Writing for the NIH R15…wisdom from the rink

We’ve graded our final exams, marched in commencement and cleaned up our desks….well, maybe not the desk part. Summer is just ahead and so is the NIH R15 deadline – only one month away! Let’s reflect with Dr. Joseph Provost on how to prepare a competitive NIH R15 submission. In the weeks ahead we’ll be featuring summer research with undergraduates from around the country! Bring on SUMMER!


gretzky-wayne-oilersThe Big Leagues

Wayne Gretzky said “you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Writing a grant is something that just has to be done in order to get funded. The Great One also gave advice on how to be competitive, he said “you have to skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Creating a competitive proposal is the hard and exciting part of being a scholar.  Forecasting where science is going to be (both in hypothesis and innovative technique) is an exciting opportunity.  Writing for NIH R15 funding is no different.

welcome2bto2bthe2bbig2bleagues2bby2benneth2bcopelandIt is perhaps surprising to find that the R15 description contains this sentence: “The research project must involve undergraduate (preferably, if available) and/or graduate students in the proposed research.”  This current description means that bigger schools are playing fair as long as “The institution may not receive more than $6 million per year in NIH support in each of 4 of the last 7 years”.

PUIs are playing in the big leagues. Reviewers are going to see your R15 proposal alongside another proposal where the PI might come from a division that earns 9.5 million in extramural funding each year for their institution (true story). Now, before you get discouraged – remember, it IS possible to be awarded an R15 as a PUI…but it is important to know who you’re competing against.

What does it take to be successful getting NIH R15 funding as a PUI with the current competition?  In truth, you are striking a balance between being innovative, without being “too ambitious.”

What does it take to be successful getting NIH R15 funding as a PUI with the current competition?  In truth, you are striking a balance between being innovative, without being “too ambitious.” If we go back to hockey…(did we ever really leave?) You need strong, well-defined aims, but you can’t be too far ahead of the puck.  Finding the balance between an incremental and an ambitious proposal is critical, and then…you have to sell it to the reviewers.

Finding the balance between an incremental and an ambitious proposal is critical, and then…you have to sell it to the reviewers.

The Game Plan

  • Three meaty aims or four smaller aims are usually enough to create an interesting proposal.  You are doing research with undergraduates, so finding a “safe harbor” for your project is essential. A “safe harbor” is a meaningful area that won’t be overrun by another larger lab.  If you are proposing the same basicNIH AREA R15 twitter research that others in research-intensive labs are working on, the reviewers will recognize the slower rate of work (possible) at a PUI….and, you get the picture. It can be a negative factor.
  • Focusing on educational components are important, but be judicious in how much space and attention you give.  Let the reviewers know that students are involved in the project, that your project can be done at your institution with the resources at hand, and if portions of the work are done off campus, how students can still be involved to meet the educational goal of the program.  Describing in a half of page about how students are involved in your project is often good enough for most reviewers.
  • Controls, proof-of-concept and preliminary evidence are critical for a competitive R15 proposal, even though the program announcement states that preliminary data is not required.  Don’t even try to submit without several convincing pieces of data along with a string of strong published evidence supporting your hypothesis and project goals. Pay close attention to describing controls and experimental variables for your project.  This is more important for PUI applicants than established big name labs.

Don’t even try to submit without several convincing pieces of data along with a string of strong published evidence supporting your hypothesis and project goals.

Being awarded an NIH R15 is not impossible, but it isn’t easy either.  Over the years, I’ve coached hockey for 23 different teams, from first-year boys and girls to high-school-aged kids for USAH and adult novice camps.  The sweetest wins were the come-from-behind kind… against teams who were clearly better than we were. Knowing who your competition is should not stop anyone from applying.  Instead, as I’ve told my hockey players, if you are defeated to start with, you have no chance; instead, focus on what you can do well and play to that strength.

This post is a refreshed version of a two part series that covered the R15 in greater depth. You can find the original posts here and here.


639~Dr. Joseph Provost is a Professor and Associate Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of San Diego where he teaches a wide range of chemistry and biochemistry courses. Provost has been involved with a number of organizations involved to enrich the experience of undergraduates including: the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Council on Undergraduate Research and Project Kaleidoscope.  Provost ‘s research involves focuses the role transport protein plays in directed cell motility and tumor progression and how these membrane proteins regulate other critical mammalian cell functions.

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