Episode 2: Giving and Getting a Grant
In this episode of Inside Cancer Careers, we hear from Dr. Leah Hubbard, a Program Director in NCI’s Translational Research Program in the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, and Dr. Eric Johnson Chavarria, a Program Director in the Structural Biology and Molecular Applications Branch in the Division of Cancer Biology. Drs. Hubbard and Johnson Chavarria share about the role of an NCI Program Director, and how they chose this career path. We then hear from Dr. Dianna Ng a Pathologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who shares the strategies that led her to successfully receive a K08 career development award and her journey to a career in pathology.
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Leah Hubbard, Ph.D.
Leah Hubbard, PhD is a Program Director at the Translational Research Program within the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Hubbard has been a member of the Translational Research Program since 2013 and manages Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPOREs) in brain and head & neck cancer. Dr. Hubbard also participates in a number of NCI concept development teams and NIH working groups, including the U19 Glioblastoma Therapeutics Network RFA, the P20 Cancer Health Disparities SPORE RFA, and the NIH UNITE Initiative. Dr. Hubbard received her PhD in Immunology at the University of Michigan and continued her postdoctoral research training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. Dr. Hubbard’s research training is in the area of innate immunity, with specific expertise in lung macrophage function and host defense; eicosanoid signaling; and syngeneic mouse modeling.
Eric M. Johnson Chavarria, Ph.D.
Eric M. Johnson Chavarria is a Program Director of the Physical Sciences-Oncology Network within the Structural Biology and Molecular Applications Branch in the Division of Cancer Biology.
Prior to joining the Division of Cancer Biology (DCB), Dr. Johnson Chavarria served as Program Director of the Intramural Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (iCURE) program within NCI’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities and as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow in DCB. In these roles, he served as training and mentoring navigator for intramural trainees and leveraged open innovation approaches to bridge emerging technology to address health challenges. These approaches included innovation labs and challenge prize competitions.
Dr. Johnson Chavarria received his B.S. in physics from the University of Texas, San Antonio and his Ph.D. in biophysics and computational biology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for developing an automated microfluidic platform for confinement of single cells in free solution using planar extensional flow. He then went on to complete postdoctoral research at Yale University in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department, focusing on actin cytoskeleton force modulation and regulatory protein interactions under microfluidic flow induced tension.
Dianna Ng, M.D.
Dr. Ng is an Assistant Attending Pathologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) who specializes in cytopathology and infectious disease pathology. She completed her residencies in Anatomic Pathology and Laboratory Medicine as well as a Cytopathology fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and her post-doctoral training with Dr. Charles Chiu at the UCSF Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center. She also spent a year as an Infectious Disease Pathology fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was previously the Associate Director of the Global Cancer Program at UCSF, and is currently the Education Working Group co-lead in the MSK Global Cancer Disparities Initiative. She is also a Young Leader on the World Health Organization’s Global Breast Cancer Initiative and Early Researcher with the Lancet Breast Cancer Commission. Her primary research interests are in developing and adapting innovative diagnostic assays for emerging infections and cancer diagnostics for low-resource settings, and for advancing applications of fine needle aspiration biopsy.
Segment 1: Giving a Grant
- Leah Hubbard, Ph.D.
- Eric Johnson Chavarria, Ph.D.
- Physical Sciences Oncology Network
- AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program
Segment 2: Getting a Grant
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Global Cancer Disparities Initiatives
- The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook for NIH
- NCI Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development (K08)
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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.
Today we are talking to Dr. Leah Hubbard and Dr. Eric Johnson Chavarria who tell us about the role of an NCI Program Director, and how they came to choose this work.
Then we speak to Dr. Dianna Ng from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who will share the strategies that helped her succeed in getting a K08 career development award.
Listen through to the end of the show to hear our guests make some interesting recommendations – and where we invite you to take “Your Turn”.
You probably know that the NCI gives out billions of dollars in funding for cancer research to scientists across the US and beyond, but what you may not know is that we have teams of scientists who oversee the programs through which these funds flow. These are our program officers or program directors. It's a pleasure to welcome two of them from NCI to the show today to talk about their work. We have Dr. Leah Hubbard, Program Director in NCI's Translational Research Program in the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis. Welcome, Leah.
