Episode 3: Starting Your Lab & Repaying Your Loans
In this episode of Inside Cancer Careers, we first hear from Dr. Simon Schwörer, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago in Hematology Oncology, and how he started his own lab. We then hear from Matthew Lockhart, Director of the Division of Loan Repayment at the NIH to discuss the Loan Repayment Program (LRP) along with LRP Ambassador, Dr. Dionna Williams, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology at Johns Hopkins and LRP recipient, Dr. Arnethea Sutton, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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Segment 1: Starting Your Lab
Simon Schwörer, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwörer assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago in Hematology Oncology. He earned a BS and MS in Molecular Medicine from Ulm University and a PhD in Molecular Biomedicine from Friedrich Schiller University, in Germany. In 2017 he started his postdoctoral training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program. In 2021 he was awarded a K99 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Cancer Institute. In October 2022, he started a faculty position at the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Medicine. The Schwörer Lab investigates the metabolic control of cancer-associated fibroblast (CAF) activation, heterogeneity and function in the tumor microenvironment. The overarching goal of their research is to identify tumor-specific metabolic vulnerabilities of CAFs that can be targeted to limit tumor progression and/or overcome therapy resistance.
Segment 2: Repaying Your Loans
Matt Lockhart, M.B.A.
Matthew Lockhart is the Director of the Division of Loan Repayment (DLR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he is responsible for administering and providing leadership for the NIH Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) as well as representing NIH on matters related to the operations, policy development and evaluation of the LRPs. Before coming to NIH, Mr. Lockhart led the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mr. Lockhart’s academic background includes a B.A. in Mathematics from Gallaudet University and an M.B.A. in Organizational Management from the University of Maryland.
Arnethea Sutton, Ph.D.
Dr. Sutton is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and a research member of the VCU Massey Cancer Center. Dr. Sutton received her PhD from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2017, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer prevention and control in 2022. She has expertise in cancer prevention and control and cancer disparities. Her work, funded by a K99/R00 from the National Cancer Institute, focuses on elucidating factors associated with racial differences in cardiovascular outcomes within the context of breast cancer survivorship.
Dionna Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology and the Division of Clinical Pharmacology in the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine. She received her Ph.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroimmunology and neuropharmacology at JHU. Dr. Williams is involved in several research projects, including studies on drug-drug interactions between cocaine and HIV antiretroviral therapies (ART), studies on the role of substance abuse in exacerbating ART neurotoxicity, and the impact of substance abuse in the development of psychiatric and mood disorders in people living with HIV. In addition to her research endeavors, Dr. Williams is deeply committed to mentorship and serves as a research mentor to high school, undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, veterinary, and graduate students in her research laboratory– of whom 80% have belonged to a racial/ethnic minority group historically underrepresented in science and medicine.
Segment 1: Starting Your Lab
- Dr. Simon Schwörer
- Leibniz Institute on Aging in Jena
- The Craig Thompson Lab
- Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research
- NCI K99/R00
Segment 2: Repaying Your Loans
- NIH Loan Repayment Programs
- LRP Dashboard
- LRP Ambassador Program
- LRP Institutes & Centers Contacts
- Dr. Arnethea Sutton
- Dr. Dionna Williams
- NIH LRP Twitter
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OLIVER BOGLER: Hello and welcome to Inside Cancer Careers, a podcast from the National Cancer Institute. I'm your host Oliver Bogler. I work at the NCI, in the Center for Cancer Training.
On Inside Cancer Careers we explore all the different ways that people join the fight against disease and hear their stories.
In this episode we are talking with Dr. Simon Schwörer who recently started his lab at the University of Chicago and to Matthew Lockhart, director of the Loan Repayment Program at the National Institutes of Health who is joined by two recent participants in that program: Dr. Dionna Williams and Dr. Arnethea Sutton.
Listen to the end to hear some interesting recommendations – and where we invite you to take “Your Turn”.
OLIVER: Welcome Dr. Simon Schwörer to the podcast. He's an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago in Hematology Oncology and focuses research on the interaction between cancer cells and associated fibroblasts and how they interact with the goal of finding metabolic pathways that can be targeted for therapy. Welcome to the podcast.
SIMON: Schwörer: Thanks Oliver. It is a pleasure to be here.
OLIVER: I'd like to know more about how you chose your path, both in terms of where you trained and also why you wanted to become a scientist and why you chose the area of cancer biology that you're working in.
SIMON: Yeah. So becoming a scientist was really based on my interest of just understanding how things work all the time, always asking why and never being satisfied with “Oh yeah, that's just how it is”. And I always wanted to understand, you know, even on a smaller scale level, a molecular level, how do things work, you know, why do we get sick?
