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Traveling the pathway to independence

Erin Podolak

BioTechniques spoke with recipients of NIH’s Pathway to Independence grant to find out how the funding mechanism has impacted their careers.

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New approaches and solutions to biomedical research problems often come from the hard work of creative and innovative new investigators. However, the transition from postdoctoral researcher to independent, NIH-funded investigator has become a problem in the country's biomedical research community.

Currently, the average age when an investigator first obtains R01 funding is 42. In 1970, the average age was 34. The average age of grant recipients is progressively increasing toward late-career researchers. In 2006, the NIH—understanding the importance of new independent researchers to the country's biomedical research community—responded by introducing the Pathway to Independence grant to help third-year postdocs establish an independent research career.

Advice for early-career researchers from recipients of NIH’s Pathway to Independence grant

“Find a grant officer at your institute who can help sort through the paperwork, but still take the time to learn the NIH’s terminology and codes.” -
Matthew Gentry

“Select your postdoc position carefully because a good mentor will help facilitate the transition to an independent line of research, and secure your own funding as soon as possible.”
Daniel Colon-Ramos

“Make the most out of any opportunities to network”
Kate O’Connor-Giles

“Don’t get discouraged; if you don’t receive the grant the first time reapply.”
Anastasios Tzingounis

“42 years old is kind of a ridiculous age to just be getting funding when you start at 30 years old,” 2007 Pathway to Independence grant recipient Anastasios Tzingounis, assistant professor of neurology and neurobiology at the University of Connecticut, told BioTechniques. “A lot happens in your career during your 30s and 40s, so why not allow researchers to become independent earlier?”

The Pathway to Independence program provides five years of support through two phases. The first phase (K99) provides up to $50,000 in salary and up to $20,000 in research funding for two years while the postdoc is mentored by an NIH-funded independent investigator. The second phase (R00) provides up to $250,000 per year for three years to help researchers set up their lab and apply for their first R01 grant. The goal is to help recipients get their first R01 funding earlier.

A chance to write your own grant

Postdocs work in the laboratories of other researchers to help develop grants for their primary investigator. Therefore, they often do not get to develop and write their own grants. The Pathway to Independence grant provides postdocs with a unique opportunity to organize their ideas about their own career, and gives them practice writing an NIH grant.

Daniel Colon-Ramos applied for the grant to gain experience with NIH grant writing. Source: Yale University Medical School.
“Having secured funding before, I was aware that having my own funding gave me leverage to pursue my ideas in the lab,” said Daniel Colon-Ramos, assistant professor in the Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration, and Repair program at the Yale University Medical School. He applied for the Pathway to Independence grant when he was a postdoc at Stanford University.

“I knew the grant was competitive, so in the writing process I did not focus on whether I was going to get it or not," Colon-Ramos told BioTechniques. "Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to organize my thoughts and present them in a coherent fashion to a group of experts. I figured [that] even if I did not get the grant, it would be hugely advantageous to have my ideas organized in writing.”

Similarly, Matthew Gentry applied for grant-writing practice. Gentry is an assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Kentucky, and was awarded the grant as a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego.

“At the very least, it would be an opportunity to learn about the NIH,” Gentry told BioTechniques. “The money was a bonus. Quite frankly you don’t expect to get funded.”

An immediate resume boost

The mentoring portion of the grant, which is supported by the K99 funding mechanism, was designed to help postdocs establish their own line of research. The program also helped recipients find faculty positions. Colon-Ramos, Gentry, and Tzingounis said the funding improved their chances of making it through the first round of the selection process for faculty positions.

“The K99 gave me a great deal of flexibility as a postdoc,” said Colon-Ramos. “It also gave me the means to attend conferences and present my work, which helped me polish my job-talk presentation.”

Grant recipient Anastasios Tzingounis is now an assistant profess at UCONN. Source: UCONN.
Tzingounis received the grant while working as a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco. “I don’t think the K99 will get you a faculty position, but it will help,” he told BioTechniques. “It doesn’t guarantee that you will get an R01, but it indicates that you can gather your thoughts in a persuasive way.”

Gentry said that while the grant helped his job search, there were no guarantees. “The K99 is significant because it indicates that the person’s work has already been analyzed pretty rigorously,” said Gentry. “Though because I was only asked on six interviews, I'd have to say the K99 alone didn't open that many more job possibilities for me.”