LEAH HUBBARD: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
OLIVER: And also with us is Dr. Eric Johnson Chavarria. He's the Program Director in the Structural Biology and Molecular Applications Branch in the Division of Cancer Biology. Welcome, Eric.
ERIC JOHNSON CHAVARRIA: Thank you. Glad to be here.
OLIVER: All right. Let me start with you, Leah. What is a program officer exactly?
LEAH: So, program officers are essentially the scientific administrators at NIH who manage our extramural grants and contracts. So, what we do daily is we advise applicants and grantees. We help to make funding recommendations, monitor grant progress, and what's really fun is that we get to help write concepts for new funding opportunities.
OLIVER: So, since you mentioned concepts, Leah, what exactly is a concept in this context?
LEAH: In this context? Yeah, so there are gaps in our research portfolios that we want to fill new, emerging research fields, and we, as program directors will help to write concepts, addressing those areas and those needs and will draft them up as funding opportunities that eventually go through all the different processes at NIH to get published, and you all will see it as an FOA or Funding Opportunity Announcement and can apply for those for money.
OLIVER: So, it's kind of the NIH saying, hey, this is an area that we think is important. If you're not already working on it, maybe you should move into it, or if you are, then send us your grants.
OLIVER: What is your portfolio, Leah? I said something briefly, but what kind of grants are in there?
LEAH: So, I manage multi-project grants. So, it's like grants that have a bunch of R01s and cores and other components, all in one, and this is in, again, as mentioned, the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis. And the portfolio that I manage, are essentially SPORES or P50 awards in translational cancer research and the grants that I manage are in brain cancer and head and neck cancer. I also have two U19s that are in our Glioblastoma Therapeutics Network, and this network is focused on drug development. So, it can bring promising new agents into clinical trials.
OLIVER: That's good stuff. I used to work on glioblastoma myself when I was still doing research. Yeah, back in the day, a long time ago now. Eric, how about your portfolio?
ERIC: Yeah, so mine is dealing with cooperative agreements, which are U01 mechanisms and this is through Physical Sciences Oncology Network. So, spanning many different cancer types and really trying to bring the physical approaches to cancer research.
OLIVER: So that's interesting, and I think, if I -- when I read your bio, I saw that you kind of started off in a scientific area that isn't traditionally associated with cancer research. So, can you tell me a little bit about that, and how did you come to work at NCI and do the work that you do?
ERIC: My experience goes back to cytoskeleton research. I did a lot of microfluidics, single-cell trapping, and automated systems. I took that approach and wanted to kind of expand beyond my postdoc in cytoskeleton research to go and think about policy, and that's how it came to be to the AAA Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program that led me to Washington DC, which connected me to NIH.
OLIVER: Fantastic. How about you, Leah?
LEAH: So, my background is in immunology, I did my PhD at the University of Michigan. I studied lung macrophage post-defense after a bone marrow transplant. So, very different from cancer research. So, the great thing about NIH is that it allows you to be an expert and a generalist, and it helps you to transfer a lot of the skills you have learned in grad school as an independent researcher to your scientific portfolio. So.
OLIVER: So, to be a program officer, you obviously have to have a doctorate in science, right? Have you also done postdoctoral research or is that more optional?
LEAH: What's interesting is that those guidelines have actually changed a little bit. So, the recent OPM Guidelines are actually allowing for anyone with four years of educational, technical educational experience, as well as independent research training, to apply to be a program officer. So, it's not now limited.
OLIVER: Interesting, and you slipped an acronym in there, OPM, the Office of --
LEAH: Personnel Management.
OLIVER: Oh, okay. Yeah, I mean, our listeners may not have yet memorized all the NIH acronyms. I'm working on them myself still so, interesting. So, Eric, you did research and now you're doing this kind of work. What are the skills that were transferable from your research days to your program director stage?
ERIC: Yeah, thanks for that question. I'm more of a very problem-solving-oriented person, and I like to work with others. So, when we talked about team science, early on, really, what I like to do is bring physical scientists, you know, physicists, mathematical engineers with cancer biologists, oncologists, and early on, what really got me into NCI was working with my supervisor at the time, Jennifer Couch, on innovation labs. Really bridging the gap between disparate fields and bringing them to immersive workshops. We really try to push the envelope in some of these intractable problems in cancer.