So that's why I really wanted to become a researcher and trying to understand causes of disease. That's kind of what motivated me to, you know, study science. Regarding my path, so I studied molecular medicine at Ulm University, with the goal of becoming a researcher and I guess the trajectory from there was more a combination of, you know, my own interests that would offer sign, but also to some extent, you know, serendipity kind of things just went came together in a good way for me to some extent. I just finished my and my bachelor thesis. I was I was working for a few months here in the lab that studies the neuroregeneration. I was being open minded at the time, interested in anything. And then I started my master's thesis, which is a thing that people normally do in Europe before they do their Ph.D. training. And it became clear to me that I needed a bit more. I wanted to have more training in research, learning more methods and just becoming more exposed. So I, I applied for several positions as a research assistant and eventually obtained one in a lab that studied stem cell aging that was still at Ulm University in Germany. But my main job was genotyping of mice.
But, you know, of course I was not satisfied with that and wanted to do more and more and spend a lot of time in the work in the lab and the post-doc that mentored me, who I worked for at the time was really supportive. And, you know, even trying to teach me more methods and gave me more insight in his work.
And I was able to participate in lab meetings. And so I got really excited about the research in the lab back then. And the research was in the lab of Dr. Karl Lenhard Rudolph at Ulm University back then. And eventually I decided to do my master's thesis there spent half a year every day in the lab. And it was really a lot of fun.
And my topic was, if you understand molecular mechanisms of stem cell dysfunction and aging, so majorly focusing on muscle stem cells, with the idea being that, you know, stem cell dysfunction is a cause for the inability of the elderly to regenerate muscle tissue. So I did this work on the stem cell, function and regeneration, and that was really exciting.
And we had some very interesting findings. And at the time, that's where first, you know, serendipity comes into play. The head of the lab was offered a position as a director of a Leibniz Institute in Germany, the Leibniz Institute on Aging, and that was in the east of Germany, in Jena. And he offered me a position as Ph.D. student.
And because I was so in love with what I was doing and really liked it, I didn't hesitate. And I accepted this position. So I moved back in 2013 to Jena and started my Ph.D. work there.
OLIVER: So, Simon, you mentioned a couple of times that you loved your work. Can you tell us a little bit more about what is it that you loved? You loved the actual doing of it, the intellectual elements? Tell us more.
SIMON: It was it was all of it. So it was both, you know, still at this young stage of my career, learning a lot of new things, learning new methods, but also, you know, having some interesting findings that you're trying to understand, come up with experiments to address these things. So it was both like the intellectual aspect and just having interesting results that we didn't understand at the time and, you know, provoking us to ask more questions and getting a deeper understanding.
So it was really just a lot of joy for me, spending long hours in the lab and it's really great. So really what's clear for me at the time that this is what I wanted to do going forward, and it was an easy decision for me doing a Ph.D. because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. That makes sense.
OLIVER: Yeah. So you did that PhD at Jena, at the Leibniz Institute.
SIMON: Exactly at the Leibniz Institute on Ageing in Jena so I started there in 2013 and my topic was building up to some extent on the master’s thesis work that I did. At the end, we had some very interesting findings on a specific gene being, or gene signature being upregulated in old muscle stem cells. And I further explored this in a mouse model and we tried to see if we can prevent the accumulation of this gene product can we potentially, you know, reverse stem cell dysfunction.
That is exactly what we found. And furthermore, building up on these findings, what are the causes of upregulation of this gene signature? And again, we ended up defining what we call it at the time and epigenetic stress response. And so basically and we found that most stem cells show a very particular change in their epigenome after stress or stress being, for example, the injury to the muscle tissue.
And that response is very different in the old stem cells and that was our big finding at the time. And from there on, I of course, wanted to explore. So why is that? You know, why do we see this dysregulation of the epigenome, you know, and at the same time, there were several studies coming out specifically in the cancer metabolism world that there's a strong connection between epigenome and metabolism.
So metabolism regulates the epigenome. And you know, based on this and my reading and my interest, I was really convinced almost that some metabolic changes have to be the cause of these findings that we had. And so I realized this is the next step in my career. I needed to know more about metabolism because I need to come to the root cause of this defect that we observed.
And I was clear to me that I definitely have to go to a metabolism lab to really get deep training in metabolism and not just go to a stem cell lan that potentially has a metabolism project. So I really wanted to get this deep understanding of this. Again with the idea of potentially applying it to my stem cell dysfunction and aging system.
OLIVER: So that informed your of your search for a postdoc lab?
SIMON: Exactly. That informed my search for postdoc lab. I really wanted to go to a lab in the end that does metabolism work. And then I luckily ended up on yeah, I ended up in the lab of Craig Thompson at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. So he offered me a position in his lab after I interviewed there, and I moved then to New York in October 2017 and then started my work there.
OLIVER: And so that must have been a change from Jena to New York.
SIMON: It was a, it was a big change for me. Quite so. So I even more so because I come from a very small village in Germany, which is a few thousand inhabitants. So it was a big change. But, you know, over the course of my career and, you know, being in Ulm and Jena, like small, smaller cities in Germany, I really enjoyed more the city life.
