Research grants are vital to the success of academic research and researchers apply for these grants at all stages of their career. This makes writing stand-out grant applications an incredibly valuable skill for clinical investigators—and an intimidating task for first-time grant applicants.
ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation understands the important impact a first grant can have on the trajectory of a clinical investigator’s career and offers research grants specifically for young (and often first-time) applicants. These grants are the Young Investigator Awards (YIA) and Career Development Awards (CDA), which support promising early-career oncologists in their quest to improve the lives of people with cancer.
Surbhi Sidana, MBBS
Christopher Lieu, MD
To help make the grant application process less daunting for new grant applicants, past YIA recipient Surbhi Sidana, MBBS, and past YIA and CDA recipient Christopher Lieu, MD, share their experiences, offer tips for perfecting a grant application, and describe where their grants have brought them in their research today.
Why did you decide to apply for a research grant, specifically a Conquer Cancer grant?
Surbhi Sidana: My career goal is to become an independent clinical investigator with a focus on hematologic malignancies, and a YIA would enable me to progress in that direction. The project I proposed is a multidisciplinary project and my first experience of being the principal investigator of such a collaborative effort. I had to meet with several people from different divisions and bring their input together to come up with a feasible research proposal.
Christopher Lieu: I had the fortunate opportunity to work with a developmental therapeutics laboratory, where promising data suggested that a combination of two targeted drugs had the potential to be more effective in treating patients with metastatic colorectal cancer than one alone. Given the effect that we saw in the laboratory, we applied for a research grant to start a clinical trial using this combination in patients with colorectal cancer. This was a true “bench-to-bedside” research project. The CDA helped us to bring tumor tissue from patients back into the laboratory to test why some patients responded well and others did not.
What was the application process like?
SS: I was just starting my 2nd year of hematology/ oncology fellowship when putting the application together and had never written a grant proposal before. My mentors and collaborators were very helpful in reviewing and improving the proposal, and I made use of resources for grant writing and submission at my institution. The Conquer Cancer Grant Writing Workshop at the ASCO Annual Meeting was also very helpful, as the speakers had gone over all the parts of the application in detail. Lastly, I contacted the Conquer Cancer staff a few weeks before to clarify some things and they provided timely and clear answers.
CL: The YIA was the first grant I ever applied for. It was a learning experience! For both grants, I had incredible mentors who walked with me step by step through the entire process. It took a lot of work, and the grant application process requires you to really think critically about the question you are asking and what it would take to answer that question. It is an exercise in thinking big and innovatively, while still being grounded to ensure that what you want to do is feasible.
Do you have any advice for those applying for a YIA or CDA? What can they do to make their application stand out?
SS: Give yourself plenty of time. Ask several people, and don’t wait for it to be polished to get feedback. Take advantage of the Conquer Cancer Grant Writing Workshop—even if you cannot attend in person, the online videos are very helpful. When in doubt about feasibility or specific questions, contact the Conquer Cancer staff (email@example.com). Also, good statistical mentorship is key for a strong proposal, so meet with your statistical mentor early in the process.
There are several parts to the grant application beyond just the proposal. For me, creating a table to keep a visual track of everything was very helpful. Also, keep in mind that many institutions have an earlier internal deadline for the office of research to sign off on grant proposals, which is usually a few days before the formal grant deadline.
The time needed for the whole process varies depending on if you need to get some preliminary data or not. For me, the first couple of months were just coming up with ideas to answer my question and finally settling on the best one, without even putting pen to paper. Once you have a solid idea and some preliminary data, I would suggest giving yourself at least 6 to 8 weeks to write the grant and put everything together.
CL: Think big! The CDA is a 3-year grant, so the scope can be bigger than a YIA, which is a 1-year grant. The CDA is a mentored grant, so finding the right mentor and getting the right guidance is key. Finally, make sure that your background and supporting data really support your specific aims.
How has your work in research expanded since receiving the YIA and/or CDA?
SS: In research, one thing builds on another. My YIA project is actively accruing patients and I have certainly learned a lot in the process, not just about research, but also about leadership and problem-solving. During the past year, I have been able to complete several small projects and have also been able to receive funding for other work, some of which directly builds upon my ongoing YIA work. I am excited about continuing my research.
CL: Our team continues to work in both the lab and clinic to research therapies and biomarkers for patients with colorectal cancer. Since receiving these grants, our lab is investigating immunotherapy combinations for colorectal cancer and we are running multiple clinical trials. We are also collaborating with the National Cancer Institute Experimental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Network and with SWOG.
Dr. Lieu, as both a YIA and CDA recipient, how has each award impacted your career?
CL: Both awards are tremendous honors to receive. Simply applying for these grants is educational, and it helps you define and refine what you want to study and how you want to study it. Receiving these awards helped me develop momentum in researching colorectal cancer that I would have never otherwise had. However, the hope is that the biggest impact is felt by our patients through finding better detection, prevention, and treatment for cancer.
Any parting words of wisdom for applicants?
SS: It is truly remarkable that ASCO and Conquer Cancer are so committed to fostering the careers of young researchers like me. The YIA is an incredible opportunity and I think everyone interested in a research career should apply for it.
CL: Conquer Cancer’s YIA and CDA are opportunities to learn and be mentored and can jumpstart your academic career. But the most important thing is that these grants can and should push the field of cancer research forward to positively impact our patients who deserve better therapies. ■
Originally published in ASCO Connection. © American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Applying for a Conquer Cancer Research Grant: Tips From Past YIA and CDA Recipients.” ASCO Connection, July 2018. All rights reserved.