OLIVER: Interesting. What about you, Leah? What have you brought from the bench to your job today that's helpful.
LEAH: Yeah, those are really important insights, Eric. I think what's really big, especially for what I'm doing now, is the ability to innovate and problem solve, in order to carve out a new area of investigation. So that's essentially what you're doing when you're in your PhD program, and you're writing your dissertation. You're carving out that new research field and expanding it, and that's what you have to do as a Program Officer, but in a different way, when you're writing the concept for a funding opportunity announcement. So, innovation and problem solving, and then, of course, the typical things like writing, teamwork, and presentation skills, those are used on a daily basis, and that's something that you really hone in on in graduate school.
OLIVER: Yeah, so you still get to use your science brain. That's, I guess, cool. So, what did you have to learn, though? What was new? Or did you have gaps that you needed to think about as you took on this role?
LEAH: So, obviously, you come in. You know, the science and you know how to communicate. You know, to innovate, but knowing all those administrative aspects that go into managing research grants, that is a big challenge. There are so many policies, so many regulations and aspects of budgets and financial management that you learn along the way. There's some training for these things, but other things you do learn on the job or from your colleagues, they're always a good help.
OLIVER: What about you, Eric?
ERIC: Yeah, I agree with what Leah mentioned. So, you know, there's, you know, there's quite a bit of training, and there's a different aspect to doing it early on. Then as you actually get more immersed in going back to do it, again, you continue to pick up kind of these nuances in terms of how we kind of go through and review these grant applications and make sure they're progressing well, whether versus we're funding them. So, all that played together, and working with your colleagues, I think, has been extremely important. I was welcomed by the division when I came in as a fellow and really got immersed in what they were doing and learning from them.
OLIVER: Now, interesting, both of you mentioned that your portfolios have bigger grants with multiple investigators, networks. That strikes me as a really sort of thing that's much more important these days than it maybe was even a couple of decades ago. Tell me a little bit about your perspective on how multi-investigator cooperative research projects have become very important.
ERIC: Yeah, I'm excited for that question. So, we continue to really try to bridge some of our investigators, both in, you know, different fields can really come together. We see this approach because, you know, we've seen it in research, and in past studies. We're really having these diverse, you know, mindsets, approaches, really coming together to think about, you know, these problems and really taking these techniques from other fields and really applying them to either a biological aspect or cancer specifically. I think it's very important, as we go forward, really showing how this basic understanding can lead to some of these new, novel therapeutics and technologies.
OLIVER: Yeah, Leah, you said you manage SPORE grants and other groups. Why do those? Why does NCI create those groups?
LEAH: Yeah, absolutely. So, the SPORES are really, they came from patient advocates, who really went forward to Congress and said that we need to make sure that we're doing translational research, as far as cancer is concerned, to reach the patient at the end of the day. What is the impact beyond patient care? And so, when we're talking about these multi projects, grant mechanisms, especially for translational research, what our data show and what our analysis show is that the team science approach is really the most productive approach in terms of producing the most publications and citations and even reaching you're their human endpoints or getting to the clinic, impacting patient care. So, really putting together these diverse investigator teams with multidisciplinary teams really helps to drive the field forward much faster than if it was just an independent research award or R01.
OLIVER: So, the old term sort of trope of a researcher puttering away in their own lab by themselves, there's probably still folks who kind of work in that mode, but a lot of people seem to be working in this in this new way of coming together and pooling their skills. I mean, that's exciting, because I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for people with different skill sets and interests to work together on these problems.
OLIVER: So, that makes me think that communication must be really a key thing. And now I know that you both, in your role, work with scientists, both as they are working towards submitting a grant and then once they have a grant. You continue to work with them, can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like, Eric?