I mean, it was not as big city, of course, as in New York. But that gave me, you know, the opportunity to really enjoy it even more so in New York. I mean, all the things that are offered in such a big city was really great. In addition to the science, of course, that was really great at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
So that was was a big change. But yeah, for the good in the end.
OLIVER: Fantastic. And then and you completed your postdoc with Dr. Thompson and then moved on to the next part of the career, which I think is one of the most probably exciting and stressful. Was it stressful for you looking for your faculty position?
SIMON: It was stressful. So let me just mention, I think complete the circle a little bit. How I ended up with, you know, what I'm doing now. So there is one small thing to share about this, which is that I came to Craig Thompson's lab again, still had the idea of metabolism and stem cells, which he even did at a time.
And when I started it was more like “Yeah, we are not working on this anymore, Simon”. So I kind of had to come up with, okay, what am I doing now in this lab? I was really never exposed in my research career on cancer despite having studied cancer metabolism.
And so I realized I'm probably not a good cancer biologist, but maybe I'll start working on the normal cells in the tumor microenvironment. So that's how I ended up working on cancer associated fibroblasts. And at the time, you know, people published work on how that these cells can even release metabolites to support the survival or growth of cancer cells in the tumor.
But it was not really known how, you know, these cells actually work themselves. And how can they support their own function. It's known that cancer cell rely on their metabolism to support their proliferation. But how fibroblasts in the tumor do that hasn't been. You know, and that's really the problem that I started to tackle as a postdoc, and that eventually that helped me to get to this point of having a successful postdoc and being able to compete for faculty positions.
OLIVER: Fascinating because, I mean, I think it represents a recognition of a tumor as more than just a bunch of cancer cells, right? I mean, we've learned about blood vessels and so on. And now we're learning through your work and that of others that that these other quote, normal cells are being recruited into the community of the tumor and their behavior is changing in a way that's important.
So it's fascinating and interesting that you came out of a non-cancer background and found that niche for yourself, just like the cancer fibroblasts associated fibroblasts have their niche. You kind of came in, right? And now you're doing great stuff. So yeah. So tell us about the hunt for the assistant professorship.
SIMON: Yeah. So the hunt started probably in summer 2021. So we're trying we are just trying to wrap up our second story of my postdoc work. And, you know, we've just got to actually reviews back of a paper that we’re trying to send, that we were sending out and I was sitting with my mentor, Craig Thompson, in his office, and he was…
He was we were talking about, of course, about the experiments we were doing and all we would have to do to address all the reviewers’ comments. But then he also after the conversation asked me “Oh, Simon, when you when are you starting to apply?” And I'm like, “Oh yeah”, I wasn't sure if I'm if I should apply this year.
I he said, “Yeah, you should definitely apply. You know, your paper is coming out, hopefully”. And so that really motivated me to, okay, this is it's actually really good timing for me. I mean, I knew I wanted to attain a faculty position, but I wasn't sure that I could already apply at this time. And so that's started it all.
And then, you know, while doing all the experiments to revise our manuscript, I also, you know, tried to think, what is there beyond this? You know, I'm trying to develop my own research program over the course of that summer, 2021. And and then probably September, I started to submit my first applications to positions that were posted online.
OLIVER: And how many positions, if I may ask, did you apply for?
SIMON: I applied for 22 positions in the end. So I guess there was a recent study and I think that described this process. And I think that’s more like average what people do nowadays, about 20ish, some people more, some people have less. But I felt I felt, at least at the time, comfortable with the number of applications that I that I sent out.
That potentially if I if I don't get anything at this moment, I would still have another chance, maybe a year later.
OLIVER: Right. Right. And the position at the University of Chicago. Tell us a little bit more about why you picked that particular place.
SIMON: Yeah. So in the end, what would make me choose this is yes, one main thing was the that at the University of Chicago, they really are building up a new center for cancer metabolism that is really focused on all aspects of metabolism that are related to cancer. And they were looking for they recruited recently another person at just a year earlier who was focused on metabolic flux analysis in vivo and tumors and an even in patients and now they were interested in someone and it was interesting to microenvironment and that's really I think was a great fit for I was a good fit for them, but also they were a great fit for what I was looking for.
I really wanted to be in an environment where I'm not the only one who's doing metabolism research, but to have a community where I could discuss my ideas, but also have the resources available to do the research that I'm doing. That was a big driver for me. And yeah, of course then also during the interview process, the discussions with the other faculty and the search committee, but also, you know, and the entire department and section, they were really all positive.
And so that was I guess one of the major aspects. And, you know, being then be able to be part of this new program and even develop, help develop and shape this program. So that you can at this early stage kind of being influential on where this program of cancer metabolism goes. So that was really one of the biggest factors driving my decision to come to the
OLIVER: Sounds fantastic. It sounds like a great environment, lots of colleagues and interest in the area. So so you set up your lab towards the end of last year, right? Is that correct? And so tell us about that. What was it like to move to another city, you know, come into an empty space and start imagining your own research lab in that space?
