September 2013

Grant-writing workshop recap

Participating mentors

Two years ago, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Minority Affairs Committee embarked on an initiative to identify the perceived barriers encountered by faculty members from groups that are underrepresented in the sciences and by faculty members at minority-serving institutions. Although the committee identified several barriers, including an opaque review process, lack of a support network, a leaky pipeline of minority talent and a lack of initiatives directed at underrepresented minorities, the underlying issue common to all participants in the working group was the lack of formal mentoring.
To address this issue, the MAC held a mentoring and grant-writing workshop in June in Arlington, Va. Our initial plan was to invite 15 to 20 assistant professors who were in the first four years of tenure-track positions and to pair them with ASBMB members who had been successful in obtaining federal funding. However, in response to unexpected enthusiasm from the community at large and the overwhelming number of applications, we invited 32 faculty members to participate in this inaugural endeavor.
In addition to selecting minority faculty members and faculty members at minority-serving institutions, we selected nonminority applicants at research-intensive institutions and at primarily undergraduate institutions. This strategy enabled us to have a diverse cohort of assistant professors from various institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley; Grand Valley State University; the University of Michigan; the University of Southern Maine; Jackson State University; California State University–Fullerton; the University of Richmond; and the University of Texas at El Paso. Mentors included members of the MAC as well as faculty members with research programs in biochemistry and molecular biology. (See box for a list of mentors.)
The event began with a networking reception, which was followed by two days packed with interactive sessions. Ruma Banerjee of the University of Michigan opened the first day with an inspirational and poignant talk about the importance of developing a personal roadmap, marketing your research program and networking. Program officers from the National Institutes of Health (Barbara Gerratana) and the National Science Foundation (David Rockcliffe, Catalina Achim and Sussanah Gal) talked about funding opportunities and the proposal-submission and review processes.
A mock review panel provided an overview of the logistics of the NSF review process and insights into how panelists discuss the intellectual merits and broader impacts of an application. There also were sessions on the elements of a successful proposal, differences between the NSF and the NIH, and revising and resubmitting an application.
Significantly, prior to the workshop, participants submitted summaries (e.g., an NIH “Specific Aims” page or an NSF “Research Summary” page) of their research proposals and received feedback on these documents from the mentors and from the other assistant professor participants.
Perhaps the most valuable component of the workshop was that each participant gave a short presentation that encompassed the background, hypothesis, aims, preliminary data and experimental approach of a research proposal that he or she was expecting to submit. Mentors provided salient feedback with regard to the scope of the proposed studies, the novelty of the research questions and approaches, and the biological or biomedical significance of the areas of investigation.
The meeting closed with group discussions on balancing teaching, research and service and on professional ethics.
A survey of the participants found that the workshop was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Seventy percent reported that the feedback they received about their research objectives was likely to improve their grant-writing skills, and 80 percent said they found the interaction with the mentors valuable. Significantly, 75 percent of the participants who had attended a grant-writing workshop in the past said they felt that the ASBMB workshop was more informative and helpful.
Efforts are underway to hold another workshop in the future. Click here for more information on this and other MAC activities.

Marion SewerMarion B. Sewer ( is an associate professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.

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