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How to become a principal investigator at the NIH

An interview with Roland Owens, director of research workforce development at the Office of Intramural Research
Martina G. Efeyini
April 03, 2020

For this week’s column, I talked to Roland Owens, director of research workforce development at the National Institutes of Health Office of Intramural Research, to learn how he recruits principal investigators. This was an exciting conversation for me because we are both Baltimoreans and passionate about supporting the next generation of scientists. 

National Institutes of Health
Part of Roland Owens’ job at the NIH Office of Intramural Research is to write down unwritten rules. He has developed modules to make sure the information is disseminated widely.

From principal investigator to director  

Owens got his first science job as a summer laboratory assistant while earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. After that, he went to Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his Ph.D. in biology. He then moved to NIH for two postdoctoral assignments: the first as a National Research Service Award fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the next in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

 “(This is) where everything started really working,” Owens said. “My boss at the time ended up going to work for a company and left the NIH, and I was able to take over the research group at that point. I ran that research group studying adeno-associated viruses for about 17 years.” 

Today, he oversees principal investigator recruitment for the NIH Intramural Research Program. It’s his job, he said, to “make sure there is a diverse and highly qualified applicant pool, build lines of communication and educate people about opportunities at the NIH.” 

Earl Stadtman investigators 

The IRP started recruiting centrally for principal investigators 11 years ago, when it established the Earl Stadtman Investigators search program. The annual recruitment program allows scientists to compete for tenure-track research group leader positions at the NIH. 

There are more than 1,000 principal investigators at the IRP. Typically between 30 and 40 applicants are hired to keep up with natural turnover. Ten to 15 per year are selected from the Stadtman search. 

The IRP has facilities all over the United States, and Stadman investigators are eligible to work at these facilities depending on what is available. 

Here’s how the Stadtman program works:

  1. There are more than 20 committees in different areas (e.g., immunology, structural biology, chromosomal biology, neuroscience, etc.) that evaluate the applications. 
  2. Applicants who are rated as highly qualified are put in a pool. 
  3. The institutes review the candidates in the talent pool and determine who will progress to the interview stage. This ensures that everyone in the pool every year is scanned and that researchers get matched to the institutes that fit their talents.

The next Stadtman application round is scheduled for August/September. 

What NIH looks for in its PIs 

Owens shared with me how he recruits and what it means to be a well-qualified applicant for a tenure-track investigator position at the NIH. His advice — lightly edited — is below.

  • Have a strong publication record. Principal investigators are the leaders of the laboratories, so NIH has a high expectation that everyone who applies has published in a refereed journal.  

  • Be doing original work and making important contributions to research. Be doing innovative research. Is this an important problem for biomedical research that is being studied in an innovative way? 

  • Articulate a scientific vision. Many principal investigators are (at NIH) for 10, 20, 30 years. NIH wants to make sure they have a solid plan for the short term and long-range vision of where their research can go. Are they thinking about how their work can influence public health 20 years from now?  

There are also NIH positions for scientists who are interested in clinical research, including, for example, the NIH Lasker Clinical Research Scholars Program. Those investigators can either stay at the NIH and go up for tenure or leave with a grant to work at a research institute of their choice. 

‘I try to reach them as early as possible’ 

Owens emphasized how important it is to recruit diverse talent for principal investigator positons at the IRP. 

“I don't just wait until people finish their postdocs to start talking to them,” he said. “There are choices that kids are making in the seventh grade that can affect their ability to be qualified for our tenure-track positions in 10, 15 years down the road. So I try to reach them as early as possible.” 

I was curious to know what he views as the biggest challenge he faces in his role.  

“Turnover,” he said. “I learned in the last 12 years (by) making connections with staff (that) the people who are going to be at the university advising the postdocs and graduate students (are crucial). Unfortunately, those people tend to have a lower profile on the web…and it can be a challenge trying to find those individuals to make connections with them.” 

Finally, Owens shared his top tips for navigating NIH opportunities:

  1. Do informational interviews. 
  2. Check out these four NIH websites: the NIH homepage, the Intramural Research Program page, the training page and the human resources page
  3. Start early.

Making the leap: How do PIs start their own labs?

Interested in being a principal investigator in academia? Careers columnist Elizabeth Stivison interviewed a handful of PIs about how they got started. Read more.

Martina G. Efeyini

Martina Efeyini is a toxicologist and freelance science writer who blogs at Mademoisellescientist.wordpress.com. She also writes for the National Society of Black Engineers and ScientistaFoundation.com.

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