SIMON: Yeah. So it was not that much of a shock like it's often reported, you know, when you scoured the Internet that, you know, you come there, people open the door of your office and say, Oh, is this the office that you go to? And the lab? So I mean, I had a lot of support early on and you know, and in our section and department and everybody was trying to help me, you know, set up lab, set up the office.
You know, people were looking after me - that was really good. And again, I got a lot of help initially, even now still from the other person they recruited a year before me for the same program, so a shout out to my neighbor and friend Brandon [Faubert] for his help in getting me started. And yeah. And so, you know, I kind of had another lab that was built from scratch next to me, and so I kind of took that a lot of it as inspiration.
But of course also my pictures are all my former lab and maps looked like and of course my own idea what did I like and did I not like about how these other labs were set up. What do I want to have different if I can create my own lab? So that was a super exciting time just to get I mean, to build up the lab in a way that I like.
So that was really a lot of fun and it took a lot of time to research all the equipment, consumables, reagentsyou get, but you know, once they were in, it was really a lot of fun, especially, you know, the month of December, I kind of waited on unpacking a lot of the boxes and then took the month of December, kind of almost like I dealt with the boxes of like Christmas presents and opened them.
And it was a lot of fun. And then, you know, rearranging things every day. And and then, you know, just before the holidays, we had the lab set up and I got all my major equipment. Most of my major equipment. And so, yeah, then I left for the holiday break with very great feeling that the lab was set up and starting January 2nd, we could really do something in there.
OLIVER: That sounds fantastic. Yeah. Congratulations. But I do wonder what was the hardest part of, you know, taking that step towards independence.
SIMON: So I think to answer to that in terms of the job hunt. So what was it maybe that might be interesting to your listeners? What was hard for me in the beginning to actually communicate my science in those initial interviews. There were a lot of screening interviews involved, and I think I did poorly in those. And I think the problem was that I just often wasn't concise enough, couldn't bring my message and also why my work matters.
Why is it important to, you know, to the point and I think, you know, I know in those 20 - 30 minute phone calls, I didn't do my best job. But then later, you know, I learned through the process and, you know, communication with other lab members and other people, you know, who we're also in this helped, you know, to refine, you know, those answers from my side.
And, you know, and of course, the experience that I had myself. So that was the one part. And then the other part about, you know, what is challenging in terms of being independent now? I think the most challenging thing is now really doing needing to take care of everything yourself. So and that has of course, has it's great side, like really being able to develop your own ideas and just doing what you are interested in that is now that's awesome.
At the same time, you know, I have to get all the things organized in the background so you can actually do those cool things that I'm interested in. That's, that's with all the, you know, biosafety animal protocols that starts, and a lot of other administration administrative tasks that I have to do that we're just always taking care of.
And in the background, some to some extent didn't even know I needed to do these kinds of things that I now have to do. So I wouldn't say it was a shock, but it was there was just more work through it than than I thought there would be.
OLIVER: You know, Thank you very much. I mean, there are those chores, right? I mean, it's not, unfortunately, a science like any job. You have to keep certain things running. Simon, we met on Twitter, and I remember you were posting about a grant that you got very soon after you made this transition. And I know that you were part of the NCI’s K99/R00 program.
I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that grant and then the new one that you got and what that was like?
SIMON: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So I was lucky, or I was happy enough to obtain the K99 from the NCI. I was awarded in April 2021. Writing the grant back then was a good experience because I was able to write it during the lockdown in 2020. So that kind of helped me to keep it together, I guess writing this grant and and then, you know, afterwards the work we did and then we later published at the end of 2021 was based on this grant and that was and was really good experience and really helped me to, I guess, build up the foundation of the research program that I'm working on now.
So that was a great experience and transition to the R00 phase. And I think I mentioned this to you on Twitter, it took a bit longer than I than I would have imagined. And so we started I started to work on the R00 transition in summer 2021, just one or two months after I obtained my faculty position and we so writing that was you know interesting and it again again helped me shape my ideas what I actually what I'm actually doing in my own lab and I got a lot of good support from the University of Chicago, even though I wasn't there yet.
You know, from the administration side, from the grants management office, there was really a lot of support there. And yeah, it took, maybe it was the end of one fiscal year to start the other fiscal year, that it took so long. But I eventually obtained the R00 in mid-January. So I'm really relieved to have this support. But now the other grant and yeah so I'm just mentioning I wrote the R00 in the summer 2021 and we submitted it in in July.
So it was kind of in grant writing mode at the time. And, and I was of course, researching what else is out there and what could be some early what could be some grants that I could apply as as a once I once I transitioned to my faculty position and at the time and still my research is now focusing a lot on pancreatic cancer.
