MY STORY: WINNING A K99/R00 AWARD – Part 4 (June 7, 2020)

PART 4 of 4

My first K99/R00 submission did not even make it to the review committee. It got the dreaded “Not Discussed” tag. I did get a summary statement with the critiques from the three reviewers. To put it mildly, they had doubts about the competitiveness of my application and perhaps, rightfully so.

  1. Candidacy: The reviewers acknowledged my publication record as being good but not exemplary. I had 14 publications at the time of my first submission. However, they were more interested in my productivity during the postdoctoral years. As a post-doc, I had 2 first author publications, couple of review articles, couple of book chapters, and a patent submission. I was perhaps competing with other applicants who had one or more nature, science, or cell papers, hence the good but not exemplary remark. Interestingly, one of the reviewers was under the impression that I had no first author publications as a post-doc. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to provide a rebuttal when I submitted the revised application.
  2. Training Plan: The reviewers thought my training plan was not strong enough or novel enough to require 2 years of additional training time. Given my lack of background in molecular & cellular profiling (e.g., western blot, immunohistochemistry etc.,), I had proposed spending time to pick up these skills. However, the reviewers thought the skills could be easily acquired in a few weeks. They suggested that I should focus on picking up techniques outside of my mentor’s lab expertise. This was precisely the kind of feedback I was seeking from my initial submission. To that end, I modified my training plan to focus on getting specialized training in two areas: adipose biology and bioinformatics, which were outside my primary mentor’s research expertise, but still complementary with my research background. I also enrolled two additional mentors to help with my training plan.
  3. Research Plan: The reviewers were particularly brutal in their feedback here, but rightfully so. They felt that my specific aims were more of a fishing expedition rather than a specific project with well defined aims and hypotheses. I had no preliminary data to show project feasibility or back up my hypotheses. However, they did acknowledge a general interest in the research topic. Since I already knew my lack of preliminary data would be an issue, I had begun to acquire data immediately after my first submission. By the time the reviews came back, I had most of my preliminary data ready for the resubmission. I also sought out the program officer (PO) associated with the study section and got feedback on the specific aims. This proved extremely valuable as I got more insights into what the reviewers and the review committee were looking for. This step is often ignored by applicants, not realizing that the PO can be a valuable resource. That said, I would suggest being mindful and respectful of their time and only seek their help after your specific aims have been fleshed out in detail. As it was, I was able to address most of the reviewer critiques in my revised application.
  4. Mentors, Collaborators, and Consultants: The reviewers were not impressed with my mentoring committee as I only had one primary mentor. They suggested that I set up a formal mentoring committee that would provide research and career guidance. Consequently, I set up a formal research advisory committee with 3 mentors and 6 collaborators and/or consultants. All the mentors and consultants /collaborators on my advisory committee were well known and well respected scientists. Looking back, I believe that their reputation played a significant role in how my revised application was scored.
  5. Institute Environment: The reviewers did not really critique the institute environment and agreed that the university and department would be supportive of my training and research needs.

To recap the timeline, my initial application was submitted in October 2018. The summary statement was made available in April 2019. The revised application was submitted in July 2019 and I got the summary statement in December 2019. The advisory council met in Feb 2020 and I got the email notification of grant award (NOGA) in May 2020. The whole process from initial submission to award notification took 17 months and probably 24 months if you include the initial planning period before the first submission. The application process is more like a marathon than a sprint, so plan accordingly 🙂

It was an exhausting journey but thankfully I was one of the lucky ones that got the award. But what if I had not gotten the award? After all, only 1 in 5 applicants are funded. What would have been my Plan B? I had already started the ball rolling on Plan B by applying to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) early career development award. The award is similar to the K99, but only for 3 years and with lot less money. I applied for the grant in Oct 2019 with the start date being April 2020. I have not yet heard back from them. If by chance, they select my application for funding, I will have to decline the award as I already have the K99 award. What if the Plan B also fails and AHA application is not funded? What would have been my Plan C? I had already started work on Plan C by exploring options with my PI to get promoted to a research faculty position within the department so that I could then package my grant application as an R21 or even an R01. Granted, at this point, it would be tough sledding, but I was already preparing along those lines. Fortunately, I did not have to make Plan B or Plan C work. The point being, you cannot afford to put all your eggs in one basket. You have to plan for contingencies.

Now that I have my K99 award, what does that mean for the future? To be honest, things only get more challenging from this point on. Yes, I do have peace of mind, at least for the next 5 years relative to my research projects and funding. On the other hand, I am now expected to be extremely productive relative to publications, be able start my own research lab as a tenure track faculty, hopefully at a Tier 1 research university, and successfully apply for one or more R01 NIH grants. Chances are, my R01 grant applications will be evaluated based on the productivity of my K99/R00 award. If I don’t deliver with a $1 million grant, how can I expect them to give me more money for research? Thus the pressure to succeed and repay their investment in my career. Then again, I would rather be in my shoes than have to execute Plan B or Plan C :). I am confident in my abilities and feel optimistic that I will be able to carve out a successful research career with the resources I have been given.

I hope you have found my K99 journey informative as you plan your own K99 application submission. Feel free to send me comments or questions, if you are so inclined. I will be happy to provide feedback, if I can. Good luck 🙂