LIFT scholars take flight

September 13, 2023
Seven people stand and smile as they post for a picture. They are dressed in business casual clothing.
Drs. Jessica Hartman, Leonardo Ferreira, Eric Hamlett, Lori McMahon, Joni Nelson, Ashley Hink and Federico Rodriguez-Porcel. Photo provided

There are many rites of passage in life, and for biomedical researchers, obtaining their first R01 grant award is a big one. A Research Project Grant, also referred to as an R01, is the oldest grant mechanism used by the National Institutes of Health, providing researchers with up to five years of support to complete research projects, publish their research and reapply before their grants end. 

To help early-stage and new investigators at MUSC, the Office of Research Development (ORD) launched a new training course for researchers applying for their first NIH R01 grant. The new offering, R01 Learning Initiative for Faculty in Training (LIFT) Academy, was designed and led by ORD faculty, Kimberly Cannady, Ph.D., assistant director, and Wanda Pierce, associate director. The academy utilizes a hybrid learning platform consisting of in-person and virtual sessions via Teams. Participants, referred to as “LIFT scholars,” participated in 12 seminar sessions over four months. 

Kim Cannady headshot 
Dr. Kimberly Cannady

“The ORD is thrilled to offer this comprehensive training program to equip LIFT scholars with the skills necessary to secure NIH funding as independent investigators launching their research careers,” said Carla Stipe, ORD director. “This investment in our early-career scientists not only builds their skills and supports their careers but strengthens research at MUSC overall.” 

The inaugural program received nearly 20 applications, and six were selected by LIFT leadership and faculty mentors. The program’s first cohort of scholars included Leonardo Ferreira, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Eric HamlettPh.D.assistant professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine; Jessica Hartman, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Ashley Hink, M.D., assistant professor, Department of Surgery; Joni Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor, College of Dental Medicine, Department of Biomedical and Community Health Sciences; and Federico Rodriguez-Porcel, M.D., assistant professor, Department of Neurology.   

“The response to the launch of the LIFT Academy program has been overwhelming – the team received many outstanding applications,” said Lori McMahon, Ph.D., vice president for Research. “The strong response shows the critical value of making this kind of information available and reinforced the need in the research community.” 

Taught by subject-matter experts, the seminars were designed to equip LIFT scholars to understand the grant writing process and the available NIH and MUSC resources. Seminar sessions included: 

  • “Writing a Winning Specific Aims Page,” led by McMahon.
  • “Fundamental Concepts of Study Design, Biostatistics and Integrating Rigor and Reproducibility” and “Practical Application of Writing Your Specific Aims and Incorporating Biostatistics Discussion,” led by Bethany J. Wolf, Ph.D.
  • “The Importance of Graphics,” led by Michelle Cohen, Ph.D.
  • “Using Cayuse to Submit Your Application Seminar,” led by Office of Research and Sponsored Programs’ Heather Ferguson.
  • “Ask an NIH Program Officer,” led by Sydella Blatch, Ph.D., NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences program officer.
  • “Persuasive Writing,” led by science writer Kimberly McGhee, Ph.D., who also coached a peer-group writing session, reviewing scholars’ specific aims drafts.

The LIFT Academy encouraged peer support and feedback through peer-group review and writing sessions. LIFT scholars also reviewed their colleagues’ proposal sections and provided constructive feedback.

“New faculty members have a lot to juggle, but our most important task is securing lab-sustaining extramural funding by the time our startup period ends. However, most of us were never trained to write an R01 and some have never even seen the R01 package in full,” said Hartman, a LIFT scholar. “The LIFT Academy was an incredible program that met each of us where we were – from different fields and at different stages of grant writing – and led us through the whole process.” 

Dr. Kevin Gray 
Dr. Kevin Gray

Faculty mentors with a strong record of NIH funding and peer-review experience guided LIFT scholars through the process of developing an R01 research grant proposal and provided counsel when needed. Mentors included Richard R. Drake, Ph.D., professor, Department of Cell and Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics; Kevin M. Gray, M.D., professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences; Jane E. Joseph, Ph.D., professor, Department of Neuroscience; Catrina S. Robinson, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Neurology; Hongjun Wang, Ph.D., professor, Department of Surgery; and John J. Woodward, Ph.D., professor, Department of Neuroscience.

“The LIFT Academy is an innovative approach – it’s both comprehensive and uniquely tailored to the needs of each participant. As a program mentor, I found the process exciting and engaging, said Gray. “This was a unique opportunity to connect mentors and mentees across disciplines, alongside staff with expertise in grant development, to yield success at a critical stage for early-career faculty.”

In addition, Paula Traktman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Graduate Studies, acted as the mock review chair while the LIFT mentor team functioned as an NIH mock review panel during the closing ceremony held on Aug. 22. Each of the mentors reviewed two proposals, scored them and prepared written comments. The scholars attended the mock review panel session to learn more about the importance of independent peer review.

Working toward the goal of an October NIH R01 submission deadline, the scholars are actively polishing up their proposals. 

“Being part of LIFT Academy was truly special. It was exhilarating being part of a cohort of new faculty working on the bleeding edge of topics and getting fresh perspectives on my work,” said Ferreira, one of the LIFT scholars. “I received phenomenal feedback on my proposal from senior faculty and my peers. I can't help feeling that the LIFT Academy is going to launch us to new heights of success.” 

Investigators conducting hypothesis-driven research with strong preliminary data are encouraged to apply to future LIFT programs. 

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