And I found an opportunity from the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. And, you know, it turned out that to have that to have one cycle every year in mid-August, that was, of course, before I started, I started my new position and I was in the grant writing mode, but why not? I have so many ideas and so I, you know, just after finishing my R00, I took, you know, some more time and developed this proposal.
And again, it was very helpful in shaping the ideas and of course there are a lot of ideas out there when I interviewed for the position, but actually really planning to entire research program in this proposal was also very helpful. So I said, even if I don't obtain this award, it was a good experience because I really know now what we should do to get to the point to get from A to Z and just and yeah, I told myself, even if I don't get it,
it is a good experience and I have nothing to lose by not doing it? And because no one expects me to get a grant even before I start my position and yeah. And it looked like that's the proposal I wrote was, was good enough. And yeah, I was lucky to obtain this grant early on. So I really appreciate the support of the Hirshberg Foundation for even for such a early career investigator like myself who just started out.
So I really appreciate that.
OLIVER: Well, congratulations. That's fantastic. It sounds like you're off to a running start. One last question. Now that you are the head of the group, what are you telling or what are you planning on telling the grad students and postdocs that will be part of your team?
SIMON: So I would tell I would speak, of course, a lot about my own experience. And you know, what helped me to get to the point where I'm now, you know, of course, always saying that my that my experience might not be, you know, exactly what your experience would be or my position is not the same that your position is.
But, you know, that being said, what I always tell people who are interested in joining my lab now that you know what I'm really looking for, and I think what you should be, if you want to be in this in environment, is really be just excited about science in general, kind of having this love for science and and that's what drives so much of your motivation to kind of show up every day and go deeper.
And even if a lot of things fail I mean, experiments fail, job applications fail, that it still keeps you going. And I think at least that has been my experience that at some point this is always going to going to be rewarded, just being with, you know, coming to the core or what it really is that is driving what are there for, obtaining a faculty position or other positions, even if the first time doesn't work, you know, just don't give up.
And I have some, you know, even personal experience to share in this. So I had some failures and of course in my science. But I guess one personal failure, that was when I participated in the New York City marathon in 2018, and I ran marathons before and I was motivated to do a new personal best.
And I was on track of that until I fainted one mile before the finish line. And I couldn't finish the race just one mile before the finish line. And I was I was so down for so many days and weeks afterwards. But I stood up again and I was able to qualify for the year after. And I just did it all over again, learning from my mistakes that I did.
And then I made it. And it wasn't my personal best, but it was still I made it. And sometimes it's also just good to make it. You don't necessarily have to be the best, but just even making it and, you know, overcoming things that you failed before has been a good lesson also on a personal level. So kind of being dedicated, being excited about what you're doing. Don’t let yourself, you know, be down even if people tell you so that is something which I would share.
OLIVER: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Schwörer, for that. Very inspirational and thanks for sharing your most recent steps of your career. And we wish you all the best success in the future. Exciting research and that you continue to share your passion and enjoyment for science with, with us and with the community. Thank you.
SIMON: Thank you very much.
OLIVER: Let's take a quick break to alert our listeners to an upcoming opportunity. In April, we will be at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, AACR, in Orlando to share about how NCI supports cancer research training. With me today are two colleagues who can tell us more. First, Erika Ginsburg, director of the Office of Training and Education. Erika, what will you be talking about at our ACR session?
ERIKA GINSBURG: Well, NCI is known primarily for funding cancer research across the nation, but there are also numerous fellowships available to conduct basic clinical or genomic and population based research at one of the three NCI campuses in Maryland. My team and I help take care of our trainees on these campuses. At ACR, you will hear about training opportunities as well as some of the career exploration and professional development resources provided to trainees within the intramural research program.
OLIVER: That sounds great. Erika, thank you. Let's turn to Nas Zahir, the director of the cancer training branch. Nas, what will you be sharing in the session?
NAS ZAHIR: I will be at AACR with several colleagues from the branch. My group will have informative presentations on NCI funding opportunities, including fellowships and career development awards, and they will share tips for preparing strong applications. I will be providing an overview of the session and serve as a session moderator.
OLIVER: It sounds fantastically helpful to people who are thinking of submitting grants. Thank you. All three of us will be at the NCI booth in the exhibit hall from time to time. So come to our session where you can listen and ask questions and come to the booth and find out more there. We look forward to seeing you all in Orlando in April. Now back to the podcast.
OLIVER: At Inside Cancer Careers, we're interested in how people make challenging cancer careers work. It's important to support people who are engaged in academic biomedicine because their research contributes to advances against disease. Many people know that the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, give out a lot of competitive research grants. Perhaps less well known is a program that we're talking about today with Matthew Lockhart, Director of the Division of Loan repayment at the NIH. Matthew is speaking with us with the help of an American Sign Language interpreter. Welcome, Matthew.
MATTHEW LOCKHART: And thank you, Oliver. I appreciate it. Happy to be here.
