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LRP Director's Blog


Dr. Roya Kalantari

A with LRP Liaison – Roya Kalantari, Ph.D., Program Officer in the Division of Lung Diseases (DLD) at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Hi everyone! I sincerely hope that you and your loved ones are well during these unusual times.  If you’ve heard one of my LRP presentations, you’ve heard me discuss how absolutely crucial it is to reach out to an LRP program officer before submitting your application, as they know the ‘secret sauce’ regarding research and funding priorities for their respective Institutions/Centers. For the next couple of blog posts, I’ll be chatting with LRP program officers, just to drive home the importance of getting comfortable with discussing your research with NIH officials. 

Conversation with Dr. Kalantari

What is your current title and role/responsibilities within your NIH Institute/Division?Why did you choose to become involved in research training?

My current title is Program Officer in the Division of Lung Diseases (DLD) at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Beyond managing the LRPs for NHLBI, I handle training grants for most of the Lung Biology and Disease Branch in DLD in a variety of research areas ranging from rare lung diseases, to lung development, and infection. I also manage a portfolio of research grants on the lung microbiome. I am the DLD representative on several committees including the NHLBI Training Committee, the contact for various funding announcements (such as the K23 and our R03 program), and also participate in a variety of other activities such as organizing workshops and other meetings.

I’ve been interested in career mentoring since I started my own research career. NIH systems and programs can be really overwhelming and confusing to navigate, so to me, being able to provide some guidance to researchers early on is really important. It’s very rewarding to provide the support and help that allows people to build the foundations of their career and watch them go on to become successful, independent researchers!

Can you provide a general overview of some of the priority research areas supported by your Institute?

NHLBI supports research, training, and education programs on heart, lung, blood, and sleep (HLBS) diseases and disorders. This research ranges from basic through clinical, implementation, and population research. The best place to view examples of the kinds of research we support and to read about our research priority areas is in our Strategic Vision.

I know that you have a role with providing support for the LRPs, but what other funding mechanisms do you have in your portfolio?

I have a very wide variety of mechanisms in my portfolio. I support funding mechanisms from training up through standard research grants, including NRSAs (F30, F31, F32, T35, T32), Career Development Awards (K01, K08, K12, K23, K24, K25, K99/R00), R25s, and R01s.

I’m sure that you know that early stage investigators are ALWAYS a little anxious about reaching out to a program officer because they are afraid that they will ask ‘the wrong’ questions.What are some examples of good questions that any investigator should ask their program officer?

There really aren’t bad questions, especially if this is your first time applying for NIH funding! But I do think the best questions are informed ones. Do your research on your program of interest ahead of time and figure out where your gaps in knowledge are so that you can really maximize your time with the PO (especially since the LRP website is full of helpful information!).

Discussion topics you might want to bring to your program officer include: fit with the Institute (but check out the NIH Matchmaker first!), what a strong mentor or mentoring team would look like, the factors the make for a strong training plan, what key areas reviewers tend to look at, and if you’re sending in a resubmission, how to respond to reviewers to strengthen your application for the next round. It’s best to at least have some kind of idea for what you want to include in various sections of the application before asking about them so that the discussion can really be tailored around you and your plan. POs really do have your best interest at heart, so don’t be afraid to reach out!

In your words, can you tell me the importance of reaching out to a program officer before applying for an LRP or other NIH funding mechanisms?

Since Program Officers handle many grants and listen to a lot of reviews, they have a wealth of knowledge on common pitfalls and what factors play into a successfully funded application. While your mentor and collaborators may be a great resource for discussing the science, they may not have applied for a career development award, or other type of training grant very recently (or at all). POs in the training space can help you navigate the factors involved the application that your mentor may not be as familiar with. POs are also very good to talk to when you’re planning a resubmission, since they have a more unbiased view of the reviewer comments and may have insights as to what issues are most important to focus on. We also might also know of other funding programs that would fit your research to help you maximize your potential for success.

Ericka Boone, Ph.D.

Dr. Ericka Boone

Happy New Year!  Now that all of the turkey has been eaten and all of the gifts have been exchanged, it’s time to get back to business!  As you know, the 2020 LRP application cycle officially closed on November 15th, and more than 2600 researchers from across the country submitted applications. Those applications are now undergoing review, so stay tuned for updates.   In the meantime, I’d like to remind you of a few programmatic changes, and one important update that will be implemented beginning in September:  

Programmatic Reminders:

  • The maximum LRP award amount (depending on debt level) is now $50,000.  Thus, awardees can receive up to $100,000 in student debt relief during their first award.
  • Participation in the Health Disparities Research LRP has been expanded to all NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs).  Previously, all HD LRP applications were only reviewed by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.  Now, when applying for the HD LRP, applicants can select from a list of more than 20 NIH ICs that fund this program.