ERIC: Being a part of it from the outside and looking in now, you know, working with colleagues to understand the nuances of how these grants are put forward, it's really eye opening. As trainees, we see kind of this kind of, you know, limited view set, seeing it from the other end and understanding all the, you know, the ramifications in terms of budgets, and how those apply, I think has gone a long way in terms of my perspective, and thinking about how we can continue to build upon, even now with our Equity Council making sure that we're hitting these kind of milestones in our diversity, equity, inclusion, you know, addressing all those needs, as well.
OLIVER: Leah, how about you? You're talking to scientists all the time. What do you tell them?
LEAH: That is a huge cornerstone of my activities, especially with the SPOREs. Those are the P50s. That mechanism itself requires that you have a lot of interaction with the applicant/grantee if they are funded. So, I'd say the main way that I'm interacting with scientists that are trying to obtain funding is through preapplication consultations, which we like to call pre-apps. And these are meetings that we have with investigators to go over their ideas, their proposals, and generally, they're formal.
They can be three hours long, or they're informal, where we're just getting phone calls or emails to have these discussions. So, I have to put a little plug in here. Not everybody knows this out at extramural. If they're interested in applying or have an idea, to reach out to the program officer in your area of interest to talk about your research. Talk about your application, and if you've already gone through review, reach out to the program director to talk about those critiques. We're here to help you and support you. So that's a huge way that we're interacting with applicants.
OLIVER: Thank you, Leah. Yeah, that's very important, and I agree, it's under appreciated. Even in fellowships and career development awards, we'd love to hear from junior scientists who are thinking of applying, so absolutely. So, what's the best part of the of the job of being a program director, Eric?
ERIC: There's so many aspects. I think, working with my colleagues, having the flexibility that need to be able to manage day-to-day, attending conferences. As Leah mentioned, really immersing yourself with the investigators and what they're doing and some of the challenges they're facing. You know, in my branch, Structural Biology and Molecular Applications Branch, we really try to understand the technology gaps and how we can address those for our division, the Division of Cancer Biology. So, it's really important to understand and hear some of the new sciences coming out, some of the challenges of how we can connect in with those who are actually making kind of advances in these spaces.
OLIVER: Leah, what would you say is the best part of your day?
LEAH: It's always so different. Every day is a different day. I can say the best part about my job might be more helpful. So, I would say that's part of my job is that we get to make that phone call to applicants that we've been working with for years on end over amended applications, and I finally get to make that phone call that they're going to be awarded the Score SPORE application. That is such an emotional experience to be on the other end of that line to tell them and just to know that everything that you've helped them with, to guide them through that process, has been fruitful, and that you get to walk them through the next, you know, three, five years, however, they're going to be funded through the next phase and seeing how their research evolves. That is one of the most rewarding parts.
OLIVER: I mean, I wonder what the most challenging aspect is. Might it be the other kind of phone call you have to make from time to time?
LEAH: When you have to let somebody know they're not going to be funded, and also, because I mentioned about how we have to write concepts. I would say that that is a huge challenge, figuring out how you're going to address that gap in the research portfolio. There's so many research areas that are understudied, or when we talk about our workforce, areas that are or folks that are underrepresented and working with all the different offices at NIH, budgets, legal offices, our grants office, to make sure that we're complying with policy when we're trying to address these challenges. It's been really difficult, but obviously, worthwhile until we get that announcement done, or that initiative underway.
OLIVER: Yeah, a lot of work goes into those funding opportunity announcements, a lot more than you might think, because NIH is a complex place. Eric, what about you? What are the biggest challenges you face?
ERIC: I think some of the biggest challenges is really trying to look ahead at what's coming. I think by the time we go through a review of our science, try to get the FOA out, especially with technology. We're already maybe a few years behind where the current, you know, advanced stages are. So, we're really trying to think about long-term, getting ahead of the curve, where we can really focus our efforts has been the challenge. So, it's really talking with others, seeing some of these scientific workshops that come out, understanding the outcomes of those. I think in the effort to push for NIH is making our workshops more transparent has been really key in really understanding and having others be involved in what we're doing to really like, you know, push the envelope. You know, other than that, you know, the challenge is that, you know, I think what's the rewarding part is, you know, working with a junior investigator. So, as we've seen in some of our larger U54 mechanisms, some of those trainees have come out there, have been successful and really like what they're doing in terms of physical sciences and are now applying for the U01. So, seeing that continuum of both this career development and now, success going forward as an independent investigator has been really rewarding from that aspect.
