Special K

 photo June Strickland, RN, PhD June Strickland, RN, PhD

Imagine getting a grant that would relieve you of your teaching duties for up to three years so that you can spend most of your time doing research. Now imagine that this grant would also offer a mentorship to help guide your research and would cover additional training to further your career development. Sound too good to be true?

The National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), doesn’t think so. That’s why it offers the NINR Mentored Research Scientist Development Award for Minority Investigators, also known as the Minority K01 grant. This award provides up to three consecutive 12-month appointments to pursue a mentored research experience and specialized study in nursing research that are tailored to the faculty member’s individual needs. The NINR provides recipients with salary up to a maximum of $50,000 plus fringe benefits per year, plus up to $20,000 per year in funds to carry out a research project.

The Minority K01 grant program is designed to:

 

  • foster the development of independent investigators in nursing research on the faculties of traditionally minority-based institutions and majority academic institutions;
  • stimulate nursing research and nursing research training at these institutions, and
  • encourage the development of qualified minority nurse investigators in academic research settings who can become effective role models for minority students.

Faculty members who have received Minority K01 awards agree that it’s a one-of-a-kind grant that offers a host of benefits, foremost being the time to conduct their research. “Minority nurse researchers will never have another opportunity that enables them to buy out their time in terms of teaching responsibilities, have access to a mentorship and pursue specialized training. That kind of experience just can’t be replicated anywhere else that I’m aware of,” says Christopher Coleman, PhD, ACRN, CS, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., who received a grant for his research focusing on determinants of sexual behavior among African-American men infected with AIDS and HIV.

In addition to facilitating time and mentorship, the Minority K01 award also gives Coleman the valuable experience of serving as a principal investigator on a federal grant. “That’s a huge plus because that shows the National Institutes of Health that I can manage a grant as a principal investigator,” he explains. “If I’m successful, the likelihood of me getting another grant goes up even higher.”

Researchers with a Mission

What types of research does the Minority K01 grant program fund? The NINR encourages minority nurse investigators to pursue areas of research that involve underserved minority populations and are relevant to priority areas of NINR’s scientific research mission, particularly its Strategic Plan on Reducing Health Disparities.

“The NINR wants investigators to be funded for the area of science that they are committed to as long as that area fits within our mission,” says Program Director Janice Phillips, RN, PhD, FAAN, who is African American. Areas of research consistent with this mission include chronic illness and long-term care; health promotion in diverse populations; cardiopulmonary health and critical care; neurofunction and sensory conditions; immune responses and oncology; reproductive and child health, and end-of-life care.

Grant recipients must be willing to devote at least 75% of their professional effort to conducting research during the award period. The remaining 25% should focus on other research-related activities and/or teaching or clinical pursuits consistent with the award’s objectives.

Who exactly is eligible for these grants? In order to pursue a Minority K01 award, candidates must meet the following criteria:

 

  • Be a member of an ethnic/racial minority group
  • Be a full-time nursing faculty member on a tenure track
  • Have a research or health-professional doctorate (e.g., PhD, DNSc) or its equivalent
  • Have demonstrated the capacity or potential for a productive independent research career
  • Have a Registered Nurse license
  • Have secured the commitment of an appropriate research mentor actively involved in research relevant to NINR’s mission.

Preparing Your Application

Not surprisingly, Minority K01 grants are very competitive, and putting together a successful application requires time, effort and care. According to Phillips, the NINR is looking for individuals who show a commitment to a nursing career in biomedical or behavioral research and the potential to develop into an independent nurse investigator.  Applicants must submit both a research plan and a research career development plan outlining their immediate and long-term objectives and how the award will contribute to obtaining them.

Christopher Coleman, PhD, ACRN, CSChristopher Coleman, PhD, ACRN, CS

Phillips advises applicants to highlight prior scientific training and experience, building on their previous research experience. You should also show your involvement in professional activities. This may include membership in professional organizations; attendance at interdisciplinary conferences, journal clubs and other professional meetings; and scholarly activities, such as publication in peer-reviewed journals. Candidates must also include a minimum of three letters of recommendation addressing their potential for an independent research career.

In explaining their career development plan, candidates should “describe a systematic plan to obtain any necessary biomedical or behavioral science background and research experience to launch or reinitiate an independent nursing research career.” They must also “describe plans to receive instruction in the responsible conduct of research.”

For example, Coleman made the case that he needed additional training to prepare him to conduct large population-based studies. Consequently, he pursued additional public health coursework at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore under this grant. The career development goals should be cast in a realistic timeline to ensure they are achievable within the grant’s three-year duration. “Sometimes applicants can be overambitious and list too many goals in the allotted timeframe,” Phillips cautions.

As for the research plan, it should focus on the use of a basic or clinical approach to a biomedical or behavioral problem. Specifically, the applicant should describe the research project’s aims, background and significance, progress report/preliminary studies, research design and methods.

The NINR is looking for a sound research plan that is consistent with the candidate’s career development plan and existing research skills, says Phillips. NINR grant reviewers will judge the scientific and technical merit of the research question, design and methodology within the context of the applicant’s previous training and experience and the relevance to his or her career objectives.

When human subjects are involved, the research plan should include minorities, both genders and children (if appropriate). NINR reviewers will also evaluate the applicant’s plans for the recruitment and retention of subjects.

Choosing Your Research Team

Given that the Minority K01 award is a mentored research experience, choosing the right mentor–or mentors–is critical. The mentor should have:

 

  • research qualifications consistent with the applicant’s research plan;
  • a commitment to supervising and guiding the candidate throughout the award period;
  • previous experience in fostering the development of independent nurse investigators, and
  • a history of research productivity and support.

The mentor must also write a letter of support showing his or her willingness to provide the necessary assistance to the candidate.