OLIVER: So I thought the NIH gave research grants, Matthew, but what is this about loan repayment?
MATTHEW: Loan repayments is a separate committee-mandated program that encourages and gives incentives to scientists who want to pursue research through career in academia, so and we do that by paying the student loans and up to 50,000 for a two-year commitment for research.
OLIVER: So the mission of the LRP is to help people stay in academic medicine, is that correct?
MATTHEW: That's correct. Yes, and in any nonprofit setting, we, you know, we don't want to be losing researchers to the industry who offer a higher salary and better incentives, so we -- how we compete with that is by offering a loan repayment program as an option to keep them, to stay in academia.
OLIVER: When was the program started?
MATTHEW: Okay. So it's a little bit of a long history, but so we started back in the '80s, the extramural research programs like as we know it now is more than 20 years old.
OLIVER: So how many awards does the LRP typically make in a given year?
MATTHEW: I think roughly around about 1,000, 1300 awards. I should mention that we do have different subcommittees under the extramural program. We have six, currently, subcategories, clinical research, pediatric research, health disparities, clinical research for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, and contraception and infertility research.
And then the sixth is the newest, and the new subcommittee is REACH, research in emerging areas that are critical to human health, and that's REACH for short. So those six are all -- within those six, it's about a total of about 1,300 yearly.
OLIVER: You mentioned the size of the awards. Are they for multiple years?
MATTHEW: Yeah, so that's a good question. So all the new awards are two years, and then and they can possibly be renewed for one or two years. There's no limit to the number of renewals, renewal awards, and as long as the applicant maintains the eligibility criteria, and then they can apply for that renewals until their education debt is paid off in full.
OLIVER: What's the chance of success? What -- how many people of the people who apply obtain the awards?
MATTHEW: Historically, we say about 50%. We have a 50% success rate, but in recent years, that has gone up a bit. Maybe we're closer to 55% or 60%. And we have a good success rate. With the renewals, that success rate is higher and that's around 75% to 80%
OLIVER: So what kind of individuals does the LRP typically go to? What are the requirements for an application?
MATTHEW: So the eligibility criteria, right, we have five basic eligibility criterias that you have to meet. First is you have to be a US citizen or a permanent resident or a naturalized US citizen. You have to have your doctorate level degree, or equivalent, and so and we do have some exceptions to that rule, for example. Contraception and infertility research program, that category does not require a doctorate level degree, and there are some REACH programs, and some of the ICs don't require a doctorate level degree.
Require a commitment to research for average of 20 hours per week. We -- you have to have a debt that is equivalent or above to 20% of your annual income. Then and the research has to be done -- it has to be at a nonprofit institute.
OLIVER: I understand that there are some myths that you commonly hear about the LRP program. I wonder what the most common ones are and what the real story is.
MATTHEW: Yeah, so I'm laughing because yeah, there are many myths out there, and I can't cover them all. a lot of people think that they have to come to NIH to do the research here and to be eligible to be qualified for that, and that's not the case. Another one would be, I think that they think they have to come up with some new research and that -- you know, the project separate from what they're already doing, and that's not the case as well.
You can use existing research that's already been approved. For example, if you have a K award or a T32 or F30, or even a R01, if you already have that grant approved, you can use that to qualify for the LRP. You don't have to come up with something new, new research programs for the purposes of applying to for that program.
OLIVER: That's interesting, because usually in NIH grants, there's strict rules around overlap, but you're saying that LRP is not subject to that.
MATTHEW: That's right, because we're not funding research activity, per se. We're just paying down the scientist person or the loan debt.
OLIVER: Right, you're helping people stay in academic medicine, rather than funding their research directly.
MATTHEW: That's correct.
OLIVER: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much, Matthew. I'd like to turn now to our other guests we have with us today. Dr. Dionna Williams, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology at Johns Hopkins, and Dr. Arnethea Sutton, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. Welcome.
DIONNA WILLIAMS: Thank you. Happy to be here.
OLIVER: Dr. Williams, I understand that you are an ambassador for the LRP program. Could you tell us what an ambassador does in this program?
DIONNA: Yes, the ambassadors I think are really important kind of points of contact for the LRP, particularly people who are interested in applying. That's most the people that I interact with. They're stationed throughout the whole country, and you can look this up, it's on the website. And people reach out to me to get help with their applications from the very, very beginning stages of thinking up ideas, to seeing if they're eligible for certain criteria, should they go for clinical or health disparities, that kind of thing, to really the nitty-gritty of what loans are eligible, and if I consolidate, does that discount me or, you know, what should I do to prepare the award.
Or I'm coming up for renewal; what did you do to become, you know, successful in getting your renewals? So it really runs the gamut of people contacting me for inquiries. People at my home institution of Hopkins have come up to me, but there are people who I don't even know just who email me from across the country. And I've even had people on social media say, "Hey, I saw your Twitter. I saw you tweet about LRP. Do you want to talk about it with me?" And I'm always happy to do that. So really, my job is to help educate and raise awareness of the LRPs, and ultimately how people receive it successfully.
