The Other Side of the Grant Submission Process: Program Directors and Study Section Reviewers

I had the pleasure to conduct interviews virtually with Dr. Susan Taymans and Jon Hennebold that consisted of a series of questions and answers.

Dr. Taymans currently serves as the acting chief of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fertility and Infertility branch. In addition, she serves as the NIH Program Director for four sections: embryonic gonad and gamete development, basic ovarian function and dysfunction, fertility preservation, and manages intuitional training grants (T32s).

Dr. Hennebold is the 1) current Chief of Oregon National Primate Research Center’s Division of Reproductive & Developmental Sciences, 2) Professor at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, and 3) adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the School of Medicine. He has served as an NIH ad-hoc grant reviewer for the past 10-15 years. Dr. Hennebold became a member and served on the NIH Integrative and Clinical Endocrinology and Reproduction (ICER) study section starting in 2017 where he was a standing member and then Chair. In addition, he has served on many other study section panels including but not limited to programs for F31, F32, and fertility and infertility branches.

Dr. Susan Taymans Interview Q&A:
Q: What are your tasks/responsibilities as a program director?
A: As an entity responsible for a particular area of science, program directors serve as the liaison between the grant submitter and the study section reviewers for that general area of expertise. Roles include but are not limited to ‘vetting’ the grant submitter’s ideas before they submit to ensure that it is in line with the current priority areas for funding. As a program director, they are able to help fine-tune some ideas and direct the grant to its appropriate study section. In addition to dealing directly with grant submitters and section reviewers, program directors also take note of what type of research that labs are pursuing to communicate that information to higher-ups on what type of research/area should be made a priority area now and in the future.

Q: What type of time commitment do program directors have and are there year-round tasks?
A: A program director is a full-time job, so the time commitment is year-round. Although always busy, tasks peak with submission and review deadlines.

Q: How did you become a Program Director?
A: Dr. Taymans route was non-traditional in that as she was finishing up as a postdoctoral fellow in an NICHD lab when she happened to see an opening for a program director position where she applied and was awarded it. Traditionally, most program directors come into their positions after running their own research labs for several years. If you are interested in becoming a program director, you likely will find out openings by word-of-mouth although positions will also be advertised through SSR, scientific journal ads, job websites, etc.

Q: What is a T32? How is that different from the F32?
A: Both are meant for trainees. An F32 is a postdoctoral fellowship grant where a postdoc has an idea for a project, writes up a grant, submits it, and then perform the work if awarded. A T32 is awarded to an intuition even though there is a named PI on it. That institution will decide which individual postdocs (x, y, z) will be supported with those funds.

Q: What have you enjoyed about being a program director?
A: Many things but what comes to mind first is being able to interact with PIs, and on any given day, the program director will read a new grant application that contains a novel idea that is very exciting and never thought of before. So as a program director, you are always learning something new and will be amazed by the creativity of people.

Q: Any words of advice from a program director’s perspective?
A: Dr. Taymans wants people to think of program directors as their allies and encourages PIs to reach out to their program directors with any questions they may have. They are all here to advance science, and ultimately, impact human health in a positive way. There shouldn’t be a scary relationship between program directors and grant submitters. Program directors want and are here to help.

Dr. Jon Hennebold Interview Q&A:
Q: What are your tasks/responsibilities as a study section reviewer?
A: Study section reviewers are in charge of reading and evaluating research grants assigned to them by the program director. They will then evaluate each grant based on the criteria set forth by NIH including but not limited to scientific merit, innovation, and feasibility.

Q: How did you become a study section reviewer?
A: NIH staff reached out to Dr. Hennebold because he filled a particular area of expertise that they needed for the evaluation of specific proposals.

Q: How do young faculty get involved if they want to become a study section reviewer?
A: Now there is a program overseen by NIH to get junior faculty or early investigators to go through the experience of grant reviews early on. The program is called the Early Career Reviewer (ECR) program. Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral fellows are not able to be involved; it is for young faculty (i.e., assistant professor or equivalent role). See website for more details (https://public.csr.nih.gov/ForReviewers/BecomeAReviewer/ECR)

Q: What type of time commitment? All-year-round tasks? Or is there a certain season/time of year that is busy?
A: This is determined by if it is a standing study section or not. For a standard study section, the workload is controlled by a scientific review officer (SRO). SROs give their standing members between 8-12 grants to review per standing session; this is a considerable amount of work when you think about there being 60-150 pages/grant. This occurs approximately every 3 months throughout the year.

Q: How are reviewers ranked?
A: There will be a primary, secondary, and tertiary reviewer. In the study section, the primary reviewer will give an overview of the grant proposal, and then leads the discussion on strengths and weaknesses. The secondary reviewer will either confirm, deny, or add to the primary review and will also discuss strengths and weaknesses. The tertiary reviewer is there to agree or disagree between primary and secondary reviewers; essentially serves as a confirmation between primary and secondary reviewers’ viewpoints. Additionally, the tertiary reviewer will add anything that may have been missed. Worth noting, the primary reviewer is very closely aligned in expertise to the proposed research/area. The secondary reviewer is also closely aligned to the area. The tertiary reviewer doesn’t necessarily have as much expertise but still weighs in on the overall view and big picture of the proposal.

Q: What have you enjoyed about being a study section reviewer?
A: Having an opportunity to look at and have a close connection with some of the cutting-edge science coming through. Study sections are made up of around 20 or so section reviewers, which are all experts in their own area. Pre-pandemic study section reviewer meetings were held in person, so you developed a great relationship between all reviewers; it is a really close community. Dr. Hennebold enjoyed interacting with every study section panel member and especially liked serving as chair of ICER.

Q: Any last thoughts or words of advice from a study section reviewer’s perspective?
A: Overall, it is an extremely important position. Even though it is a volunteer position, the level of professionalism is amazing, but that should be expected. In essence, study section reviewers are determining the livelihoods of PIs and their labs based on whether or not they get funding to continue pursuing research and fund laboratory personnel. Therefore, being a study section reviewer is a huge responsibility. Do not volunteer as a study section reviewer unless you understand its significance and ramifications. Also, realize that this position takes a lot of time on top of your full-time position.

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