SfN 2008: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

November 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.
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 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!


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.

No Responses Yet to “SfN 2008: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary”

  1. You’re such a suck-up, DoucheMonkey! I bet all the POs are all like, “Oh, Fuck! It’s that motherfucking asslicker, DoucheMonkey! Hey, I gotta go piss. You talk to the asshole.”


  2. Awesome post – I always wondered how “schmoozing” works and what exactly are the goals other than “hi, my name is…”
    This is really helpful advice to use newbies starting to look for funding.
    Thanks so much!


  3. Physiogroupie IV Says:

    Physiogroupie is looking for a job and will be schmoozing a little harder this year. Blargh.


  4. pinus Says:

    I have a good relationship with my program officer from the institute that funded my NRSA and my K99…however, I am trying to branch out to another institute. I was planning on stopping by and talking to somebody, this was a great reminder. Thank you.


  5. Ewan Says:

    I’m not too proud to admit that I did *check* that I was correct on who my PO is (and drop her a line asking whether she might have time for a brief chat)!
    Other things on my SfN radar this year: talking to folks at a particular charity who have a LOI deadline Dec 1 that I will be aiming at; looking to see what new toys might be calling to my startup funds; the usual benefit of catching up with friends from grad school; and one very specific method check to see what’s hot in looking at a particular protein.


  6. Ewan Says:

    One other thing that has been (slightly) bothering me. Should I even be applying for funding right now? [Insert here CPP’s “what the motherfucking hell are you thinking, douchbag?” response.]
    Seriously: for at least this year and probably next, I don’t need more money. I won’t *need* more in 2010-11, but I can see that it might help. After that it all gets rather more urgent :). So: apply now and plan on expanding my new lab even more rapidly? Aim primarily at student/postdoc funding for a while to help them out more specifically? Not worry?
    Yes, this should be a post of my own, if I ever get round to making my own blog more than baby pictures and housebuilding comments. That hasn’t yet happened, though – so comments welcome.


  7. expat postdoc Says:

    Isn’t this common sense?
    If you’re doing “it” wrong, it’s schmoozing/networking … if you’re doing it right, it’s making interesting conversation.
    In my relatively nascent research career, being a good listener and being able to carry on a good conversation (while dropping the appropriate humor) has paid enormous dividends.
    But you shouldn’t be using these “skills” or even trying to train these “skills” … in fact, you shouldn’t even be thinking about them. If you can’t do them naturally, then whenever you “practice”, it’s going to appear “forced” rather than “natural” … so practice/employ them with caution.


  8. You’re such a suck-up, DoucheMonkey!

    Dollars to doughnuts, our beloved Comrade is just ticked that he didn’t put this post up first – who wants to bet that he is giving his own lab folks the same instructions as we speak?
    A couple of additions:
    1. Let me know the reactions you get while wearing your DrugMonkey™ T-shirts down NIH row.
    2. Be sure to treat the POs with all the same respect you would give to a senior PI in your field, no matter how hot and slick you think you are as a scientist. These folks are not just administrators; each and every one of them is a scientist who chose to apply their talents toward working directly on the national biomedical research agenda.
    3. For those of you considering careers outside of academia (I will not call it an “alternative” career) and would like to live in the MD/DC/VA area, talk with POs about open positions they may know of in Program or CSR (obviously not in the same discussion where you are asking about independent funding issues). These jobs are most often posted on the govt’s USAjobs.com and a few of you might be interested in speaking with them more about their career track. Many POs were once on the review side as SROs and some have told me that this career has been just as engaging scientifically, if not more so, than a TT faculty position.


  9. Scicurious Says:

    Awesome post, DrugMonkey! This actually gave me a lot of ideas about just how to talk to people at the meeting. I’m really bad at “networking” and getting people to talk about their work. I tend to hover around and look like an idiot, and then say something incoherant that isn’t about their latest work. This will help. And I should see my PO…


  10. bsci Says:

    I’m not sure if/when they are happening this year, but various institutes have invitations-only receptions specifically for their grad student NRSA awardees. I went to an early breakfast at one of these a few years back. These are events with the primary goal of allowing POs to interact with their early career trainees.