OLIVER: I can imagine. Fantastic. Then, in closing, I wonder if people listening to us right now are wondering if they themselves could do program work of the kind that you do? What would your advice be? What would your guidance be on how they might explore this or follow the paths that you both took? Eric?
ERIC: Yeah, while not impossible, you know, there's definitely the global announcements are out there. I think USA jobs is its own hurdle in its own regard. But with that said, I think a lot of these programs, whether it's the NCI Communications Fellowship, AAAS, PMF, are always getting your foot in the door and getting the experience firsthand before, you know, making a decision and across many of the agencies we have here, especially NIH. So, I think, being able to come from that, whether it's from grad student postdoc and to make that leap into the program policy area, you know, AAAS, for me, has been a huge reward in that regard and just allowed me to see beyond my current horizon as a postdoc and what was possible.
OLIVER: You mentioned PMF. That's the Presidential Management Fellowship.
ERIC: Yes, that's correct.
OLIVER: That's great. Leah, the last word to you. What would your advice be to our listeners?
LEAH: Yeah, echoing a lot of what Eric was mentioning, those fellowships are so key to helping you get those transferable skills to work in program. But I would say what actually helped me get to where I am today is doing informational interviews. I hope that term is familiar for the folks that are listening, but when you do those interviews, you're meeting with folks informally to learn about their background, how they got where they are. So, you know, find those who are working in program, meet with them, ask them who you'd recommend that you can talk to next. And this is going to let you know if you really actually want to work in this area. And then, as Eric mentioned, there are a number of fellowship and job opportunities you can learn about just by engaging with folks that are working in this area.
OLIVER: Well, thank you both for joining us. I wonder if you'd be okay with us putting your email addresses in the show notes in case people want to reach out to you for an informational interview perhaps?
LEAH: Absolutely. Be happy to.
OLIVER: Well, thank you.
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: It's a pleasure to welcome Dr. Diana Ng from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to the podcast. Dr. Ng is an assistant attending pathologist and she specializes in cytopathology and fine needle aspiration biopsies in her clinical practice, and she also develops innovative diagnostic tests for cancer in low-resource settings in her research, combining her interest in public health and health disparities with her skills in pathology. Welcome, Dr. Ng.
DIANNA: Thank you. Thank you for your introduction.
OLIVER: Yeah, so we met at a conference a few weeks ago, and I was really impressed by a presentation you gave, where you told the story of your applying for a career development award from the National Cancer Institute, from NCI, and I wanted to -- you would have a chance to share that advice and the insights you gained with our audience, but before we do that, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your own journey.
DIANNA: Sure. I feel like my path to medicine was kind of meandering, and even research was even maybe more indirect, but when I first started college, I actually wanted to be an English professor and a poet, and I actually was very serious about it, had published a few poems here and there and --
OLIVER: That's cool.
DIANNA: I was actually going to focus on modernist and postmodernist poetry. Of course, I think, true, kind of a little bit stereotypical, my parents said that maybe that wasn't a viable career path, and I ended up applying to med school, was able to get into NYU, and stayed in New York close to family. And there, that's when I really got involved with immigrant health and I started kind of developing this passion for public health. With two other medical students, I helped found the Health Education and Literacy Program, and also spent my weekends teaching English as a second language, in Chinatown. And then I actually didn't really know what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to go into emergency medicine, and then finally, a mentor who said, you know, maybe pathology would be a good fit, because it seems like I like to -- I'm a little bit more of a quieter person, but I also like to sit and ruminate, and so I decided to apply to pathology residencies, ended up at University of California-San Francisco. Still had no interest in research at that point but, you know, as you know, UCSF is a really vibrant research community, and that's where I started getting connected to different mentors who inspired me to look into global health, kind of as a off-branch of immigrant health, and actually initially wanted to do microbiology. I did a year at the CDC as an infectious disease pathology fellow, and really there, saw the intersection between pathology and public health, and I said this is the career for me, at that point. I did a postdoc with Charles Chu as well for a few years, but then, I think suddenly, there was this pivot where I was -- I started to focus a little bit more on cancer, and that really just has to do with the mentorship that I had. I met Dr. Katherine Van Loon, who is the Director of the UCSF Global Cancer Program, and she was the one who really helped me write my first grants and kind of inspired me to lead my own projects. Before that, I had never actually met a pathologist who was in the global health space leading their own projects writing their own grants and really kind of establishing a career as an independent investigator.
