In addition to actually doing the research, a big part of an academic researcher’s job is to obtain funding for their work. And an important funding source for medical researchers comes in the form of grants from the National Institutes of Health—the most common of which are R-series grant programs, particularly R01s.
An R01 grant is the NIH’s standard independent research project grant. It is meant to give researchers four or five years of support to complete a research project, publish their research, and reapply before the grant ends.
Indiana University School of Medicine’s Emily K. Sims, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics, was recently awarded her second active R01 for a research project focused on studying islet cell extracellular vesicles (EVs) in type 1 diabetes. Her first R01, which built on a K08 award, was aimed at understanding beta cell miRNAs within EVs.
Read on for a Q&A with Sims about her experience applying for a second R01, as well as advice for her fellow researchers.
What was the process like of applying for a second R01 grant while you had another active R01 grant?
The second R01 was a little bit of serendipity because of the RFA—that definitely helped. I applied for it after I saw that there was an RFA for grants that specifically target my expertise: islet EVs in type 1 diabetes. I discussed some ideas for this with some different collaborators I work with a lot, and one of them asked me about PD-L1 protein in EVs. Checkpoint inhibitors, some of which inhibit this protein, can cause type 1 diabetes. I did a lot of reading about PD-L1, which has been shown to get shuttled into EVs in different kinds of cancer. So we wrote this grant about the idea that PD-L1 may get shuttled into beta cell EVs and serve as a way that beta cell PD-L1 interacts with different kinds of cells.
But I think we were also able to leverage a lot of my existing body of work surrounding EVs for this new application—as part of the original R01, we had put a lot of different tools in place to study mechanisms of changes in EV cargo and transfer, so we were able to apply that.
I definitely took a lot from the structure of my first R01 as well. For me, I typically write grants with a very basic, in vitro/molecular mechanism aim, then an in vivo/physiologic relevance/mouse aim, then a translational aim testing human samples or doing studies in people. I applied that same structure here. This grant was a multi-PI grant, which was a little different than my first, individual R01 because the experience involved coordinating ideas and budgets from multiple PIs and sites.
Additionally, I think that in research, success begets success, so a lot of times, people are more likely to give you credit that you can accomplish what you say you will if you have already done something. So in my opinion, having another grant helps get more.
I also have another R01-sized grant that comes from a clinical foundation: the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. This grant funds a multi-center (six centers) clinical trial that we are running at IU, which has a goal of testing a novel treatment aimed at improving beta cell health, with the idea that this may preserve insulin production in type 1 diabetes.
This clinical grant was a natural extension of a pilot study we ran at IU, for which I was the site PI. The pilot study showed that the drug was safe and showed a signal that there may also be efficacy. So the program officer from the foundation actually really encouraged us to apply for a bigger, fully powered study. Applying for foundation funding is a little different; sometimes you have to tailor things based on the funder’s preference. But I have really appreciated having diverse funding sources. This way, I am less stressed when paylines change or funding priorities from one source change because I have some buffer.
What is it like managing two R01-funded projects at the same time? Does it present any new challenges?
I think anytime you add more things to your to-do list, you are going to feel busier. It is really important to stay efficient and organized or you can drive yourself crazy. Also, once you start accumulating multiple large projects, there is no way you can do everything yourself. So it becomes really critical to hire good people who can extend your reach.
I am very lucky that I have a very talented senior scientist who runs our lab from day to day, and I work with an amazing nurse coordinator who is running my clinical study. There is no way I could get all of the things I need to done without delegating to them. Our other team members are also excellent. I just do not think that my job would be feasible otherwise. I also try to delegate forms and paperwork to our admin as much as possible. This lets me focus more on tasks that feel like are the most effective use of my time.
What advice do you have for other researchers looking to secure a second active R01 grant?
I think it is important to figure out the balance of which opportunities are the best use of your time. This can be really tough, but there is only so much of you to go around, so it is super important. For me, it’s helpful to think about my major goals (short- and long-term), and if something is not moving me towards one of those goals, think really hard about whether it is something I absolutely have to be working on or if I can say goodbye to it.
You also have to be open to opportunities that come up that you didn’t expect (like for me, the RFA) but figuring out what to say no to applies to grants as well. Does an idea really seem grantable and feasible? Is it novel and exciting or, on the flip side, does it seem like a pretty high risk for a large amount of work, and you aren’t that excited about it? Our job is always a balancing act of figuring out which opportunities are the best bet for investing our time. If you can be strategic, that may be helpful in shifting the balance towards notices of awards vs. rejections.
Do you have anything else to add?
Hang in there. We all know that with success in research, there is lots of failure. In the year that I got notification of the second R01 and the trial funding, I also had two other R01s rejected.