DNA double helix with dollar signs as a nucleotide.

Extrava-grant-za!

Today a large-scale federal grant proposal was submitted, bringing me to four proposals submitted so far in 2020 (and eight total in the 2019/2020 academic year)! I have one more that is planned for the end of May, and two more that may be submitted this summer depending on the disposition of my pending proposals. Each of these proposals takes weeks to months of planning, writing, and coordination between the research team. The proposal submitted today was 107 pages, and only some of those materials can be re-used between grants, such as descriptions of equipment and research facilities.

A stack of papers facedown on a table.
So. many. supporting documents.

The success rate for obtaining federal funding for your project varies by agency, year, and category of project/principal investigator, nicely tracked here (updated Dec 2019), and currently ranges from 8 – 30%. For example, “pilot” project (small projects to “seed” your long-term research), student-specific, or “new investigator” grants may have a higher rate of success because their applicant pool is restricted by eligibility. Competition is fierce, especially when federal agency budgets are cut or re appropriated.

If projects are not funded, they are returned with reviews from typically 2 – 4 experts in the field who provide comments and recommendations for strengthening the experimental design, or the presentation of the project itself. You might think that proposals are judged on the merit of the science alone, but the ability of the team to manage the project, and the research team, is also being evaluated. Principal investigators (researchers like me, leading the project) need to show that we have good ideas and the organizational skills to implement them, especially if the project spans multiple years or institutions.

Submitting a research proposal is worth celebrating – it represents weeks of effort – but especially during this time when we are all trying to keep our head above water, never mind accelerate or productivity. It’s important to take a few minutes to relax, work can wait, because ‘the grind’ will be there waiting for you when you get back.

Spring 2020 Updates

2020 has … gone in a very different direction than the way we probably all thought that it would back in early January. The emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered the way we live our day-to-day lives, and the way we think about ourselves as a global community. To reduce the transmission of the virus, the University of Maine, and many other schools and institutions, made significant alterations to their operating policies over spring 2020. This included sending students home (where possible), moving classes to online instruction only, asking faculty to work from home, and restricting laboratory and field work. This has resulted in some disruption to my plans, so here’s an attenuated post about updates over the last few months.

Teaching

The courses I am teaching this spring lent themselves well to being taught strictly online, with some modifications. Naturally, the presentations class works better in person where the stress of having an audience present promotes in situ training. The students were able to give an elevator speech, a regular short presentation for a peer-level audience, and a peer-level audience presentation with random technical challenges introduced by me into the slides. The remaining portion of the semester was devoted to giving presentations to a public-level audience, which requires a different presentation style and a good deal of thought into how much info is condensed and what you can and can’t expect your audience to already know. It was going to be too logistically challenging to organize public presentations remotely with short notice, so instead I had students create annotation notes for someone else’s slides, described here.

The data analysis class was easier to adapt, but required adjustment nonetheless. Instead of hosting a three-hour video meeting each week, I recorded the remainder of my lectures and made them available well in advance, so that students could watch and listen when they had time and internet access. During the class period, the class met to collaboratively work through data, which was always the goal, but with the challenge of remote work some re-imagination of the assignments was needed to allow students to opt-in to some of the work at times convenient to them.

To simplify the work, instead of having students independently perform similar analyses on different sets of data, I had them perform similar, somewhat independent, analyses on the same dataset, allowing them to all work collaboratively. As a bonus, this unpublished dataset was one that I have been working on collaboratively over the past year, so the students will be able to opt-in to participating in the publication of this work. This is in addition to the two manuscript which are slated to be submitted for review in the next few months, and two more under development. Because that’s still in development, I won’t share more detail now, but stay tuned to those results, and a more in-depth discussion on integrating student data analysis education with research.

Looking ahead, I am making plans to teach my fall classes online as well, including AVS 254: Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, and AVS 401 Senior Paper.

Research

Since starting at UMaine in September 2019, I have been working on establishing my lab. Most of that effort thus far has revolved around rearranging my lab spaces and acquiring specialized lab equipment. This aspect hasn’t been negatively impacted, outside of the new logistical challenges of delivering large pieces of equipment to locked buildings without coming into contact with delivery drivers.

However, acquiring supplies has been impacted, as certain materials are suddenly in extremely high demand, while production of others has dramatically reduced for the time being. Although I hadn’t begun any wet lab research which needed to be halted, I was just about to start culture work and training students on laboratory protocols, which has now been delayed for at least two months. Instead, I am in the process of transitioning student projects from benchtop-based to data analysis-based, at least for those students planning on graduating between now and spring 2021.

I am also focusing on trying to get previously completed projects written up and sent out for review, including a study on bacterial communities around window components in hospital rooms with the BioBE lab, a few collaborations on gut microbes in different animal species with the Yeoman Lab, and two more papers on the effect of climate, farming system, weed competition, and plant health on wheat production and wheat-associated soil bacteria with the Menalled/Seipel Lab. You can read the pre-print (meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet) on the soil microbes one here.

I do have some concrete exciting news, though, two graduate students will be joining my lab this summer/fall to start work on master’s of science degrees! Johanna Holman will be working on diet and gut microbiome in humans, for a master’s in Nutrition and Food Science, and Sarah Hosler will be working on new methods for investigating gut microbial communities in animals, for a master’s in Animal Science.

Looking forward, I’ll be changing my plan for training students on laboratory work, to facilitate social distancing measures while ensuring that students aren’t alone in the lab. Luckily for me, my labs and soon-to-be-office have windows between them so I can hover from a different room entirely.

Outreach

Social distancing has temporarily impacted my outreach activities, particularly in the short term as we try to adjust. A lecture I had planned for the Maine Organic Milk Producers annual meeting was canceled in April, although I’ll now be able to talk about Microbes and Social Equity at the Institute for Health in the Built Environment Industry Consortium annual meeting in May since it has been moved from in-person to online. Similarly, I am participating in a few discussions for other summer events and whether they might be transitioned to online formats. In the mean time, I’ve been practicing coming up with pithy interactions on Twitter.

A number of scientific conferences which I was planning to attend and/or have research presented at have made the decision to postpone, including the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbe 2020, International Society of Microbial Ecology’s ISME18, the Gordon Research Conference’s Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) 2020 meeting, the American Society for Nutrition 2020 meeting. Other scientific conferences are attempting to switch to online formats, such as the Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020 meeting, but bringing thousands of participants together in an interactive way is an extremely ambitious adaptation in such a short period of time.

Looking forward, I hope that many organizations will adjust and maintain their commitment to online accessibility of conferences, meetings, talks, and other outreach events, as well as making these resources available after the event. Attend a conference or public presentation is important to building you research program and improving the impact of your work, but financial, physical, logistical, or familial considerations often make it impossible to participate. Maintaining remote-accessibility, and making content available after the event, are important steps in making science more inclusive and allowing a broader audience to participate.