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    Fantastic points Abel (except I recommend keeping anything related to this blog far away!).
    I have been disabused of the notion for so long I sometimes forget to mention it. Do not make the mistake of thinking of POs and SROs as “failed scientists” as I have heard on occasion from frustrated PIs. They span the range, as a matter of fact, from reasonably senior scientists with a prior career of excellence to well experienced postdocs (rarer) just like many of our peers, selves and my readers are or once were.
    And with regard to possible careers, well, the ability to influence the conduct of science that you think is important…unmatched


  12. Ewan Says:

    So anyway: when/where, DM? 🙂


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    So anyway: when/where, DM?
    check your email.
    If anyone is interested in showing up and didn’t get an initial email from me, drop me a line so I can put you on my list.


  14. DrugMonkey Says:

    neurowoman asked: Where does the SRA (scientific review adminstrator) come into all this?
    As far as I know SROs (“administrator” changed to “officer” some time ago) don’t appear at scientific meetings in their official capacity. There may be a few walking around given that it is in DC but I have never viewed this as a venue to get to know your friendly SRO.


  15. Horseman Says:

    Nice post, DM. I don’t perceive you as being an overt slimeball, so it’s good to know there are successful people out there that believe you can walk the line of Schmoozing without selling your proverbial (or actual) soul to the devil. I’ve always been afraid that if I truly make it in academic science that one morning I’ll wake up and vomit at my own reflection in the mirror for all the sucking up I’ve done.


  16. juniorprof Says:

    As far as I know SROs (“administrator” changed to “officer” some time ago) don’t appear at scientific meetings in their official capacity. There may be a few walking around given that it is in DC but I have never viewed this as a venue to get to know your friendly SRO.
    The SRO that covers my study main study section can be spotted at any variety of meeting at any time. I know he will be at SFN and he is generally around at other field specific meetings. I have heard that he is an exception to the rule.


  17. molliebatmit Says:

    What about grad students?
    I applied for an individual NRSA this year and got a decent percentile that didn’t make the cutoff for funding, so I’m planning to reapply with a more focused proposal. Would it be worthwhile to stop by and chat with my PO, or is that more of a PI thing to do?


  18. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    You should definitely talk to your PO if you can find them about your NRSA.
    One other warning however: Do NOT become a PO or SRO “stalker”. Don’t whine and obsess and complain to them. Keep it very positive and constructive.
    Finally, dont follow them to bathroom and leer at them while they pee. I have tried this. It does NOT work!
    Dr. F


  19. DrugMonkey Says:

    Mollie-what Feelgood said
    Feelgood my friend, you need to start a blog.


  20. bioephemera Says:

    Great advice as usual. . . when I was a grad student I was totally ignorant of the NIH system. I could have got started much earlier understanding where the money comes from and how the ICs divide their labor. And I’ve yet to encounter a PO that doesn’t want to chat about their specialty. I just wish I could be at SfN schmoozing too. 😦 Damn ambiguous maladies that swell one’s throat shut.


  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    ewan @#6: for NIH grants for sure you should lay out the timeline to potential funding. Difficult now because of changes in the number of revisions and the pressure to get summary statements back more quickly. But lay out submission dates and first possible award dates. 2011 will arrive quite soon even assuming just one revision!


  22. bioE: looks like I’m going to miss it too. Hope the MonkeyLoverz and PhysioPhants have a great time.
    My mentor was not exceptionally savvy on the NIH workings at the time, but he did send me to a Gordon Conference in our area twice during my grad school years. Our PO and both SROs (then-SRAs) of the two major study sections where our grants were assigned were there – talk about a great environment in which to chat with them about the grants process!
    I fear that the POs at SfN are not going to be quite prepared for the onslaught of interest propelled by this post. How about some new buttons for the SchwagShop, DM?: “I read DrugMonkey and I love my PO!”


  23. DrugMonkey Says:

    meetup details have been emailed to my list of interested parties. If you didn’t get an email from me, let me know and I’ll send you the details.


  24. DrugMonkey Says:

    As far as I know SROs (“administrator” changed to “officer” some time ago) don’t appear at scientific meetings in their official capacity.
    I was wrong. CSR is in the house with a booth and everything. It is very entertaining to go by and try to get some info on the upcoming changes and the rationale for prior changes!!


  25. […] post originally went up Nov 12, 2008. I've edited a few things for links and […]


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