Turning Information into Knowledge, then Understanding

Over the next five weeks, I will be writing a six-page research plan detailing the scientific background, justification, aims, experiments, and expected results of the research I will be performing over the next 3-5 years.

This undertaking is for a writing class, required by my PhD program, but is meant to potentially serve as the research plan portion of a future NIH F30/31 fellowship application. These fellowships are highly competitive, but offer tuition, stipend, and research expense support from the NIH, thereby greatly relieving a PhD student’s financial burden on their adviser, not to mention looking really good on the student’s CV/Resume. Additionally, writing produced for this class can be used in my candidacy exam, which upon completion of all coursework, will evaluate my readiness to attempt a doctorate-level research project full-time and capability of completing said project.

I am taking this course in my first year as a doctoral student, a relatively early time to be planning out my full project. Prior to starting the class, I understood that it would take time to complete the writing assignments (i.e. various sections of the research plan), but I chose to take the course now for a couple key reasons. First, as alluded to in my previous post, I have a fair bit of experience in grant writing, providing a fundamental set of writing skills and knowledge of reviewers’ expectations. Second, my research project is funded by a large NIH grant recently received by my PI/adviser, meaning that the vast majority of my project has already been described in detail in a manner deemed exceptional by the organization to which I will be applying for funding. Therefore, I knew that I could use my adviser’s grant application as a reference when I got stuck or couldn’t remember elements of my project.

My specific aims page, our first class assignment and arguably the most important part of a research plan was due this past week. This page directly precedes the research plan in a grant application and is commonly handed out to every reviewer in a study section, while only a few are responsible for reviewing the entire application. The specific aims page gives a brief scientific background and justification of your research project, as well as a short description of your research goals (termed specific aims) and how you will accomplish those goals. According to our course director, if the reviewer isn’t excited for your project after reading the specific aims page, you are unlikely to be funded.

Working on my specific aims page led to a frustrating realization: I know my research project, but I don’t yet understand it. Understanding the research goes beyond merely the knowledge of what you’re studying. It facilitates your pivotal ability to make changes to, or troubleshoot experiments when things don’t turn out as expected.

When learning a new subject or entering an area of research, I want to be able to understand it as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, understanding takes time, patience, and experience. I am still working on gaining the necessary knowledge, as I have an entirely new field of research to learn.

A friend, and second-year PhD student, noted how much she has grown to understand her research project in the past year. As an impatient person, I wish to already have that level of understanding for my research project, but I have to take a breath and remind myself of how far I’ve come and how much time I have to get to where I need to go.

It has been about a month since finishing my spring classes and I have spent most of that productive time reading relevant literature for my project. As this research is in a completely new field for me, I have a lot to read. I have gone through around 30 papers so far, some of which are pictured above, and am starting to feel like I have a basic grasp on the biological fundamentals and scientific premise for the research questions I will spend my PhD attempting to answer. However, questions posed by the summer intern assisting with my project as well as my research plan writing pursuits have brought into focus how much I still need to understand about my project.

Ultimately, my primary goal for the writing class has now changed from writing my candidacy exam proposal to simply gaining a better understanding of my research project. More than likely, elements of my research plan are likely to change between what I write now and what I propose next spring, stemming from preliminary experiments that I perform over the next 6-8 months. On the other hand, any rapid progress I make in better understanding my research project may have more lasting beneficial effects.


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