In putting together their research team, applicants should not only carefully select mentors who have a record of independent funded research in a relevant area of science but also consultants who bring expertise to the table that will assist in the applicant’s development, says Phillips. For example, if a candidate proposes to include instrumentation as a major part of the research, he or she should consider including a psychometrician on the research team. “Individuals from multiple disciplines help to ensure a well-rounded learning experience [for the candidate],” Phillips adds.

Veronica Clarke-Tasker, RN, PhD, MBA, MPHVeronica Clarke-Tasker, RN, PhD, MBA, MPH

It’s important to keep in mind that your mentor does not necessarily have to be a nurse. When Veronica Clarke-Tasker, RN, PhD, MBA, MPH, assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Howard University in Washington, D.C. applied for the grant, she chose an epidemiologist with expertise in cancer for a mentor. This helped broaden Clarke-Tasker’s perspective of her research in prostate cancer education and screening for African-American men. “You need to identify who has expertise in your area of interest and would be willing to mentor you through this process,” she says.

Similarly, Eunice Choi Lee, RN, DNSc, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, has one mentor from the nursing school and two mentors from outside nursing–one in public health and one from the medical school faculty. Lee, who is Korean American, feels that working with co-mentors from other disciplines has broadened her understanding of her research, which focuses on breast and cervical cancer screening in Korean-American women. Plus, research based in community health requires multidisciplinary work, she adds.

June Strickland, RN, PhD, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle and president-elect of the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association (NANAINA), chose a consultant with experience working in the American Indian community and a mentor with expertise in mental health and intervention design. “It’s important to find a good mentor who has resources that you need and it’s also important to have consultants,” says Strickland, who recently completed her research on suicide in the young male population in three Indian communities.

“Applicants must be mindful to carefully outline the respective contributions and/or expertise of any mentors and/or sponsors as well as a plan for interacting with each of them,” notes Phillips. The latter should include the level, frequency and type of research training supervision that the mentor and applicant feel is necessary to achieve the objectives.

Phillips recommends selecting mentors who are geographically nearby to enhance the mentored experience. If the mentors are geographically distant from the candidate, he or she must provide a detailed communication plan to document the relationship and level of commitment for implementing and completing the research goals.

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Clarke-Tasker considers herself fortunate that her mentor is both internationally known and local. “Because there are so few minority research experts out there, the person you want as a mentor may not be available because he or she may already be mentoring three other people,” she points out.

Often, when one individual has too full a plate to be your mentor, he or she will recommend someone else. That’s what happened in Coleman’s case, and he ended up with co-mentors who had worked together on previous HIV research projects, a point that he believes strengthened his application. Rounding out his team is a population consultant with expertise on the adult male African-American population.

Getting Your University’s Support

Just as the mentors must document their willingness to assist the applicant, the sponsoring academic institution must likewise provide a statement of commitment to the faculty member’s development into an independent investigator. This includes releasing the applicant from academic duties to accomplish his or her research and career goals during the award period.

Program Director Janice Phillips, RN, PhD, FAANProgram Director Janice Phillips, RN, PhD, FAAN

The NINR reviewers are looking for the institution’s commitment to the applicant’s scientific development as well as assurance that it intends the candidate to be an integral part of the school’s research program. They also want to ensure that the institution offers adequate research facilities and training opportunities, a quality environment for scientific and professional development, and a willingness to provide an appropriate balance of research, teaching and administrative responsibilities for the candidate.

As Coleman notes, “You can propose the best science, but if your university doesn’t carry the resources, you won’t be awarded the funding.” He not only had his dean write a letter of support but also had the department chair do the same. “There’s no limit to how many letters you can send with your application,” he says, “and you want to show that your institution is standing behind you.”

Then there’s the subject of money. As with any grant application, you can be sure that your proposed budget will be reviewed thoroughly. Applicants can request any amount up to the $50,000 annual salary cap and $20,000 annual research expenses cap. The NINR reviewers are looking for justification of the budget request in relation to the research goals, aims and plans. It should also be consistent with available funds. Information about funding levels for fiscal year 2004 is available on the NINR Web site (see “For More Information”).

Your Moment of Truth: The Reviewers Respond

After submitting an application, all candidates receive a written critique, also known as the summary statement. In many cases, the NINR reviewers may request additional information or ask for clarifications. The statement should be reviewed very carefully and comments addressed in any subsequent application, says Phillips. In fact, she encourages applicants to contact the appropriate program director to review the statement and discuss any aspects of the proposal that need clarification. They should also meet with their mentors and consultants for recommendations in drafting a revised application.

If an applicant doesn’t get funded, Phillips suggests that he or she consider resubmitting the application for the next call for the Minority K01 award. “Applicants must remember that many investigators do not get funded the first time around,” she emphasizes. “Success may only come after careful revisions.”

Coleman followed the suggestions he received from the NINR reviewers to improve his application. “There are people at the NINR who will look at your ideas and provide good advice. They really try to help you be successful in getting the grant,” says Coleman, who was funded after submitting a second application.

Clarke-Tasker, who received her grant on the first try, credits her research team that had her “working around the clock. They made sure what I wrote made sense and that I had the correct measures,” she recalls. “I was so close to the material, I couldn’t always see when something I thought made sense didn’t.” For example, Clarke-Tasker wrote that she would be using the Health Belief Model, which she didn’t see a need to explain because it is so well known in the research arena. But she was asked to explain it and clarify a few other points before getting the grant.

“Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get funded the first time,” she says. “The process is there to help us. We have to take advantage of it.”

In working with many applicants over the years, Phillips has noted that successful candidates share several common characteristics. She has come to call them “the Power of the Ps”–a passion for what they’re doing, persistence in pursuing the grant, people who support them along the way and productivity evidenced by the dissemination of their research results.