OLIVER: So what exactly is global pathology?
DIANNA: To be honest, I don't really know. No one really knows. It's not really a field, I would say, and there's no formal definition. I kind of use it as a placeholder. For me, what I think it means is really it's a field of study, where we're trying to close gaps in diagnostic services across all economic settings, and across all different populations, and all different resource levels. So it can be domestic; it could be international, or really just kind of diagnostic equity for cancer in all settings.
OLIVER: Yeah, and I see that you're also involved with Memorial Sloan Kettering's Global Cancer Disparities Initiative. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
DIANNA: Yeah, so that's really MSK's arm of global cancer research. It's a multidisciplinary group led by Dr. Peter Kingham, and most of their work is focused in Nigeria currently. And, you know, their mission is really to reduce the disparities in global cancer or reduce the disparities in cancer, again, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa through education, innovation and research.
OLIVER: Fantastic. So Dr. Ng, pathologists have a reputation for paying meticulous attention to detail. I don't know if you agree with this, but I wonder if that was part of what informed your work, when you decided to apply for a K or career development award.
DIANNA: I would hate to generalize, because knowing a lot of pathologists, I think there's a range, and some people are definitely not. I actually, my perception of myself versus other people's perception of me is different. I always feel like I'm a disaster. You know, I'm wearing multiple hats at the same time, multitasking all the time, but I do remember as a first-year resident, I was at my desk eating a bowl of cherries, and an attending was -- must have been watching me from behind, and he basically said that he could tell what type of resident I was, because I ate each cherry using three bites. So, you know, first, that was the top of the cherry. Second bite with the seed, and then I finished a cherry after that, and he said, you know, if you were the type of person who wasn't as detail-oriented or tended to rush into things, you just throw the entire cherry in your mouth and then spit out the pit.
OLIVER: Interesting. So tell me about the process that you engaged in when you decided to apply for this K08 award. Maybe tell us a little bit about what led you to the decision to make the application.
DIANNA: So it actually took a while for me to really decide to apply for a K, and I didn't know if I wanted to be a researcher. You know, is this is really kind of the path that I wanted to take And initially, I was going to apply for the K01 based on just some feedback from my mentors, and they really encouraged me to do this, and I think what ended up happening was, you know, the requirement to be abroad for as long as I had to be for the K01, I'd just had a child at that point.
I said I couldn't do it, so I waited a few months, actually published a little bit more, talked to a few more people, and then I basically decided that yes, I actually felt like I would benefit from applying for the K08, getting a little bit more training in implementation science, and I felt like the -- you know, it's just, for me, it was a very intuitive process, where I just felt like, this is actually what I needed at the time. I felt like I needed a little bit more training, and also needed a little bit more time to develop as a global health researcher just because I didn't necessarily have that research background, you know, in undergrad, for example. I didn't necessarily have, like, pathology mentors who took the same exact path.
OLIVER: So having made the decision, what were the first steps that you took to get ready for the application, because I was -- you had this slide in your talk? I don't know if you were also a gardener or not, but it was a slide that took you from the seed all the way to the fruit, so clearly, you had a long-term plan.
DIANNA: Yeah, it took me probably about a year and a half. So I mean, as like a former poet, I like to think of things in terms of metaphors, so the seed was planted in 2018, you know, when my mentor first mentioned that I should apply for a K. I took a Intro to Implementation Science course, which kind of helped facilitate the process, and also, at the end, we would create a protocol that was amenable to a competitive grant. I started contacting as many mentors and just people who had applied to Ks, previously, so I talked to people who are my peers. You know, I was able to get a few Ks to actually review that I thought was really helpful, even if they weren't necessarily in a -- in the exact same field, you know, people who had translational research Ks, people who had basic science research Ks, and then also just the workbook from the NIH, the grant application writers workbook. So those are the things that I thought were extremely helpful. So, you know, the workbook, reading other people's Ks, talking to other people who had applied to Ks, and talking to as many potential mentors, and then kind of, you know, pre-existing mentors as possible.