Programmatic Updates:

  • Beginning September 1, 2020, a new extramural LRP subcategory will be launched!  The Research in Emerging Areas of Critical Human Health (REACH LRP) is intended to address high priority emerging and gap areas of research.  Stay tuned for an official announcement.

 

Now that everyone is back to work and the official grind is on, remember that taking care of yourself should be at the top of your ‘To-Do’ list.It’s reported that one-third of people who visited a doctor last year mentioned high stress levels as contributing to their health issues.Don’t let stress impact your physical health, and don’t let imposter syndrome creep in, cloud you with self-doubt and disrupt your mental well-being.I’ve given several workshops over the past year addressing imposter syndrome as a career development impediment, and trust me, you’re not alone.Read more about my thoughts on imposter syndrome in the latest edition of The POSTDOCket.  Feel free to leave us a comment about your stories of overcoming imposter syndrome on Twitter.

 

As we close out this month’s DLR Director’s Blog, I’d like to remind you that if you have questions about the LRPs, feel free to call or e-mail the LRP Information Center at 866-849-4047 (Mon-Fri 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST) or lrp@nih.gov. You can also follow the NIH Division of Loan Repayment on Twitter and Facebook for more information and cycle updates. Take good care of you and cheers to an outstanding 2020!

Recently, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Conference has become a must attend for the Division of Loan Repayment. This conference is the largest national conference and networking event dedicated to the postdoctoral community – and most of all, it’s a ton of fun! This year, I presented a workshop on Imposter Syndrome.  To my delight, the session was an absolute success!  As evidenced by the standing room only crowd, session attendees really wanted to gain insight on how to deal with the imposter within.  So, what is Imposter Syndrome? It’s described as a pattern of thought where an individual doubts their own accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as completely unprepared and unqualified.

Basically in a nutshell, it’s that internal worst best friend that reminds you (loudly) of your mistakes, that you’re a bit of a fraud, your accomplishments are due to ANYTHING other than your talent or intellect and oh, by the way....everyone is going to find out soon and you’re going to be super embarrassed  I’d say the most difficult part of dealing with imposter syndrome is that NO ONE talks about it, so its allowed to loom over us....undermining our courage to speak up in meetings, go after new opportunities, explore potential areas of interest, or simply putting ourselves out there and showing up more fully in our lives.
If you have ever had any of these imposter thoughts, you’re in good company. It’s estimated that 70% of the population has battled the ‘imposter monster’.  Even some of the most successful people will encounter imposter syndrome at some point. 

“The struggle with self-doubt never goes away; even with writing my book, I asked myself— 'am I good enough?’— it can haunt us, because the messages that are sent from the time to time are that maybe you not enough...so don't reach too high. Don't talk too loud."First Lady, Michelle Obama

“I never raised my hand in my first year at Princeton because I was too embarrassed and too intimidated to ask questions. I went on to Yale Law School where I was at the top of my class—and despite all of my professional accomplishments, I still look over my shoulder and wonder if I measure up.” - Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor

But once you identify those imposter thoughts and feelings, managing them can get better with time.  First, however, you have to gain a different perspective.  So, what are some ways that an individual can combat the whirlwind of anxiety and negative self-talk that accompanies imposter syndrome?  I have a few pointers:

  1. Plant Your Feet....Breathe
    • When you are feeling overwhelmed, stop what you’re doing, unclench your teeth, take a breather and try to separate your true feelings/concerns from your fears (i.e., what are you really concerned about?).
  2. Silence is NOT Golden
    • You don’t have to go it alone and you don’t have to know all of the answers.  Remember that you CAN ask questions and it’s ok to ask for help/support.
  3. Be Your Own Best Friend
    • Play a new mental tape and visualize your success instead of failure.  Try thinking “ how can I make this happen?” versus, “I don’t’ think this will work out”.
  4. Brush Your Shoulders Off
    • Try to reframe your internal response to mistakes.  Instead of taking criticism or questions as a confirmation of your lack of ability, it’s important to detach the issue/criticism from feelings about who YOU are (after all, they are not even remotely the same thing).
  5. Cut Out the Instagram/Snapchat Mentality
    • It was once said that “comparison is the thief of joy”, so stop idolizing your mentors and others you look up to...and by all means, don’t compare your perceived ‘blooper reels’ to their ‘success reels’!
  6. Do Something Good for Yourself and Maybe Even Someone Else
    • What do you do for yourself?  Do you exercise, sleep or create art?  Self-care is not selfish.  After all, how can you be at your best if you’re constantly running on empty?  Also, think about mentoring someone else.  Not only will you empower someone else, you will empower yourself at the same time!