I even have put on like seminars at my home institution as well just like [inaudible] people to be able to get more information about it.
OLIVER: Thank you very much. Dr. Sutton, I wonder. You participated in the LRP program. Can you tell us a little bit about how that worked and what the impact was on your career?
ARNETHEA SUTTON: Yeah, so I was fortunate enough to get an LRP. I believe the first one I got was in 2018, and that was as a postdoc, and I am currently still funded under it, so I had a two-year award to start out, and then I've had two one-year awards, and I am patiently awaiting to hear about my most recent application for renewal, but it's definitely been like a burden lifted. It's just like, you know, Matt was talking about.
They handle your student loans, and so definitely, as a postdoc, even as a junior faculty, knowing that you don't have to worry about how am I going to pay off my loans, what, you know, what kind of side hustles do I need to do to pay off my loans, like, you can focus on your research and know that that part is taken care of. It's been a tremendous blessing.
OLIVER: So you applied right in while you were still in postdoc?
ARNETHEA: I did. I started my postdoc in 2017, and that's when I first learned about it, and I underestimated that application. So I found out about it, and I said, "Oh, yeah, I'll apply for this." And September applications opened up and I said, "Oh, I got time," and before I knew it, applications closed, and I did not have an application in, and so knowing what the application process took, I went in in 2018, and was successfully funded the following year.
OLIVER: How did you hear about the program?
ARNETHEA: There -- I heard. It's old school. I saw a flyer around our department, and then I asked my PI about it, and she knew about it and gave me more information, but that was prior to -- I don't even think I saw much on Twitter, and I was pretty active on Twitter. Now that's not the case, because you see a large LRP Twitter presence now, but back then, it was just a flyer hanging around.
OLIVER: Well, thank you. Dr. Williams, you've also participated in the program, in addition to being an ambassador. I wonder if you could tell us how it impacted your career.
DIONNA: Yeah, so I applied. I got my first award in 2015, so I began April 2nd, 2014, in September, right when it was opening. And when I interviewed for the postdoc, I asked my mentor, I said, "Okay, I'm going to need time for this thing. Are you okay with that? I hope, you know." And she said sure, she'd support me. And I submitted for November, and I got it on the first try, very, very thankfully. I've renewed since then. One year, I did not get the renewal, and I was like, "Oh, no, should I reapply?"
But I did, and I got them subsequently, and my loans were just paid off this last, like this last summer, so it's been incredibly life-changing at that time, because salaries are much lower than they are now, so I only made I think, like $41,000. I had a lot of extenuating life circumstances, and younger siblings to take care of on that postdoc salary, so it was just not affordable, and it really came to the point where I had to be like, I can't afford to stay here.
I can't. I just can't pay my bills. Like I want to do this, but I'm not able to, and so LRP was been just a huge burden lifted, because that was 500 bucks in my pocket each month, right? -- that I didn't have to pay after the very, very first payment. So it's been outstanding for my life. It's also been really helpful for my career as well and helped me stay competitive in academia. My LRP proposal was not funded.
It was kind of like my side project, and it let my mentor kind of help me get dedicated time for this thing that was unique to her, and that became the base of my K award that I got. And then that K award I came here basis of my R01 that I got, so it really stemmed from the LRP and being able to work on this thing that I was really interested in, but I didn't have training in and my mentor was not working on it. And of course she didn't have funds for that project either, but I think it helped her see like, oh, this something that's important.
It's fundable by the NIH. Yes, you can have this time to work on this, you know, project.
OLIVER: That's fantastic. It's so good to hear that the LRP and then the K award and the R award. That's how we try to support our scientists, investigators. So that's fantastic. Dr. Sutton, I wonder if you were speaking to someone who's thinking about applying for LRP, what advice would you be giving them?
ARNETHEA: The first thing I would say is read that application guide from cover to cover. I think no matter how many times I've applied, I print it out and I read it. It's just like any grant. So, you know, you might think you know it one time, and the next time something will change, and especially with some of the new like, institutes and like categories they have, so it's worth reading it. The other thing I would highly suggest is, you know, if you're on social media, if you even type in LRP, you'll find a ton of people who have it. You'll find individuals who work for NIH who are willing to engage you about what, you know, what it's like, what the process is like, you know, help dispel some of those myths, and so I highly recommend that.
And then, you know, similar to what Dr. William says, I consider myself I guess, a more unofficial ambassador, but I have -- people have reached out to me all the time on social media about the LRP process, if I'm willing to get on a Zoom and talk about it, talk about some of my materials, and I'm always welcome to do that. I'm sure others are, too.
OLIVER: Dr. Williams, I -- you're an ambassador. You're giving advice all the time. What would you add to what Dr. Sutton has already shared with us?
