Last week was a scary/nervous/jangly time for science geeks like me.
Because we were all waiting for grant results from the big federal agency that funds most of the kind of work we do to be released.
This time around the agency received 2,333 grant applications from across the country and, given the way things are going, they plan to fund approximately 400.
If I can still do that new fangled math all the kids are talking about these days (i.e. long division), that's a success rate of ~17%.
Which scares the beejeebuz out of all of us.
And that includes all 2,333 'principle investigators' (PI's) like me and, perhaps even more so, the 4-6 other folks per grant application (at the very least) whose training and/or livelihood depends on not being in the 'bottom' 83%.
Of course, no one group adjudicates all 2,333 applications. Instead, they are doled out in packets of 50 or so to individual 'panels', each of which is made up of a dozen or so fellow science-geeks working in the same field as the PI. These gaggles of geeks then peer-review each grant and rank them within that individual panel.
Which means that, with a 17% success rate, each panel will fund 8 or 9 grants, maximum.
Thus, twice each year, in June and January, PI's with grants wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and begin banging the lever looking for that darned Email from Ottawa that will tell them where where they rank this time.
And last June the ranking for one of the grants that funds half of my lab was not good at all.
In fact, we were so far down the ladder that after I was able to shake off the nausea and dread enough to tell the people in the lab, I seriously considered abandoning the project altogether.
But, instead, after my head had been cleared during our early summer driving holiday to Northern California, (which may have been the last one of its kind with both of our kids given that our eldest will soon be 20) I talked to everyone in the lab again, made the rounds to our collaborators, and then decided to take a big step that might take us off a cliff or maybe, just maybe, might take us in a new and potentially important direction.
Because, here's the thing...
I'm a 'fundamental' biomedical researcher, which means that mostly my group works on very basic problems where our goal is to figure out how certain kinds of molecular teflons and velcros on the surfaces of cells actually work to be either adhesive or slippery.
Sounds esoteric, I know, but how cells stick to and/or slip by each other is really, really important in helping to regulate how tissues form during development and are altered during disease.
Anyway, it was a fundamental grant, on a very specific type of teflon, that the panel really, really hated back in June.
Because they concluded that we had already done enough basic work on the problem. Thus, they recommended that what we really had to do next was develop a 'translational' (which is a code word for 'clinically relevant') project.
So, for the remainder of last summer I pushed everybody really, really hard to develop new tools and experimental paradigms* that would allow us to generate a small amount of preliminary data with that new, very different, translational bent.
Then, right around about the time I shot this, I began locking myself in my office everyday for three weeks and banged out a brand new grant application wherein I proposed a three-pronged approach to develop non-toxic compounds that could, potentially, be used to block the function of the teflon which we think is important in a number of pathological situations.
Weirdly, the soundtrack to this grant was Green Day's 'American Idiot', the only explanation being that I have to music that I know like the back of my hand as background noise blasting in my earbuds when I do these things.
Finally, in mid-September I sent the thing in and did my best to forget all about it while I started to scrimp and save and worried about how long we could go before I would have to start laying people off.
(As an aside, this was also much easier in the beginning, back when I started my lab and everybody was a kid....but now, half of the people working with me have families and mortgages and all those things that really make me sweat, because the grants, not the University, funds everything that goes on in a basic science lab like mine).
And then last week came.
And finally, early, early on Tuesday morning the Email popped up.
And, long story short, we did very, very well.
But that did not mean that I went to work whooping and hollering.
Because, given the percentages, most of my colleagues did not get such good news.
Which is the nature of the beast.
The folks in the lab sure were happy, though.
And enthusiastic as heck about trying to scrape that teflon off cell surfaces.
I'll let you know how it goes.
*I also pushed everybody hard last summer to get papers out the door as these, which are also peer-reviewed in a somewhat different way (I'll explain that another time), are important 'proof-of-principle' building blocks that grant panels use to gauge whether or not you can actually do what you say you will do in an application...
Image at the top of the post is of a frozen and slightly frazzled swordfern that was taken during my very, very late morning (early afternoon actually - you can slack off a little when your grant comes in) ride in to work one of the Pacific Spirit Park trails yesterday...All snark aside...Why did I have to go in on a Sunday?....Well, there was gardening to do (tissue culture), so that I could help get a bunch of cell lines with various levels and variations of teflon on their surfaces ready so that we can use them to test the efficacy of a bunch of antibodies that a collaborator has made against the molecule...