Dreaming big with NSF CAREER

Continuing our funding series, this week we have guest blogger and PUI chemist Dr. Lelia Hawkins offer advice as she talks about her path to an NSF CAREER award. Her message – the investment to write the proposal is worth it. Get good advice, leverage your preliminary data and your dream lab might just come true!


shapeimage_3Helping undergraduates contribute meaningfully to atmospheric chemistry research is something I’ve worked towards since arriving at Harvey Mudd College five years ago. It’s a natural combination for me – I love making aerosol measurements, and I love being in the lab teaching my students how to do research. I have found real joy in creating collaborators among our bright, budding chemists. Unfortunately, I face a somewhat unique challenge as an atmospheric chemist in a small college. I need non-standard instrumentation to make real-time aerosol measurements and I need this equipment at my fingertips year-round. And this equipment is expensive.

I face a somewhat unique challenge as an atmospheric chemist in a small college. I need non-standard instrumentation to make real-time aerosol measurements and I need this equipment at my fingertips year-round. And this equipment is expensive.

1When I began to look for larger funding sources to support the kind of research I really wanted to do, the NSF CAREER program made complete sense. I liked the duration of five years because it allows me to pull together multiple years of measurements into meaningful results. In addition, the upfront expense of a new instrument pays off over the remaining four years of minimal expenses (stipends and consumables). Further, I argued that such an investment in equipment would benefit my research program for years beyond the funding period. I will be able to involve undergraduates in relevant work for a long time. I think this was a good point, though I’ll never really know how important that was in the final funding decision. Most importantly, the CAREER program values what I was already doing.

 

What is the NSF CAREER Award? The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.

Advice item 1: Only submit a CAREER proposal if your research lends itself to teaching activities or if you are passionate about investing time into teaching.

Otherwise, you can make a stronger argument for your research program in the same 15 pages you get in a 3-year standard NSF grant.

The proposal itself took much more time to write than I anticipated, but the process was also far more enjoyable than I imagined. I had only a skeleton draft with a central idea in April and so, I ended up writing most of the content in the two months prior to submission. Giving myself permission to indulge in a fantasy version of my lab was difficult – I had summer students to manage. In addition, we all know how precious summer break is for faculty with heavy teaching loads. However, I was grateful for the time I spent catching up on the literature. As I did this, I became more convinced that my proposal was a strong one.

The proposal itself took much more time to write than I anticipated, but the process was also far more enjoyable than I imagined.

Advice item 2: Use the literature effectively to argue your case and give yourself plenty of time to do this.

I can think of a few things that “went right.” First, I had the benefit of receiving Research Corporation funding two years prior on a proposal that was not initially funded. This helped me in two key ways: first, I was able to see how reviewers might respond to a “first draft” proposal with common criticisms (e.g. too ambitious, lacking focus, lacking detail) and second, I was able to gather preliminary data when that funding finally came in. Although insufficient for publication, the preliminary data showed that I was capable, with undergraduates, of conducting the research I described in the proposal. The preliminary data helped me focus the proposal because I was able to lean on specific experiments to repeat or improve. These were the “low stakes” experiments I knew would work.

Advice item 3: Use whatever preliminary data you have to establish credibility when publications are lacking.

faculty-1-1In addition, I was able to borrow the very instrument I was asking for just in time to include preliminary data in the proposal. This meant that I could say, “Undergraduates in my own lab have successfully calibrated and operated an aerosol mass spectrometer.” Without this, and without knowing how capable Harvey Mudd College students are, it would be challenging to make my case.

My educational plan fit seamlessly into the research plan because I routinely teach instrumental analysis (where I can include the new acquisition), I work solely with undergraduates, and my college has an established and highly successful outreach program on campus. This prevented the class pitfall of either proposing a “too ambitious” or a “not enough” education plan.

I organized my research plan into three stages, listed the expected challenges and potential solutions, and provided clear evidence that my measurements would be valued on multiple levels.

Finally, I was able to use the services of a consulting firm who specializes in grant-writing support. Someone with experience reviewing proposals read my completed draft and gave excellent feedback. I suspect it’s the kind of feedback reviewers would have given me, along with a rejected proposal. Instead, I was able to make key improvements that strengthened my proposal. For example, I organized my research plan into three stages, listed the expected challenges and potential solutions, and provided clear evidence that my measurements would be valued on multiple levels. This kind of support could be found among generous colleagues if professional services are unavailable, since it’s best to have someone not directly in your field determine if your plan is clearly laid out, or simply clear to you. Committing to an outside reader ensured that I stay on top of writing and prevented procrastination or inefficient time management.

Advice item 4: Use reviewers with NSF experience (professional or not) to help avoid common mistakes in proposal writing.

This is especially true for newcomers like myself.

In the end, I produced a competitive proposal that suited my program officer’s portfolio of funded projects. My fantasy lab is here!

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You can find additional information for submitting a CAREER award here.


hawkins-lelia-680x1024~Dr. Leila Hawkins is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in  Claremont, CA. The Hawkins lab is focused on the chemistry of air pollution, specifically particulate air pollution. The lab has a sampling system to collect atmospheric aerosol particles (like smog), measure the UV/vis absorption spectrum of discrete samples, and measure the total organic carbon content of the particles. Understanding how air pollution particles interact with light a key problem in addressing climate change.

 

 

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