By Jen A. Miller
The Stowers Institute is distinctive in ways that its founders and leaders envisioned would enable scientific discovery as well as individual researchers. As part of this approach, the Institute is committed to providing innovative opportunities for Stowers scientists to develop skills and knowledge to enhance their research endeavors, both near-term and long-term.
“Part of fulfilling our mission involves developing and preparing tomorrow’s leaders in research, and we’re continually examining how we can do this more effectively, to propel our science as well as our scientists,” says George Satterlee, Executive Vice President of Administration.
“A great example of this process is the evolution of the Stowers Grants Office,” says Satterlee. The Grants team offers original resources and comprehensive support for scientists to learn and master the often overwhelming process of finding funding opportunities, writing proposals, submitting applications, and managing awards.
Over the past five years, the Grants Office has leveled up the Institute’s ability to assist scientists in this area. And just as important, this progression is recognized as an ongoing process.
Piloting new territory
When Michelle Lewallen, PhD, embarked on a scientific career, she expected to follow a typical academic research path, one that ultimately led to a faculty position. She never expected that she would instead come to lead the Grants Office at the Stowers Institute. Since stepping into that role in 2013, she has helped faculty, predocs, and postdocs apply for and receive millions of dollars in fellowships and grants from dozens of prestigious funding organizations like the National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, March of Dimes, and the Searle Scholars Program.
“My science training enables me to relate better with the researchers than someone without that shared experience. It helps me better interpret their needs and develop more effective tools and resources to support their grant-writing endeavors. I can also read their scientific writing and provide feedback, in addition to assisting with administrative aspects,” she shares. She doesn’t see it as an alternative career path, but a scientific one that combines her scientific knowledge and program development and management skills. She knew that she enjoyed things like writing and getting projects organized—activities that some scientists dread in the same way she dreaded some of the aspects of being a full-time research scientist. “We can still use our scientific training and our love of science, but in a different way to support the scientific enterprise,” she explains of scientists like herself who pursue other career tracks.
Scanning the horizon
Lewallen and Amber Garvey, grants development specialist, provide a wide spectrum of support that starts by helping researchers and students identify appropriate funding opportunities. “We’re always looking out for what’s new,” Lewallen says. The Grants team keeps Stowers researchers updated on relevant grant opportunities with a monthly newsletter and posts on the Stowers intranet.
Introducing themselves to researchers happens on day one—the first day researchers arrive on campus. The Grants team gives presentations at new member orientations, which is where Blair Benham-Pyle, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate, first met Lewallen. “During my graduate work, I had been told by several mentors that there was a small list of postdoctoral fellowships offered by foundations to apply for in your first year as a postdoc,” she says. “In my very first week at the Stowers Institute, I walked into the Grants Office with a spreadsheet of the fellowship applications I wanted to turn in.” Lewallen gave Benham-Pyle deadlines for those fellowships, read proposal drafts, and helped her work through her list. She also made sure Benham-Pyle’s applications met the more tedious requirements, like submitting both a digital and hard copy of every document. “Our hope is that we can shield the scientists from the tedium and burdens of the application process and free their efforts for the much more important task of developing exciting scientific ideas.” In the end, Benham-Pyle’s experience with the Stowers Grants Office was a success, and she and her compelling research proposal were recognized by a prestigious Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellowship.
This support strategy also benefits the principal investigators at the Institute, who are tackling the challenge of writing research grant applications while running their research programs. For a research institution like Stowers, where principal investigators receive base funding from the institution’s endowment, applying for grants is still important, says Investigator Julia Zeitlinger, PhD, who received an NIH grant that she applied for with help from the Grants Office.
“If you have additional funding, you can do more. You can expand the research you have,” she explains. “This type of increased flexibility in funding also means that when the right person comes along or a new technology opens up, it’s easier to manage in terms of budget.”
“If you want to have an expansive research program, then you need grant support to do that,” added Stowers Investigator Paul Trainor, PhD, who has received funding from the NIH and has served on various grants review panels. “There’s just no way around it.”
After an award has been won, Lewallen and Garvey pass the baton to Erin Johnson, PhD, grants administration specialist, who helps researchers with aspects of post-award grant management. Johnson assists with periodic financial reports as well as progress updates and final research reports that are required by funding agencies. Johnson, who has a PhD in science, also enjoys the opportunity to utilize some of her scientific training in a professional role that is traditionally highly administrative. “My background allows me to be more efficient in my support role. The advantages range from my ability to better communicate with our scientists to understanding the pressures they are balancing. Being able to read and understand their fascinating scientific ideas is an enjoyable bonus.”
Stowers Investigators often work with the Grants Office to find grants that are appropriate for them to apply for, and for their trainees, too. Assistant Investigator Sarah Zanders, PhD, came to Stowers with an NIH grant. Lewallen helped her transition the grant from her previous institution and also identify opportunities for her new trainees, who are of different nationalities—something that can matter when applying for grants and fellowships.
“The Grants Office helps us determine good matches, and makes sure that the documents we prepare are actually what the different granting agencies require,” says Zanders.
Trainor clarifies that training scientists in grant writing provides important skills for them at many points along their career paths. For students, it gives them practice at what will likely be a crucial part of their professional lives. “If you don’t gain experience and practice writing these things from an early stage of your career, then you miss key opportunities to learn how to communicate your science well,” he notes. The process can help students accept criticism from reviewers, and rejection, too.
To help researchers at all levels sharpen their skills, the Grants Office frequently hosts grant-related workshops and luncheons with accomplished guest speakers who cover a variety of topics, such as the art of persuasive writing, biosketch and resume writing, and other important skills needed to write successful grants. They invite reviewers from granting agencies to the Institute to discuss what they look for in applications and to network with Stowers scientists.
Anticipating the future
Grants and fellowships also make research trainees more attractive for postdoc or faculty positions. They show how the trainees have already jumped competitive hurdles to obtain research funding. For postdocs getting ready to move to their next position, it can provide money to wrap up their postdoc project and initial funding to start their own lab. It can make a researcher much more competitive in job searches.
“For any scientist, it helps them think through the science,” Trainor says.
“When you take the time to sit down and write a research grant, as a trainee or as a faculty member, you have to think carefully about your project. It’s a highly detailed road map you’re laying out for your research,” he explains. “If you don’t organize your thoughts and plans by writing a grant or fellowship application, there’s a tendency to not think about the work you want to do in as much depth or that far in advance of actually doing it.”
Being awarded outside funding is important for the Stowers Institute, too. It reinforces the Institute’s position as a premier scientific research center with high-caliber research programs and creates additional channels for sharing Stowers science with the greater scientific community.
“Grant funding can benefit Stowers scientists and the Institute by providing more visibility of the type of research we’re working on here. It also enables our investigators to hire more people, expand their programs, bring on additional technology, and ultimately contribute more to scientific discovery,” says Lewallen.
“The Grants Office has really hit an effective stride,” she adds. “The challenge ahead of us is to continue finding interesting ways to engage our researchers and keep them interested in applying for funding. We’re always listening.”