Sunday, August 24, 2008

Advice on applying for an NIH K99 Pathways to Independence Award

I was recently awarded an NIH K99 from NIGMS for my proposal entitled "Cooperation and conflict in microbial systems: sucrose metabolism in yeast". Although my application was successful, I made a number of mistakes that ended up being rather costly.

In brief, the K99/R00 program is a bridging grant designed to provide support for the final 1 - 2 years of a postdoc (K99 phase) and the first 3 years of a faculty position (R00 phase). The grant is worth $90,000/yr during the postdoctoral phase and $250,000/yr during the faculty phase (amounts include F&A overhead).

The biggest mistake that I made was to ask for only one year of postdoctoral funding. I was treating this as an estimate of how long I expected to be in my postdoc, but this request cannot be changed. This mistake was particularly bad because the transfer from K99 to R00 is supposed to be continuous, meaning that if you don't get a job in the year that you apply then you may not be able to claim the R00 phase of the award. So I would definitely suggest that everyone ask for two years of K99 funding.

On a related note, ask for full funding at all stages of the award. You will need the money and asking for less doesn't seem to get you any points for modesty.

The proposal is <= 25 pages, which must include a Career Development Section. The NIH takes this very seriously, so you should try to include everything that you can think of (expect to write five or more pages on this).

Your grant will be reviewed in depth by three people and then the entire review section will vote in order to give you a priority score (100 perfect and 500 very much not perfect). In case you are curious, I got a 149. I don't know what the cutoff was (or even if this is a well defined question), but I was certainly curious after I got my score what it might mean!

Another important point that I didn't realize when applying is that the NIH does not want you to have accepted (or even been offered) a faculty position at the time of the award, even if you plan on delaying your start date. This means that you probably cannot apply for faculty positions in the Fall and at the same time apply for a K99 in the November slot (which is not reviewed until ~ April of the next year).

One last piece of advice: Before applying call a program officer and ask for advice. They are generally happy to answer questions and they have seen many applications go through the entire process.

Good luck!

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Book Review: The Price of Admission, by Daniel Golden

In a series of articles for the Wall Street Journal, Golden brought attention to controversial aspects of college admissions that act to hinder economic diversity at elite campuses. The most striking allegation is that many universities mantain active communication between the admissions and development offices. For example, the development office at Duke applied pressure to accept applicants from wealthy families even if there had been no sign of interest in donations. Golden illustrates the unsavory nature of this connection through a series of comparisons between the wealthy (undeserving) applicant who was granted admission and a poor (deserving) applicant who was denied admissions. This style of writing is a nice appeal to emotion, but it works much better in the comparatively short format of a newspaper. After reading a dozen such comparisons between various students I would have preferred some real analysis. One piece of analysis that I have recently come across is a study by the New America Foundation which found that among the 140 most selective colleges, only 3% of students come from the bottom quartile.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Book Review: Our Underachieving Colleges, by Derek Bok

Derek Bok is one of the most thoughtful observers (and participants) in higher education today. As president of Harvard for 20 years (1971 - 1991) he had many opportunities to see first hand how an elite university works--or doesn't. Many years ago I read his book "The State of the Nation", which I found to be a reasonable analysis of many of the difficult issues facing the country. In "Our Underacheiving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More", Bok is able to focus on issues that he has a unique perspetive on. The begins with the basic question: "What is the purpose of higher education?" His response is given in a series of wonderfully insightful chapters focusing on critical thinking, diversity, and character. Unlike many commentators, he takes a measured response towards such divisive topics as preprofessionalism and the degree of faculty commitment to undergraduate education. Bok presents a powerful argument that the modern university has largely abdicated its responsibility to teach a strong core curriculum, as compared to a random hodgepodge of courses that students and faculty can agree will be "fun". This book deserves to be a classic treatise on higher education, alongside books such as Clark Kerr's "The Uses of the University".

NY Times Review, by Charles McGrath

Friday, June 02, 2006

This is a dumb way to add a photo

You would think that a company dedicated to hosting blogs would allow you to put a picture up without first posting it as an entry... If you did think that then you would be wrong.

Global warming: What do we expect?

It is widely agreed that global CO2 concentrations are increasing. There are complicated models that enable climate scientists to try and predict the effect that these rising concentrations will have on the global climate. However, to get an idea for what one might naively expect, I have found it useful to imagine a world without any greenhouse gases.

Global CO2 concentrations have historically been approximately 280 ppm (parts per million). This concentration of CO2 leads to the temperatures that we have grown accustomed to here on Earth. A simple calculation taking into account the energy flux hitting the Earth from the sun allows one to conclude that in the absence of greenhouse gases the mean surface temperature of the Earth would be around -20C. The presence of greenhouse gases is therefore essential for life on Earth; if there were no greenhouse effect then the Earth would be a giant ball of ice.

Humans are now emitting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing the concentration to rise to ~380 ppm. This is a significant increase above historic levels. If 280 ppm were enough CO2 to increase the temperature of the Earth by 40 degrees Celcius, then how much of an increase do we expect from 380 ppm? I would have naively expected temperatures to rise much more than they actually have, which means that the global climate system has a remarkable amount of negative feedback. The question is, how long will this negative feedback continue to operate? Estimates of future CO2 concentrations vary depending upon when the world begins to take the threat seriously, but even relatively optimistic scenarios estimate that CO2 concentrations will not plateau until approximately 750 ppm. This would correspond to an almost tripling of CO2 concentrations. I have no idea what the effect of this would be on global climate. The scary thing is that nobody else does either.