DIONNA: I will totally second reading the instructions because since I first applied to my last renewal, the application process and the website changed substantially, so read the rules. I would say become really well versed with the website. There are so many nuggets and gems on there that people don't realize, like success rates for different institutes. If you're thinking about my work could be, you know, between these two, well, what's the success rate? Be strategic.
Think about and kind of shop around where your grant or your proposal might best fit. And I'd say the other one would be to go for it and not feel like, well, you know, I'm only a brand-new postdoc, or, well, I can, you know, be persistent and wait till I get to become faculty to apply. No, just apply right away. There's no reason to wait. And another thing I would say was I had some people who didn't understand LRP give me well-intentioned, but not good advice, and they told me not to apply because they didn't give funds for your research, and that it wouldn't be quote-unquote counted as [inaudible] grant.
And it is true, it is a contract. It is not a grant, but it's reviewed by NIH-funded investigators because LRP very likely, right, and it's prestigious, and it can still go on your CV, and so there are merits to it. It also helps give you confidence that this is fundable by the NIH and [inaudible] funding, so I'd say don't be discouraged just because it doesn't come with research funds.
OLIVER: Thank you very much, Dr. Williams. Let me turn back to you, Matthew, please. What advice do you give to people about the application process?
MATTHEW: Yeah, so first piece of advice I would give most applicants and I do say this all the time, is you really have to talk with a program officer before you apply. The LRP has 24 different institute centers that participate in this program. Each one of them that I see has their own missions and research priorities, and sometimes the applicant will have some research that might be -- have -- might fit more than one institute center, so I encourage them to talk to the program officers at each institute to really figure out which ones are a good match before you submit your application.
So we do have a list of programs, program officers on our website with their name and their contact information, emails and stuff like that. So and I always encourage the applicant to talk with them, the program officers first.
OLIVER: Thank you very much. I want to thank all of you for joining us today to talk about LRP. As always, we have lots of links and information on our show notes, so people can click through to the LRP website and also Dr. Sutton and Dr. Williams's pages on their respective universities, and I'm sure there's ways to contact them and also on social media. So thank you very much to our guests.
ARNETHEA: Thank you for having me.
DIONNA: Yes. Thank you again. It's been great being here.
MATTHEW: And thank you, yes.
OLIVER: And now, now it's time for a segment we call Your Turn, because it's a chance for our listeners to send in a recommendation that they would like to share. If you're listening, then you're invited to take your turn. Send us a tip for a book, a video, a podcast, or a talk that you found inspirational or amusing or interesting.
You can send these to us at NCIICC@NIH.gov. Record a voice memo and send it along. We may just play it in an upcoming episode. Now I'd like to invite Dr. Schwörer to take his turn.
SIMON: Thank you. And can I also share multiple things?
OLIVER: Of course. Please. Yes.
SIMON: Great. So an immediate recommendation that is tangible. I liked reading recently the book Getting Things Done - people know about it. That was recommended to me by another recent new PI and it has helped me getting my time management in place and getting things a bit better organized. Although I learned that I did already many things that were suggested.
But you know, you can always improve. So that was a good recommendation. And then I think what I can also recommend is – we talked earlier about academic review and recommendations there. You know, have some good hobbies and recommendations and things to do outside the lab. Have a pet. I have a cat. I love my cat. And I always forget about anything else when I cuddle and play with her.
So it's great having hobbies like running. That's what I do. Cooking helps me calm down after a long day at work. You know? Just have some fun outside the lab as well.
OLIVER: Thank you for that. That's. Yeah, I think I can only agree with that. Thank you. I'd like to make a recommendation as well. It's a podcast, the Cancer History podcast. It's part of the Cancer History project itself. An interesting resource documenting the fight against cancer since the 1970s. In the February 3rd episode of the podcast, Dr. Otis Brawley, a Bloomberg distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins, holds a conversation with Dr. Robert Winn, the director of the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
They're talking about the killing of Tyree Nichols and the power dynamics in policing in health care. A compelling listen from two leaders in cancer who have generously shared their own experiences regarding race and hold a frank conversation on where we are and where we need to go.
OLIVER: That’s all we have time for on today’s episode of Inside Cancer Careers! Thank you for joining us and thank you to our guests.
We want to hear from you – your stories, your ideas and your feedback are always welcome. And you are invited to take your turn to make a recommendation we can share with our listeners. You can reach us at NCIICC@nih.gov.
Inside Cancer Careers is a collaboration between NCI’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison and the Center for Cancer Training. It is produced by Angela Jones and Astrid Masfar A special thanks to Lakshmi Grama and Sabrina Islam-Rahman.
Join us every first and third Thursday of the month when new episodes can be found wherever you listen – subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. I'm your host Oliver Bogler from the National Cancer Institute and I look forward to sharing your stories here on Inside Cancer Careers.
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