Molly Kile

Tips for successful proposals

It’s hard enough to master the details of an evolving scientific discipline, let alone to stay up on the latest papers, launch a lab and teach. For early-career researchers, the quest for funding adds urgency to the growing pile of Things To Do. Fortunately, resources are available to help young scientists succeed.

Those resources include colleagues with connections, early-stage seed funds and grant writers who know the ins and outs of agency rules. Molly Kile has taken advantage of them all in her search for funding to support studies in public health.

In 2013, the associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences received a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study arsenic exposure in children. Key to her success, she says, was her ability to tap an existing network of collaborators. As a graduate student at Harvard, she had helped to develop a community-based arsenic study in Bangladesh.

For the NIEHS proposal, she worked with members of the same team, including medical professionals at Dhaka Community Hospital. She aimed to extend a project that had focused on the health consequences of arsenic exposure to the connection between arsenic and the immune system. She was fortunate to meet researchers at Oregon State University who, as immunotoxicologits, helped her refine her ideas.

Such endeavors depend on communication and flexibility. These skills can determine the success or failure of new collaborations and came into play for Kile as she developed a new collaboration with Oregon State researchers Shannon Lipscomb, Megan McDonald, Kim Anderson and Megan McClelland. Together this group had the ability and interest to understand how toxic exposures early in life can influence children’s health and behavior. The early childhood research core at the Hallie Ford Center and the Environmental Health Science Center provided a nexus that brought everyone together. They developed a pilot grant proposal to test the feasibility of a new method of monitoring chemical exposure and evaluating potential impacts on child health and behavior. The pilot was successful and now the group is pursuing additional research opportunities.

“When we talk about science collaboration, the soft skills are often where it starts,” says Kile. “For many scientists, the hard skills are the easier part. We all have labs and expertise. Learning to adapt takes time. You want people who are responsive. You want people who can work together to accomplish a shared goal. This means communication, and it is helpful if everyone can communicate their needs early in a project, as well as, ensure that everyone understands the objectives.”

It’s no secret that a successful proposal starts with an idea. By tapping personal and professional networks, researchers find colleagues who have similar interests and complementary skills. “Together you identify the questions you want to ask, and together, you develop a pilot project,” Kile adds. “If the pilot is successful, then it tends to lead to more opportunities. It builds your expertise and your network.”

Writing a proposal requires turning questions into a process: Subjects need to be recruited, supplies purchased and analyses performed. The budget needs to account for every expense. Approvals need to be secured to comply with applicable laws.

“If you’re trying to crack into the world of external grants, you need someone who can help you with the pre-award process,” says Kile. “That kind of administrative support is necessary to follow all the rules, to develop the budget, figure out F&A rates and deal with everything they don’t teach you in science class.”

Kile and her colleagues work closely with administrative support in the in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences to develop their proposals. “If you don’t have that expertise, you make it that much harder for people to even apply,” she adds. “That’s part of the institutional commitment.”