Two NIEHS fellows are the latest from the institute to receive National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence Awards, or K99/R00 grants — Shannon Farris, Ph.D., of the Neurobiology Laboratory, and Kristen Upson, Ph.D., of the Epidemiology Branch.
The award is a transition grant that ensures trainees have the resources and mentoring needed to become a successful, independent researcher. In the training phase, called K99, the fellows continue their research at NIEHS with mentored support. Trainees who secure tenure-track positions can then transition into the R00 funding phase. This funding gives them an advantage in the competitive market for faculty positions.
Farris and Upson both emphasized the importance of their mentors in the grant application process. “Identifying the best mentor team is critical to ensure success of your training and research aims,” Farris said.
Farris is mentored by Serena Dudek, Ph.D., who leads the Synaptic and Developmental Plasticity Group. Her award was funded last year through the National Institute of Mental Health.
Upson works in the Women’s Health Group, mentored by group lead Donna Baird, Ph.D. Upson’s award funding is through the National Institute of Nursing Research.
Prize-winning track records
Farris and Upson each received recognition for outstanding work before receiving their Pathway to Independence Awards. In their respective 5 and 4 years at NIEHS, they have earned presentation awards, paper and abstract awards, and an Innovation Award.
Beyond these honors, the mentors of both trainees said their work ethic was a main contributing factor in winning this award.
Social memories and metal toxicity
Farris’ project involves identifying cell-type specific RNA transcripts important for encoding social memories in the brain. “Her innovative approach involves coupling cutting-edge mRNA work with the latest in neurobiology,” Dudek said.
Dudek added that Farris’ research may potentially lead to advances in both fields, and provide insights for the treatment or prevention of disorders, such as schizophrenia, and for those on the autism spectrum.
Upson’s work focuses on toxic metals and the behavioral and biological factors that may increase these environmental contaminants in the body. Baird noted that the project is important and innovative because Upson is considering factors that can affect metal toxicity, such as diet and other illnesses or conditions that may be present.
“I want to specifically look at the role of toxic metals on the development of uterine fibroids in young African American women,” Upson said.
When asked about suggestions for other fellows interested in pursuing these coveted awards, both Farris and Upson highlighted the time-consuming nature of grant writing.
Farris recommended that trainees start now and make sure to have time for resubmission before eligibility runs out. She suggested sending the page on specific aims to relevant grant managers across NIH. Upson added that it is helpful to include an established research scientist outside of NIH who has extensive grant writing experience.
(Rachel Carroll, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Biostatistics and Computational Biology Branch.)