OLIVER: Right. And like everybody who applies for grants, whether it's at the career development stage or anytime, that you're super busy. You've got all kinds of responsibilities. You already have a full-time job, so time management seems to me like a really important thing, right? How to -- how do you integrate this additional work into your workflow in a way that doesn't lead to some kind of a deadline crisis?
DIANNA: I feel like there's always a deadline crisis, especially when you're balancing clinical work as well as research, and then for some people, administrative work. I was a little bit strategic. Well, first of all, you know, I live off of checklists, so I was lucky enough to have a checklist provided by my own institution for -- you know, because there's enough people applying for K08s, but actually I created my own checklists on top of that, and in terms of being strategic, I had just moved from a position at UCSF to MSK, and so I took that opportunity where I wasn't quite integrated or ramped up yet, in terms of clinical service as well as administrative duties, so there was like a slight lull, so I knew I had about maybe at most six to eight weeks where I could really just focus on writing. So I would say really focused writing took about two months, but in reality, I had been kind of writing this all along for the last year, either through papers or through courses, or workshopping it with different peers.
OLIVER: So leaving yourself plenty of time and sort of continuously working at it seems to have been a key for you. You also built a team of mentors to help you. Can you tell me a little bit about what role they played, who they were and how you picked them?
DIANNA: Yeah, I think in terms of my mentorship team, I actually I had quite a large mentorship team, and I don't necessarily know if everyone needs, you know, four mentors plus additional advisors, but what I did was that I mapped each training goal to each aim, and then each mentor to each training goal and aim, so I had a primary project/MSK mentor who didn't necessarily have expertise in implementation science, so I needed to find someone to fill that goal since that was a primary career development goal. So I found the implementation science mentor. And then as someone doing global health work, I had a mentor who was local to Tanzania, so I -- so that person was a longtime collaborator, Edda Vuhahula. And then I had a pathology mentor, just someone who could support me if I had any pathology questions, and then finally, because my project mentor Peter Kingham primarily worked in Nigeria, I had an external or additional adviser, Katherine Van Loon who was actually going to -- who has expertise in doing research in East Africa. So a lot of this was mapping the mentorship I felt like I needed to the career goals and specific aims of my grant.
OLIVER: Right, so it sounds like you -- again, you were quite deliberate in picking these mentors. I assume you picked them quite early in the process, right?
DIANNA: Everything has to be done very early. I would recommend contacting people, you know, far in advance, you know, even earlier than, you know, two months in advance. I think the intensive writing part, I think goes -- can go a little bit quicker, but to get responses from people can be a little bit of a challenge, and then I certainly -- I've definitely met with people who, you know, I felt like could have been a potential mentor, but they weren't the best fit, so you have these conversations, and you realize that, oh, maybe they won't be a viable mentor --
DIANNA: -- so you really [inaudible] --
OLIVER: Have to audition a little bit, yeah.
DIANNA: Yeah, and you're auditioning for them as well.
OLIVER: Of course.
DIANNA: And then the other thing is I didn't realize how many letters you needed, and that always takes time --
OLIVER: Right, right.
DIANNA: -- so.
OLIVER: Okay, so you put all this together. You worked really hard at it for a long time. You submitted it. What happened then?
DIANNA: I submitted it and then I waited, and then I was able to get a score, probably four months after I submitted. And then I finally got feedback about a month after I got my score. And I think, you know, after I got my feedback, I was -- I contacted the program officer. I also contacted my mentors just to kind of get some idea of what the score meant, because as a first-time NIH grant applicant, I had no idea what the likelihood of actually getting this K would be.
Do I have to resubmit? So I think I was lucky enough where I didn't have to resubmit, and I was able to confirm with my program officer that I was fine.
OLIVER: Great news! So what was the impact of the K on your career path? Was it -- what did it allow you to do?
