January 20, 2012

From GRC GrantWeek: An Unexpected Route to an NIH Review Panel

Shelly Michalski, associate professor of parasitology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is a self-declared “late bloomer.” She defended her dissertation at age 31, and then taught night school for two years while starting a family. But a non-traditional path to the academy and a heavy teaching load at a predominantly-undergraduate institution have not limited her ability to attract federal research support and earn professional recognition. Here, Michalski shares perspective on being selected to serve on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) review panel. 

I was fortunate to obtain an NIH AREA [R15] grant early in my career (thanks to a collaboration with an R1 laboratory), and a subcontract for an NIH-funded research resource center in recent years. I guess this is how I landed on the NIH radar. [But] until recently, I did not have a high level of confidence in my ability to compete for extramural research funds - my teaching load is prohibitive, and because I didn't do a postdoc, I had no [proposal development] experience. I also lacked confidence in my abilities as a “little guy” to do good science.

Several years ago, the NIH e-mailed people with recent AREA grants to ask if they would be interested in serving on review panels. I sent an affirmative response, and promptly forgot about it. Last February, the NIH had an onsite meeting to gather leaders in my field of research to give short presentations on the current state of the field. I was asked to participate in this. Was I their first choice? I think likely not. But I was a choice, and I took the opportunity to do it. Remember the saying that “half of success is showing up?” I think that taking the opportunity to be seen in the presence of “big guys” as a peer at an NIH sponsored meeting led to me being asked to be on the review panel that fall.

Honestly, I was very intimidated at the prospect of being on the review panel. Who am I to critique the strategies of established leaders in the field? But I knew that this was the absolute best way to learn how to write good [research proposals], so I took a deep breath and agreed to it.

I was assigned sections from [six] multipart proposals, and yes, they were challenging. I'm not up to date on new techniques, and there was a learning curve involved.

Then there was the review session itself. [I was] literally sitting around a table with people whose names I've known my entire career....and I had to orally state my scores and critiques of my assigned sections through a microphone! Why did I do this?!

This story has a great ending. [I learned that] you don't have to be a major researcher or be conversant in all the newest techniques to be a good judge of science. You just have to love science and let your innate fascination lead you. Amazingly, it turned out that I rocked that review session, made great contacts, and came away feeling confident and excited and exhilarated. I now see opportunities that were always there, but were somehow hidden from my view, and I'm having the time of my life!

The review experience allowed me to see the inner workings of the review process, and really understand what goes into a successful (and an unsuccessful) proposal. It just couldn't have been learned any other way.

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