Simply helping to polish the researcher’s portfolio and applications was not the only benefit the K99 portion of the grant had for recipients looking for jobs. For all postdocs, finding a job that will propel one’s research career is essential, but many postdocs also struggle to find faculty positions that will suit their lifestyle.

Juggling priorities

Molecular biologist Kate O'Connor-Giles was faced with the challenge of securing a faculty position that also met the needs of her family. As the mother of three children, she needed to obtain a position that would be beneficial to their family life and her career.

She believes the Pathway to Independence grant helped facilitate the process of finding a position that was a good fit for her. "It put me on the radar of more people and generated confidence in my ability to fund my work, which resulted in the University of Wisconsin actively recruiting me for a faculty position," she told BioTechniques.

Kate O'Connor-Giles found a position that suited her personally and professionally. Source: the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
O'Connor-Giles, now an assistant professor of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, feels the NIH's efforts to support early-career researchers may help stem the loss of female researchers in the transition to faculty positions. "Increasingly, postdocs have families and have to coordinate their job search with their spouse's career and the needs of their children," she told BioTechniques. "For me, having the K99/R00 provided an edge in obtaining a position that was a great fit for me professionally and also worked well for my family."

Having overcome the challenge of finding a position that would meet her professional and personal needs, O’Connor-Giles, who is 41, was eager to launch her independent research career. With her lab up and running, she believes the grant will help her conduct innovative research and obtain an R01 earlier than she would have otherwise.

"It's important to hit the ground running and early success makes that possible," she said. "More funding enables more progress. More progress means more publications and the ability to attract high quality researchers. It's all self-reinforcing, so it's critical that the feedback loop is a positive one."

Like O’Connor-Giles, Gentry, Colon-Ramos, and Tzingounis have already set up their own labs and started working on their independent research. The researchers all said the support provided by the R00 portion of the grant has had a significant impact on their ability to file for an R01.

The upcoming test: applying for an R01

The Pathway to Independence program will be tested this spring when its first participants get back their peer-reviewed R01 applications. Colon-Ramos and Gentry submitted applications in the fall of 2009 and are feeling hopeful.

Colon-Ramos, who is 33, plans to continue researching neural pathways in Caenorhabditis elegans with his R01. “We are interested in understanding the developmental events that direct neural connectivity. In particular, we are interested in how these events are coordinated in complex neuropil structures. We will analyze the development of circuits in vivo with single cell resolution.”

Matthew Gentry will find out this spring if his first R01 will be funded. Source: the University of Kentucky.
Gentry, who is 36, hopes to continue research on a rare form of epilepsy called Lafora disease. “It is rare, but it kills 100% of the people it affects, so we want to study the molecular mechanisms that result in this disease,” he said.

At the age of 35, Tzingounis will file his first R01 in June. His proposed research will analyze KCNQ mutations in heterologous expression systems. He hopes to introduce KCNQ channels with clinically relevant mutations to brain slices and to assess their role in neuronal excitability and synaptic transmission. “I felt I should have a paper published by the time I applied, though some people don’t do that. It’s a personal choice,” he said.

O’Connor-Giles intends to submit her first R01 sometime this year. “My lab is continuing to investigate the endocytic regulation of growth factor receptors during synaptogenesis,” she said. “We’ve also identified additional genes that regulate synaptic development through distinct mechanisms, and are working on a novel approach for understanding dynamic synaptic growth regulation in neural plasticity.”

Do the researchers expect to succeed? “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Gentry. “The push to support early-career researchers could be beneficial, but hopefully the funding left from the R00 portion of the Pathway to Independence grant will carry me through for another year or two.”

Tzingounis is optimistic about his future R01 application, though he is relieved that due to the funding from the K99/R00, his current work does not rely on securing a new grant right away. “The [Pathway to Independence] grant helped me apply with much more confidence, but even if I don’t get this R01, I have time to re-tool and change direction based on the review.”

Changing the way the NIH does business

The recipients of the NIH’s Pathway to Independence grant have received thousands of dollars in support to help them establish independent lines of research, secure jobs that overcome personal requirements, set up their labs, and file for independent grants.

“The goal that we all have in applying for these early-career grants is that we’ll do more good research with the years we’ve got,” said Gentry. “[The NIH says] you’re at your most creative when you’re young, so I hope to live up to that.”