Dr. Jun Liu
Dr. Jun Liu

Though recruited as an assistant professor in 2007, Dr. Jun Liu, saw himself as a novice research scientist at UTHealth Medical School with no inkling how to find what ultimately makes an investigation possible: funding.

With his research plans taking shape, his urge to secure funds to launch a study grew stronger. Just as Liu was scratching his head, he was alerted to a university New Investigator Development Program (NIDP) that comprises two training courses designed to help junior faculty members craft their research proposals to secure grants and sponsorship.

He jumped right at it, starting with Grants 101 taken in two half-day sessions before advancing to Grants 102, an in-depth, six-month program of a monthly hour-long class.

The six-month program yielded sweet fruit, said Liu, now an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. His first-ever research proposal, “Structure-function relationships in the spirochetal flagellar motor,” which was developed during the training with his department collaborator Dr. Steven Norris, soon received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) award of more than $1.85 million for 2010 through 2015.

Continuing the momentum, Liu applied his newly acquired knowhow to two subsequent grant applications, “Structural basis of signaling between bacterial chemoreceptors and flagella” and “Structural basis of phage infection and DNA ejection.” He garnered $2.77 million from NIH for both.

“I’m so grateful for the grant training. It made a huge difference for me then as a new investigator,” Liu said. “I believe these studies made possible by the grants have really kicked off my career as a scientist.”

160 trained, $21 million garnered

Dr. Kevin Morano
Dr. Kevin Morano

Dr. Kevin Morano, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the Medical School who directs the grant courses, said Liu is one of the more than 160 faculty members from all six UTHealth schools trained through the courses.

“These investigators are responsible for over $21 million in new extramural funding from proposals generated during the classes,” Morano said. “Most have gone on to generate even more funding to support their research programs or training years after taking the course.”

In Grants 101, junior investigators who have never received a grant award as a principal investigator and their administrative staff receive an overview of the grant process. Grants 102 then equips the investigator with the tools needed to develop a grant proposal that’s peer-reviewed and ready to submit to a funding agency at the end of the six-month workshop.

Liu said the length of the training pays off.

“Grants 101 gave a very good overall picture of the whole grants process while Grants 102 provided detailed guidelines that allowed me to follow step by step,” Liu said. “Importantly, what I learned from the course is readily applicable to other grants applications.”

Hands-on mentoring a key part

A unique part of the training is the mentorship, said Dr. George Stancel, executive vice president for academic and research affairs.

“Mentoring is what makes these courses so robust,” he said. “Every survey of our junior faculty members in recent memory has concluded that the most important thing they desire is to have mentors to help start their own academic programs. Our Grants 102 course effectively does just this.”

At the start of that course, an investigator picks a senior faculty member with expertise in his or her area of interest as a mentor who will guide the investigator through the training.

“This is not just another seminar on how to do things,” Stancel said. “Rather it’s a step-by-step program in which senior mentors and junior faculty mentees construct a grant application, which is the ultimate ‘final exam.’ The program has proven it works.”

Liu called the personal tutelage from a mentor the best part of the training.

“The direct interaction with my mentor was really helpful,” he said of Dr. Bill Margolin, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, crediting him with helping shape and fine-tune his first successful grant proposal.

‘Grantsmanship’ vital amid competitions

Morano said it’s imperative for researchers to hone the skills imparted by NIDP, which was incepted in 2004.

“The funding climate at the NIH is more difficult than it has ever been, and it’s a challenge to secure external funding to support research projects,” he said. “Strong ‘grantsmanship’ is required for investigators to shine the best possible light on their ideas and convey the importance and impact of their work.”

Morano said the training not only benefits younger investigators just starting their careers but also established faculty members looking to add a research component to their clinical work.

“I’d encourage our faculty to take advantage of every avenue of support UTHealth offers, from these grant courses to pilot funding programs, and to take every opportunity to increase their competitiveness for funding at the national level,” he said.

Enroll in 2015 training now

Registrations are open for Grants 101 and Grants 102.

Grants 101 will be held from 8:30 a.m. to noon, Jan. 22 and 23, 2015, at the Denton A. Cooley, MD and Ralph C. Cooley, DDS University Life Center, 7440 Cambridge St.

Grants 102 runs from noon to 1:30 p.m. every second Wednesday of the month February through August at the Medical School Building, MSB B.605.

Registration is required. For details, visit the NIDP’s Web page.

-Zen Zheng, Office of Public Affairs