Grant Writing Academy honored with national award

A Stanford Biosciences program employs peer mentors to help graduate students and postdoctoral scholars improve their grant-writing skills. Its annual proposal boot camp begins Sept. 26.

- By Becky Bach

Lamia Wahba, a postdoctoral scholar in pathology, coaches participants in a workshop offered through the Grant Writing Academy. 
Norbert von der Groeben

Success as a professional scientist is increasingly determined by the ability to secure funding. Yet grant writing — the nitty-gritty work of distilling ideas into a winning pitch — is rarely taught in graduate school or postdoctoral training.

Recognizing this gap, Stanford Biosciences launched the Grant Writing Academy in 2014. Though young, the program has already boosted the number of both grant submissions and funded grants, said its director, Crystal Botham, PhD. It recently earned national recognition as well: It was honored as the third-prize winner of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Innovations in Research Education Award.

Though the program specializes in helping students and postdocs write some of the most common grants offered by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, they are welcome to use it to apply for any bioscience grant, Botham said.

Proposal boot camp

Chandramouli Chandrasekaran, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in neurosciences and electrical engineering, turned to the Grant Writing Academy for assistance applying for a NIH Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The grant can provide up to five years of funding, but it demands as many as 30 documents that need to be nearly perfect, Chandrasekaran said. That seemed a bit overwhelming, so he attended the academy’s proposal boot camp, a two-month course that meets weekly and walks a cohort of graduate students and postdocs through each step of the grant-application process.

It helped demystify many aspects of the process for me, and it gave me a huge boost in self-confidence.

The boot camp helped Chandrasekaran, who studies the neural mechanisms underlying decision-making in primates, secure one of the coveted awards. Now, he recommends it highly.

“It helped demystify many aspects of the process for me, and it gave me a huge boost in self-confidence,” he said. “I was able to become good friends with another person in my class at the academy, and in the days before the deadline we helped each other as proofreaders.”

So far, the academy has worked with about 180 students and trainees, Botham said. She attributes its success, in part, to its use of peer mentors. “Peer feedback is really valued. There’s only one of me, and I can’t read 100 grants, but I can train grant coaches to work with 100 postdocs or graduate students,” she said.

Lamia Wahba, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in pathology, is one of the academy’s grant coaches. She said the academy has helped her refine her own grants, but it has also taught her a lot about teaching. Teaching writing is quite different from teaching genetics, she said. It requires trainees to examine their research critically, she said.

‘You become a better scientist’       

“By being able to write and articulate your research goals, you become a better scientist,” said Botham.

And some of the most common mistakes inexperienced grant writers make? Many make assumptions about what the reviewers know, Wahba said. Even experts in the field may not be familiar with new or unusual techniques, she said. In addition, beginning grant writers often struggle to keep their writing concise and to resist the temptation to include every detail, she said.

“The big take-home lesson is we weren’t taught enough about writing about science,” Wahba said. Oftentimes, trainees think they need to write grants in the evenings or weekends, and think of it as not part of their actual job, she said. “I really learned the importance of having it be a part of your job. This is actually work as well, and it needs to be done really well,” she added.

The academy’s annual proposal boot camp, which meets weekly, begins Sept. 26. It runs to Nov. 17 and is open for enrollment. The academy also offers periodic lectures and workshops, as well as drop-in hours with grant coaches.

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