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Stillman with NIH leaders
CSHL President Bruce Stillman with NIH leaders who spoke at the conference. Left to right: Dr. Cheryl Kitt (CSR), Dr. Sally Rockey (OER), Dr. Susan Shurin (NHLBI), Dr. Bruce Stillman (CSHL), Dr. Thomas Insel (NIMH), Dr. Harold Varmus (NCI), Dr. Griffin Rodgers (NIDDK)

New faculty learn survival skills from experts

If having a solid research plan is the most crucial requirement for launching a career in academic research, then securing funding for that plan is surely the most crucial requirement for sustaining that career, especially in the current climate of squeezed federal budgets.

With that in mind, CSHL’s Office of Sponsored Programs and the Office of Extramural Research of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) co-hosted the “NIH New Investigator Regional Conference” on CSHL’s main campus on March 14.

The event brought key NIH scientific program leaders together with more than 250 new faculty from 56 universities and research centers from all over the US to discuss national biomedical research priorities and issues facing new investigators who are seeking their first independent research awards.

“In spite of several NIH programs designed to facilitate the transition of new scientists to independently funded Principal Investigators, the average age at which an investigator first obtains an initial independent R01 research remains unacceptably high,” says Dr. Walter Goldschmidts, Executive Director of Sponsored Programs at CSHL. “So it is imperative that the scientific community and the NIH work together to develop and test new programs and paradigms to reach and assist new faculty.”

In addition to lively discussions of federal funding initiatives, the attendees got invaluable advice about the myriad challenges that new investigators face while starting up their labs (“Be very choosy about your first postdoc and pick someone who brings new skills to the table,” was one such tip. “Embrace new technology but don’t become enamored by it,” was another).

The attendees also got an insider’s look at the NIH’s peer review system for judging grants and had the opportunity to jot down some tried-and-tested do’s and don’ts of grant writing. “Write with clarity and tell a good story,” said NCI Director Harold Varmus, highlighting the pitfall of most new researchers whose grant applications are often swamped with technical details that nudge aside structure and flow.

Conference speakers also urged the new faculty to “show passion” in their grant applications, which are often tepid in tone in sharp contrast to the energy that new faculty bring to their research endeavors.

“Witnessing this exchange of information and ideas between the participants, NIH representatives and Institution Presidents made it clear that there is a need for this type of interaction in this country,” says Goldschmidts, who hopes that this meeting at CSHL will be enhanced and expanded nationally. “I am grateful to the NIH and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for recognizing this.”