals from the reviewer’s perspective.

“I need to explain my research project in a simple and clear way and fascinate the reviewers with my research,” Reviewer No. 2 says. “I feel like it is story-telling time. You tell people about the scientific evidence in an interesting way. A grant proposal is an explanatory document, but the most effective ones also are persuasive documents.”

McMurray says critiquing a grant proposal is important professional development for graduate students.

“Learning to give a good scholarly evaluation of a research proposal, even though you’re not the world’s foremost expert on the topic, is an essential skill for being a scientist,” McMurray says. “Most of the peer-review process is ‘Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m a pretty smart person with a strong background and I can offer an informed opinion on this.’ And that’s probably how it should be—research that has that kind of strong appeal throughout a field may be more likely to address the really big questions.”