Wednesday, May 2, 2018

NIH New PI: Reflection and Progress Report, Month 2

Time flies! I cannot believe that it's already been two months since I got the official notice of award for a 5-year K23. (See blubbering me, right). And because the notice came on the start date of the grant (usually comes ahead of time), it's been two months of grant-funded activities. This grant protects 80% of my time for research; as I'm at a primarily undergraduate institution with a 3/3 teaching load and the notice came mid-semester, the change in day-to-day life was abrupt and dramatic. 

And great. And stressful. And humbling, in the most positive way.

So what have I done with the past two months, you ask? A lot, and not enough, all at the same time. Crazy how that works for so many academics! Here are some of the ways I spent my increased research time in March/April:

Step 1: Transfer two full sections of Abnormal Psychology to new instructors (35 students each). We knew in January that the grant was likely to happen, but we didn't know when, and I was in the classroom until the day the notice came. For one section, an adjunct who had observed me all semester took over; for the other, a full-time faculty member who regularly teaches the course took over. My tasks were to finish grading a set of homework assignments, meet with the new instructors to discuss midterm and final projects, and get my materials into shareable form. I had prepared students for my departure since the first day of the semester, but there was also the matter of actually saying goodbye. Abnormal is a popular course, and I'm pleased to say that at least a few students took it with me specifically because they heard good feedback from peers. So this was a bittersweet moment.

Step 2: Figure out how on earth to manage a grant. I was (and still am) astonished at how much time is spent on administrative tasks. Hiring staff, setting up record-keeping and other procedures, planning and tracking spending. There is so much involved that isn't really about the research (or training; see Step 3), and in my case, I'm doing it for two different institutions (more soon). Some days it seems like all I accomplish are admin tasks, which is frustrating. But I recognize that these are necessary and I try to keep a balance by protecting time for other work. Success rate ~40%.

Step 3: Get started on training activities. The K23 is a career development award, where research projects are intended to (1) facilitate practice and development of new research approaches and skills learned through training with mentors, and (2) generate strong preliminary data for future R proposals. My training plan involves weekly meetings with on-site mentors, monthly trips to other institutions to meet with specific mentors, workshops, and tons of reading. In the first two months, I've planned out the first year, gained a better understanding of the evidence base on tailored behavioral interventions, received guidance in grants management, and scheduled formal training in analysis of ambulatory assessment data. I've also watched several webinars on career development, responsible conduct of research, and academic productivity. 

Step 4: WRITE ALL OF THE THINGS! One of the best features of the K23 is the protected time, and I've tried to spend a good chunk of this time on writing projects. This was much easier in March than in April (see Step 6), but I managed to make some progress. I completed three invited manuscript revisions (two manuscripts now accepted for publication), revised a rejected manuscript and submitted to a new journal, accepted two invitations for manuscript/encyclopedia submissions, and added to drafts of new manuscripts. One of these required reviewing literature I'm not that familiar with, so again, tons of reading. 

Step 5: READ ALL OF THE THINGS! I cannot describe how wonderful it is to have time to read again. Not only for catching up on so much new research and preparing for class (see Step 6), but for other enriching texts that broaden my mind and skills. So far, I've devoured The Coach's Guide for Women Professors and Supervising Ph.D. Students,* and I just started a tome called The Cigarette Century (all nonfiction). I'm also obsessed with audiobooks; my favorite right now is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (fiction), which I've listened to several times.

Step 6: Continue prepping and teaching a new course, continue mentoring students on independent projects, and take on new leadership roles. So 80% of my time is now devoted to training and related research, and that leaves 20% for everything else. In my case, some of that everything is teaching and mentoring. The course I continued to teach is Psychology of Women, which is really the psychology of gender and equity. Oddly, prior to this semester, the course did not have a Women's and Gender Studies designation, and I did some prep last semester to apply for the designation (approved). Although my research focuses on women's health, my background isn't in the psychology of gender or women's/gender studies. This means that a lot of the material is new to me, and it takes a lot more consistent reading and prep work than a course like Abnormal.** It's also a very interesting point in time to be teaching this course, given the most recent presidential election and the #MeToo movement. I'm fortunate that I have a fantastic group of students who make the course so much fun to teach. Though it's a lot of work.

With respect to mentoring, I have a full-time research coordinator, a senior fellowship student, and a junior student who all have independent projects they're working on, plus a senior lab assistant and a sophomore who is developing an independent project idea through a tutorial with me. That's three sets of data collection, individual mentoring time, and weekly lab meetings. Today, my students are presenting our work at the University's internal research day, so the last few weeks have been devoted to poster preparation. I look forward to sharing this experience with them.

Speaking of posters, it seems like yesterday that I was in New Orleans for the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM). The last major set of tasks that have occupied my last few months have to do with SBM. In addition to prep for student posters, my own oral presentations, and session chair duties, I've taken on an additional leadership role in one of the Society's special interest groups and joined two committees. The number of emails and phone calls per week alone is astonishing. But it's fantastic to have the chance to be more involved with SBM and to contribute to the Society's activities in a more meaningful way, and all of these activities are directly related to the topics of the K23 award.
Coordinator Kristen Pasko and student Sabrina DiBisceglie
presenting at SBM 2018
Step 7: Try to wrap my mind around this amazing opportunity. As I noted in a series of tweets back in March, I really never believed that I would become an NIH-funded PI. The funding environment is so competitive, and brilliant, talented investigators with great projects miss paylines all the time. (We also now have data to support what many suspected about low inter-reviewer reliability for grant scoring, which makes it all seem pretty random.) I'm a very hard worker with some decent ideas, but I fully acknowledge that I am not the most innovative person out there. This is compounded by the fact that my work has taken a sharp turn into the digital sphere, where the commercial market and research space have exploded in the past few years. So I planned to keep plugging, work with collaborators, do my best work and make the best of whatever happened. Then the K23 happened, and all of a sudden, a dream came true.

This changed things for me. Things like my expectations for myself, my sense of what others might expect from me, the scope and possibilities for my work. My researcher identity, in a way. Plus, there's the new responsibility of being entrusted with taxpayer money. I realize that I probably didn't need to have quite such an existential experience over it, but I did. And that hasn't really stopped. It's pretty common for me to be in the middle of one of the activities described above, and all of a sudden remember that I'm now a PI. Not once has this failed to bring a huge smile to my face or remind me how lucky I am. I plan to make the most of the next 4.8 years, and I think I'm off to a pretty good start.

*Supervising Ph.D. students has not been part of my work thus far, but will be soon. Stay tuned!
**My background is in clinical psychology and I've taught Abnormal about 20 times.

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