Grant Review and Support Program Participants

Charting the Course: GRASP offers foundational support for junior investigators transitioning to R01 grants.

Featured Participants:

  • Heather J. Baer, ScD
  • Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD
  • Karen Joynt, MD, MPH
  • Yvonne Lee, MD
  • Dhvanit Shah, PhD

Translational Activity:

Eligibility: Investigators in the first year of their NIH career development awards, specifically K23, K08, K07, K01, or K25

As junior investigators make their way through their first year of NIH career development awards towards an R01 grant, a Harvard Catalyst program offers first hand guidance and preparation each step of the way. Founded in 2011, the Grant Review and Support Program (GRASP) provides workshops, tools, and resources that support investigators throughout this important career shift. Participants are introduced to this initiative by taking a two-day orientation and grant writing workshop. They then begin using the tools and resources offered through the Elements of Grant Writing, an online compilation of tips, timelines, and templates culled from grant writing experts and funders, focusing specifically on grants from federal, foundation, and corporate sources. Throughout the duration of their tenure in GRASP, participants take periodic grant review workshops, develop and review work plans with GRASP staff, and continue to receive ongoing support throughout their K awards. The final result: Participants have a greater chance of receiving funding after submitting their R01 grant applications. "GRASP is the only program that provides long-term support and project management tools to maximize the chances that our young faculty obtain their first NIH R01 grant," says GRASP Program Director Steve Freedman, MD, PhD. "This is so critical in today's difficult funding environment where grants are essential to sustain a career in research."

GRASP Pioneer: Yvonne Lee, MD

A participant in the early days of GRASP, Yvonne Lee, MD, found that the schedule of completing work plans and reviewing them with GRASP staff kept her on track as she juggled her many projects. An assistant professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS), Lee's research focuses on the inflammatory and non-inflammatory components of pain in rheumatic diseases. The multidisciplinary approach to her work has led to collaborations with researchers in the departments of psychiatry, anesthesiology, perioperative, and pain medicine. With an emphasis on T3 research, Lee conducts studies using quantitative sensory testing to characterize pain sensitivity among patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis. She is also the principal investigator of a proof-of-concept clinical trial of milnacipran, a serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, which treats pain associated with RA. "It is an extremely exciting time to be a researcher in this area, as cutting-edge developments are occurring in related fields such as neurology, psychology, and sleep medicine, and knowledge from these fields can be translated towards the understanding and management of pain in systemic inflammatory diseases such as RA," says Lee.

"GRASP has been instrumental in teaching me the skills I need to have the best shot for success in clinical research."
Yvonne Lee, MD

For Lee, it was the program's emphasis on long-term planning that stood out. "GRASP emphasizes the importance of organization and long-term planning. By creating and implementing a work plan, I was able to clearly see all the elements that must occur when writing an R01 grant. It enabled me to put together a well thought-out grant on schedule, with time to submit a revised application before the conclusion of my current funding." Also critical for success, Lee realized, is learning how to create an organized plan for communicating information. "To succeed in this highly competitive environment, it is critical not only to have scientific knowledge and expertise, but also to be able to communicate that information in an organized and inspiring manner. GRASP has been instrumental in teaching me the skills I need to have the best shot for success in clinical research."

And while many investigators feel overwhelmed with their workload and can't imagine taking on extra assignments, Lee says the investment is worth it. "GRASP is an amazing program. In the beginning, it seems quite daunting, but it is important not to be discouraged by the number of tasks listed on the work plans. Because I followed the work plan, I was amazingly calm as the grant deadline approached. I felt like I had all my ducks in a row, and I even had plenty of time to get all my other work done."

Maximizing Success for Grant Submission: Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD

Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD, also started utilizing GRASP in 2011 and continues to work with the program today. An assistant professor at HMS and an assistant investigator and staff physician at Joslin Diabetes Center, Cypess works in the T1 domain studying human brown adipose tissue ('brown fat') on the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels. While studying the signal transduction of the insulin receptor in brown adipocytes as a post-doc, he attended a clinical lecture that suggested there may be functional brown fat in adult humans, something that wasn't yet known. He realized that in order to carry out the necessary translational studies, he needed training in clinical investigation which led him to enroll in what was then called the Clinical Investigator Training Program. With that training, Cypess was prepared to write a successful K23 grant application and develop an independent research program in this area. "Understanding metabolism is fundamentally interesting to me because it involves studying not just how each living cell sustains itself, but also how the body's organs interact through communication networks," he says.

"GRASP is the only program that provides long-term support and project management tools to maximize the chances that our young faculty obtain their first NIH R01 grant."
Steve Freedman, MD, PhD, GRASP Program Director

What stands out for Cypess, among many of GRASP's strong points, is the training session in developing the specific aims page. "To have the best chance in garnering a favorable review for your grant, learning how to write that page well is essential," he says. "Overall, GRASP gave me the knowledge and tools to focus my efforts on publishing papers, writing grants, and establishing a set of expectations with my mentor that have allowed me to develop a successful research program." Cypess's advice to investigators considering GRASP: "It is worth the time and effort, and the more resources you take advantage of, the better off you will be when applying for the R01 or any other grant application."