As you can probably guess, there was a TREMENDOUS amount of interaction among our session attendees at NPA and I’ve received several invitations to present at different universities.  While it may make me a little nervous to accept all of the invitations, I’m happy to ‘turn the lights on’ and expose the imposter monster for what it is...just thoughts that we have the ability to dial down. Perhaps I’ll see you soon at your local university!  In the meantime, if you’d like to read more about imposter syndrome, here are two articles that I think you will find useful: 10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Imposter Syndrome, and  Intellectual Self Doubt and How to Get Out of It. Take good care of you!


NPA attendees gathering for the Imposter Syndrome Presentation
 

Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, M.S.P.H., Ph.D.

Dr. Yenisel Cruz-Almeida

I recently had the pleasure of attending and delivering the keynote address during the University of Florida Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) Research Day.  While my travel to Gainesville wasn’t the smoothest (I won’t bore you with the details), once I arrived, 

I was quickly enveloped by the juggernaut that is the U of FL CTSI!  Founded in 2008 to speed the translation of scientific discoveries into improved health (including the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and cure of human disease), the U of FL CTSI Program is a model hub for educating and training translational scientific workforce innovators for the future!  While I was kept busy during my visit with facility tours and luncheons, the highlight of my day (aside from providing the keynote address), was meeting and talking with a host of talented (and frankly, brilliant) fellows and trainees, many of whom are current and former LRP awardees.  One particular individual and her compelling story of perseverance and success stood out to me.  I’d like you to meet Dr. Yenisel Cruz-Almeida, Assistant Professor of Aging (and former LRP awardee).

Conversation with Dr. Almeida

Good afternoon, Dr. Almeida.  I’d like to start our conversation by asking what is your current position and research focus?

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Florida Institute on Aging and my research focuses on understanding neurobiological factors contributing to changes in pain perception and modulation in aging adults.  Older adults are at greater risk for more frequent and prolonged pain and suffer from pain at multiple sites compared with younger individuals. It is the number one reason for disability in older persons.  With life expectancy increasing in the US and around the world, there is a dire need to better understand these factors so that we can better treat (or reduce/prevent) pain in older adults.

Where are you from originally?

I am originally from Cuba.  When I was younger, I vividly remember my parents making plans for us to leave Cuba. They wanted to give us a better life and more opportunities.  My parents scrimped and saved.  Eventually, my Dad designed a raft to help us, and several others, escape.  When I was 14, we set out to cross the 90-mile stretch between Cuba and the U.S.  It was treacherous! There was shark-infested water, the heat, we ran out of water and then the raft started taking on water.  We were about to lose hope when we were rescued less than 20 miles off the coast of Florida by a boat named “Opportunity”. 

When did you discover that you wanted to become a scientist?

I was always attracted to the discovery of Math and Science from a very young age, but really wanted to do something in the medical field that would impact an individual’s health. So, initially I leaned towards being a physician. It was not until after my undergraduate degree that I realized I wanted to be a biomedical scientist, to be constantly learning and asking my own questions. I also knew that I wanted to influence the lives of students, helping to mentor them and realize the opportunities that are unfolding in their own lives.

When were you awarded your first NIH LRP? Which NIH institute funded your LRP?

I was awarded my first NIH LRP in 2012.  It was funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

What has been the major career-related impact(s)/benefit(s) of receiving an LRP?

The major career-related impact of receiving an LRP was being able to accept a post-doctoral level salary and pursue the postdoctoral training that I needed to advance my career without worrying about how I would pay student loan bills. 

Have you experienced any other positive impact(s) of receiving an LRP been on your family or other unexpected areas where receiving an LRP has been a major benefit?

Postdocs are by no means making tons of money and at the time that I received the LRP, I had two small children, a husband, and we unexpectedly faced some unforeseen financials stressors where my salary was the sole income for a while.  Needless to say, the LRP was a HUGE unexpected help.  It represented yet another ‘opportunity’ for me to support my research dreams and help my family pull through some rather rough financial times.   

Any advice you would give anyone that is applying for an NIH LRP?

First and most importantly APPLY. If you don’t apply, you have zero ‘opportunity’ of getting it. Second, re-apply if you don’t get it, it’s worth it!

From your point of view, can you describe the importance of the LRP Ambassador Program?

As an LRP ambassador, I raise awareness about the LRP program, meet often with potential applicants and share my experiences including my own previous application documents with applicants. The LRP Ambassador Program is a way for the LRPs to be personalized and demystified.

As a reminder, our LRP Ambassador Directory is available 24/7 and, searchable by state and LRP. If you’re planning to apply for an LRP award, finding an Ambassador is a great first step! Ambassadors provide advice, encouragement regarding the LRP application process, their experiences, and more – so take advantage of this handy resource today!

 

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