Repost for 2009: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

This post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.


One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in Washington DC is to stroll around NIH row. Right?
I have a few thoughts for the trainees after the jump.


We talk quite a bit around here about the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Hopefully by this point my readers realize that although the priority scores assigned by the study section (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs frequently reshuffle the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up (outside of the percentile order) is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.
In short, social factors matter. They matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not. I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.
This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.
So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in Washington DC. This is an unbelievably good time since one might assume the density of POs is higher at DC meetings than any other location. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

SfNBadge.jpgMy closest collaborator and PI on a most critically important, low-N developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.
Homework
First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit CRISP [Repost Update: Now see RePORTER] if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the abstract page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the CRISP search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.
Two, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO! (And I simply must remind the PIs..you too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing by having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is.)
Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names.
Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit.
Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!

Schmooze!

The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).
Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.
Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in.
So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and, if you can remember under the stress, indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or even that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!
After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".
Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.
Remember, the goal is not just information transfer here. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants.
In closing, this may sound pretty crass when written out. Really, it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice. Believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

7 responses so far

  • Ria says:

    Thank you so much for this repost! I've been trying to figure out precisely how to speak with these guys for ages (ok, for two years) now. Everything really does come back to politics.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Interacting with other humans is an essential part of the business. It can be a particular problem for scientists* that we often see science as some sort of refuge. We have a tendency to be disproportionally* those that did not find early-life social situations all that easy to navigate. Many of us found science careers to be a place where we felt socially comfortable but never threw off that formative sense of being outside or above interpersonal social demands.
    So when I (or your own mentoring PIs) talk about networking and schmoozing it raises neck hair and goosebumps and gives the general heebiejeebies. To some* people.
    As I say repeatedly, this social stuff in no way comes to me naturally. I would not describe myself as good at it by any means. But I have come to find that you can see tangible results of just trying to interact and communicate with people who are important to your career...
    __
    *no PP, I'm not talking about you

  • The notions that "science" and "politics" are separable, and that the former is "good" and the latter "evil", are extremely dangerous. Young scientists entertain them at their extreme peril.

  • Becca says:

    This is so, so useful, thanks!! One question--is it a good idea to mention that I have a grant application in (that will be reviewed right after the meeting), or would that come off as having ulterior motives for the visit? I am petrified of looking like a kiss-ass.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Becca @#4, yes absolutely you can and should talk about your application with the PO to whom it is assigned (or anyone else in the same branch). S/he will likely not give you any useful comment being that it will not have been reviewed but you will be making plans to call that PO after you get your summary statement.
    You just go up and say "Hey, I'm so-and-so, my grant on blahdeblah is assigned to you and will be reviewed in a week". If they give you the slightest opening start gushing* about how your science is the coolest thing evah!
    __
    *well, don't gush but act excited about the science

  • Pinus says:

    Of course mention it! But don't make that the only reason to speak to them.
    I like going and talking to folks just about science and the direction they see things going. They have to deal with so many cranky-ass people whining about grants...I always feel like it is mildly refreshing just to shoot the shit for a little bit without being attacked.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    They have to deal with so many cranky-ass people whining about grants.
    Exactly! Let me handle that part.... 🙂

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