Identifying the Necessary Milestones: Dhvanit Shah, PhD

In his second year of GRASP, Dhvanit Shah, PhD, is identifying and analyzing novel genes and elucidating mechanisms that regulate normal and diseased blood formation. An instructor in medicine at HMS and an associate scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), Shah is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that regulate normal and diseased blood formation, particularly hemoglobin synthesis and hematopoietic stem cell development. In 2006, when Shah was a post-doc, he joined the laboratory of Dr. Barry Paw, an associate professor of medicine at HMS, to study genes regulating hematopoiesis, which is the process of production, multiplication, and specialization of blood cells. In Paw's lab, Shah participated in a two-year, randomized (mutagenesis) screen which successfully identified five novel zebrafish anemic mutants with defects in red cells. "The discovery process involved positional and candidate cloning of the genes disrupted into these anemic mutants. This will then allow us a way to gain insight into the genetic basis of hematopoiesis in vertebrates," says Shah.

When he began the program in 2011 after receiving his K01 grant, he signed up for the two-day orientation, thinking the course might give him just an overview of R01 application process. He was surprised to discover that GRASP had so much more to offer. What he remembers is the guidance he received in grant writing. "On my first day, the presenters walked us through the NIH grant writing process. They discussed how to identify the right NIH grant mechanisms and institutes, how to initiate contact with the NIH program officer, and how to effectively utilize their time and suggestions," says Shah. "The course also guided me through the details in preparing six- or 12-page NIH grants and how to write them so they're compelling and clear. The second day introduced me to the NIH grant review process and how reviewers prepare their feedback. Essentially the GRASP program prepared us to write for reviewers!"

"Essentially, the GRASP program prepared us to write for reviewers!"
Dhvanit Shah, PhD

One of the facts that most participants learn immediately in GRASP is that the R01 requires a great deal more than a typical grant application. Shah appreciated that the program provided him with helpful tools as well as practical advice on how to get the most from the mentor-mentee relationship. He also learned the importance of developing sound work plans, which help to keep researchers like him on track during the years of K support. "It is critically important to differentiate your research from your primary mentor's, and GRASP gives the tools and guidance to set milestones and reach intermediate goals before applying for your first R01."

The Importance of Follow-up and Accountability: Heather Baer, ScD

In year two of her K01 award, Heather Baer, ScD, had a strong motivation for applying to GRASP: avoiding the fears her peers experienced as they transitioned to the R01. "Everyone is really scared about what comes after the K, and how to go about planning for your future work and funding, and this program seemed like it would provide some very practical tools to help with that transition," says Baer, an associate epidemiologist at BWH and assistant professor at HMS and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

While a junior in college, Baer took an epidemiology course which led her to discover that she liked the systematic approach of this field of study. She was also drawn to thinking about how to design, implement, and evaluate programs and policies that could impact the health of entire populations. Currently in year three of her K01 award, Baer's work focuses on the management of obesity in the primary care setting, primarily conducting research within the T3 spectrum.

"Apply the minute you get your K!"
Heather Baer, ScD

One of the reasons Baer was drawn to GRASP was its focus on the organization of the fundamental steps needed to strategically prepare for grant writing. "What makes the program different from other grant writing courses is the emphasis on creating work plans and the longitudinal follow-up and accountability," she says. "Having to update your work plan, send it in each month, and get feedback on your progress really forces you to plan ahead and be strategic about writing manuscripts, thinking about grant aims, and seeking out collaborators. I think the structure keeps me focused and on track, which is not always easy."

And for investigators who are considering the program, she advises them to act sooner rather than later. "Apply the minute you get your K! I was already in year two of my K when I applied, and I think the program would have been even more helpful if I had participated right from the beginning."

Mastering the Art of Grant Writing: Karen Joynt, MD, MPH

What Karen Joynt, MD, MPH, gained from GRASP is a newly discovered comfort - and ease - with the grant writing process. "I learned more about grant writing in the two-day workshop than in the rest of my career combined," says Joynt, an instructor at HMS and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a staff physician in cardiology at the VA Boston Healthcare System. "It completely changed how I think about grants, how to write them, and hopefully how to be successful in obtaining funding."

"Definitely apply. The program demystifies the grant writing process in a major way."
Karen Joynt, MD, MPH

Working within the T3-T4 domain, Joynt's research focuses on domestic health policy, and in particular, healthcare costs and quality. Her current projects center around the impact of public reporting on case selection and outcomes for patients with acute myocardial infarction, on readmissions at hospitals that serve a high proportion of poor and minority patients, and on 'high-utilizers,' the small proportion of patients that consume the majority of healthcare and healthcare dollars. Nurturing her interest in public policy since college, initially Joynt wasn't sure how to combine this area with a career in academic cardiology. With the help of her research fellowship mentor, Joynt realized that she could work in health policy while still doing cardiology clinically. "I found a great niche with a position that is split between HMS, BWH, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which allows me to conduct health policy research in an amazing environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health while still maintaining my clinical connections with HMS and the VA."

Joynt continues to incorporate her grant writing skills into her current applications. "While writing my most recent grant, I literally kept the grant writing workbook open next to my computer and followed it to the letter," she says. "I also incorporate what I learned from the specific aims review session, which was amazing. Getting that level of feedback from such an expert in grant writing was so helpful." Her direct advice to would-be GRASP participants: "Definitely apply. The program demystifies the grant writing process in a major way."

Resources Accessed

"I am Harvard Catalyst" is a series of spotlights on clinical/translational investigators, showcasing examples of innovation, collaboration, community engagement, or professional development that have been supported by Harvard Catalyst.