Guest post: Recent changes to NIH R15 mechanism mean Miami faculty are more competitive than ever

Students presenters discuss their poster with an Undergraduate Research Forum attendee.
Highlighting their students’ participation in the Undergraduate Research Forum is one way PIs can demonstrate the excellence of the research environment for undergraduate students at Miami University.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares insights about changes to the NIH R15 mechanism, suggests some tips for writing NIH  grant applications — especially R15s — and offers encouragement for Miami researchers based on his experience.

The major goals of the NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program are to support meritorious research at predominantly undergraduate institutions, strengthen the overall research environment, and provide valuable research experience for undergraduate students. The R15 application is a 3-year award with a maximum of $300,000 in direct costs for the entire project. The R15 guidelines have changed significantly, as described in a new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), PAR-18-714: Academic Research Enhancement Award for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions (R15 Clinical Trial Not Allowed).

Additional changes to the R15 program, including the addition of the REAP program, are coming next year as well.

This fall I was on an NIH study panel that reviewed both R01 and R15 applications. I wanted to share with you some of my experiences from that panel, offer some helpful hints, and encourage more researchers at Miami to apply for R15 funding. First of all, NIH has placed a much greater emphasis on training undergraduate students for R15 applications. This change should have a major impact at Miami University. Researchers at Miami should have a significant advantage with the R15 proposals, since we strongly emphasize and encourage undergraduate research.

The FOA Research Strategy states the following:

Research Strategy: Describe how the proposed plan can achieve the specific aims using a research team composed primarily of undergraduate students. Describe how undergraduate students will be exposed to and supervised in conducting hands-on, rigorous research. Describe how undergraduate students will participate in research activities such as planning, execution and/or analysis of research. Formal training plans (e.g., non-research activities, didactic training, seminars) should not be provided, although a brief description of activities related to enhancing students’ research capabilities and progress (e.g., the use of individual development plans, etc.)  is permitted.

Here are some tips to make your proposal stronger:

  • Make sure that you discuss everything that is listed in the FOA Research Strategy in your proposal. The reviewers of the application are asked to comment on these issues directly.
  • The research team described in your application must be primarily composed of undergraduate students. I would include in your budget salary for undergraduate students during the school year and the summer, as well as salary for a graduate student to train and work with the undergraduate students.
  • In your biosketch and in the proposal, make it crystal clear that you work with undergraduate students in your lab. Dedicate at least half a page in the application to showing that you are training undergraduate students in your lab. In your proposal, I would include the following: “I have been at Miami University for ZZ years and I have mentored XX undergraduate students. These students have published XX papers as co-authors and YY as first authors. I currently have XX undergraduate students working in my lab.”  In the application, you need to explain how students are trained.  Briefly discuss papers that undergraduates have co-authored in your lab and mention what graduate or professional schools your students have attended. This will provide clear evidence to the reviewers that you have a proven track record in training undergraduate students and helping them pursue careers in biomedical sciences.
  • In your biosketch, underline the names of the undergraduate co-authors. Make it easy for the reviewers to clearly see that you are dedicated to conducting research with undergraduate students and that you have plenty of experience in that area.
  • Describe innovative approaches that you are using to engage undergraduate students in your lab. Describe how you will stimulate the interests of the students. Discuss how you will recruit a diverse and inclusive group of undergraduate students to the lab.
  • Make sure you mention that Miami University has a dedicated Office of Research for Undergraduates that provides valuable resources for students interested in research. Discuss all of the outstanding programs that Miami offers undergraduate students who are interested in conducting research, including Undergraduate Research Awards (URA), Undergraduate Summer Scholars (USS), First Year Research Experience (FYRE), and Doctoral Undergraduate Opportunity Scholarships (DUOS). Mention that workshops that discuss all aspects of scientific research are available to students. Finally, have your students present a poster at Miami’s annual Undergraduate Research Forum, held in April. These components of the proposal really emphasize the strength of Miami University and enhance your application.

One of your overall goals in writing the R15 proposal should be for the reviewer to want their son or daughter to conduct research in your lab as an undergraduate student. This is very important. You want the quality of the research work and the training experience to be outstanding in the application.

In addition, here are a few general tips for NIH proposals that are not specific to the new R15:

  • The proposal needs to be strong scientifically; it is not just about undergraduate training. Try to have good preliminary data for each specific aim in the proposal. This will clearly show that you can conduct the experiments proposed in the application.
  • At the very end of each specific aim, discuss outcomes, potential problems, and alternative strategies.
  • Make sure you include a resource sharing plan in the application. Several applications forget to include this.

I strongly encourage faculty at Miami to apply for NIH R15 grants. If any researchers have any questions about this program or other grant applications, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Finally, although NIH funding is still highly competitive, I think it is getting a bit better for researchers. Good luck with your submissions!

Written by Gary Lorigan, John W. Steube Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Miami University.

Photos by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.


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