DIANNA: Well, I'm still in the middle of -- I'm actually still in the early stages of my K, but actually, it's been really wonderful. I think it's given me a lot of time to, first of all, really understand and explore and read implementation science frameworks and theory. You know, with the K, I have been able to, you know, meet incredible people, get a lot of support kind of within my own department, but also outside the department. For example, you know, I've been working with the WHO's -- the World Health Organization's global cancer breast initiative, and I really think it's because the K has a little bit of cachet. It gives me some legitimacy. I'm an early researcher with the Lancet breast cancer commission, really with a focus on the global gap section. And again, I attribute that to just kind of the K having cachet, but also giving me time to really understand on a more theoretical as well as kind of more complex level like ideas about like global pathology and reducing diagnostic gaps, so I think it's been great. Also, let me -- like I said, global pathology is not really a field, so it also gives me legitimacy within my own department because otherwise people think I'm just like, off gallivanting internationally and not really doing any work.
OLIVER: Understood. I think you're making it into a field, so congratulations. Just in closing then, I wonder if there's any other advice, maybe something we haven't touched upon yet that you might give to someone who's listening who is planning their own application.
DIANNA: I would say start early, but also, I would always say dream big. When I was first kind of looking into global health, especially as a pathology resident, a lot of people told me that this wasn't a viable career path, it just wasn't a career path at all, and that they saw no role for pathology in global health. I'm very self-motivated and self-driven so, you know, whatever project you have in mind, whatever career path you have in mind, you know, a lot of people will be naysayers. You know, just forge forward and create and forge your own path, so whether it's, you know, like the initial stepping stones of a career development award or maybe even a bigger program.
OLIVER: That's great advice. Thank you so much, and thank you, Dr. Ng for sharing your insights and your counsel with our listeners. Thank you.
DIANNA: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
OLIVER: Now it's time for a segment that 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. If you record a voice memo and send it along, we may display it in an upcoming episode. So, now I'd like to invite our guests to take their turn. Let's start with you, Dr. Hubbard.
LEAH: So, I am a huge tennis fan. I don't actually play tennis but just a big fan as a spectator. So, I just found the podcast actually called Black Spin Global, and I just started listening. You get to follow all the goings on of black tennis players all around the world and get to hear opinions from the host of the podcasts that are really engaging.
OLIVER: Fantastic. Thank you very much. Dr. Johnson?
ERIC: So, I have this book called Super Minds that I just picked up. I've had it for quite some time. It came out in 2018. It's subtitled "The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together” by Thomas Malone, and what's intriguing about it is it talks about our, you know, collective mindset, both with computers and people and in showing how diverse, you know, thinking approaches really go a long way in terms of this team science and overcoming challenges, and I think it's highly relevant now. As a society, we've faced, you know, a few challenges. Quite a big one in the past recent years, and now looking at we have other technology ventures like ChatGPT, DALL-E for art. It's an exciting thing, you know, the next horizon, how we can connect and integrate, you know, on a large scale or what they call hyperscale in this book, so.
OLIVER: Fascinating. I love that stuff, too. That's a great recommendation. Thank you, and Dr. Ng?
DIANNA: Yeah, I you know, I had a friend recommend a really great book recently. I just started it, but it's “The Information” by James Gleick, and it was published I think in 2011, so it might be out of date at this point. But James Gleick is a science writer and science historian, and this book I found really interesting because he talks about the history of information in the context of information theory, and how information shapes the way we think, and also how we have shaped information. How do we break it down? How does it affect how we communicate? And he kind of goes through kind of a series of different scenarios and cultures, and to what was then 2011 present-day. But I'm sure things are really different, now.
OLIVER: That sounds fascinating, thank you very much for that. And finally, I'd like to make a recommendation as well. It's a bit old fashioned, maybe a bit dry, but it's something that helped me when I was starting out. It's a book that most people refer to as Strunk and White after the authors. It's actually called “The Elements of Style”, and I think it's currently in the fourth edition. It's a short read and gives you some excellent tips on how to write with clarity and conviction, active voice, short sentences, really helpful, particularly when you're communicating in science.
So, it was invaluable to me when I started writing in science, and if you're working on your next paper or grant, it might be helpful. Check it out.
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 and Edited by Janette Goeser. 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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