Career Development Opportunity
Calling all Health Disparities Early Stage Investigators!
Xi Pan and Cassandra Johnson Share Experience as Participants
A lot of exciting health disparities research is happening at Texas State, and our hope is that more and more of it will become funded research. For early career faculty, NIH offers an invaluable program where researchers can learn more about minority health and health disparities research and funding opportunities to support it, as well as meet and consult with NIH scientific staff. This is the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) Health Disparities Research Institute (HDRI), a week-long training program held annually in August at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
In 2019, two early career Texas State health disparities researchers applied and were chosen for this competitive training opportunity: Dr. Cassandra Johnson, Assistant Professor in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences (Nutrition and Foods Program), whose research focuses on sociocultural and behavioral aspects of nutrition and Dr. Xi Pan, Assistant Professor in Sociology, who researches aging, health, and healthcare. Here, they share their experience at HDRI 2019 and encourage early career faculty at Texas State to consider applying for the HDRI opportunity. The application portal opens in February with applications due in March.
Why I felt inspired?
In my field (public health nutrition), almost everyone aspires to receive NIH funding. Getting accepted and invited to campus were motivating. When I saw the gates of the NIH complex and the gigantic signs, I felt incredibly excited to be there. My internal conversation was something like this: I’m here. I’m on the right track. I’m going to make the most of every moment, go back home, and apply as much as I can. Honestly, I still feel inspired and it’s February.
I felt inspired by being physically on the NIH campus for the first time, learning NIH grant mechanisms and receiving guidance directly from NIH program officers about how to apply for the appropriate grants, and gaining insightful perspectives about quality research from successful awardees and interdisciplinary scientists and scholars.
What surprised me?
I didn’t realize I had so many preconceived ideas about the NIH, and my experience contradicted many of them:
- The people at the NIH were welcoming, approachable, and very helpful. Interacting with staff, program officers, and more senior leaders was one of the best parts. We had many scheduled and unscheduled interactions with people from NIMHD and the other institutes (such as NCI, NHLBI, and NIDDK). It seemed like everyone knew each other. It was nice to see friendly conversations and the level of respect they showed to their colleagues (and HDRI scholars).
- The NIH campus didn’t fit with what I had imagined. The HDRI was held at the Natcher Building, a beautiful facility surrounded by green spaces and walking trails. The food options at the cafeteria were surprisingly tasty, healthy, and affordable. I was able to eat outside and then go for a walk at lunch. I felt more at ease seeing others from the NIH enjoying lunch outside and walking during their breaks.
- I didn’t know as much about the NIH as a I thought I knew. Some of the advice I had heard was not true. One thing I learned is that when I have a question about the NIH, I should ask someone at the NIH.
- I realized that many people at the NIH are actively working to support research, and the program officers act as advocates for researchers. This was motivating. I had heard this before, but I didn’t really believe it. The program officers demonstrated their commitment by meeting with us individually and in groups, providing in-person feedback for our grants. While there is always uncertainty about grant applications, especially with the NIH, I no longer feel intimidated.
Similar to Dr. Johnson, I was surprised by the kindness, warmth, and humbleness of NIH leaders, program officers, and staff. The atmosphere at the workshop was encouraging and made people want to be productive on research and conduct quality research. The program officers were very approachable and helpful in providing constructive comments and recommendations on my research projects at the workshop and even afterwards.
Tips for application?
NIH expects competitive applicants to learn from others who have participated or have had mentees participate in this program. In this way, even the application process requires applicants to engage in NIH-style mentoring. I have three tips. First, start conversations with mentors to discuss the opportunity and develop application materials. Second, look up previous HDRI scholars (on their website), and identify professional connections. I reconnected to a classmate from my MSPH program. She shared more about the HDRI experience and provided tips for the application. Third, review the bios of HDRI scholars (on their website), and observe how others talk about their research interests and accomplishments. Use those insights for application materials, including recommendation letters.
First, keep trying! It is a competitive program and you might not be successful the first time, but please do not be discouraged. Just like applying for an NIH grant, how many people can be successful on their first try? Second, write a quality research proposal with an interesting and important research question particularly focusing on health disparities. Your research questions must be in line with the new directions of research on health and health disparities. If you are not doing health disparities research, HDRI is not right for you. Last, prepare recommendation letters that can strongly support your ability and capability to conduct quality health disparities research.
Encouragement for others thinking of applying?
Talk with mentors to figure out if this opportunity is for you. The HDRI is designed like a research incubator or energizer for NIH grants. Applicants need to be ready with a research question and the start of an NIH grant application. I almost didn’t apply for valid reasons. The HDRI was scheduled for the week before classes started, and I knew I would be feeling fatigued. During the application period, I was in the first year of a tenure-track position. I wondered if I would be more competitive next year. What if I got in and was not ready? Lastly, I knew the application was very competitive and didn’t want to waste time. I spoke to mentors about the opportunity, and they strongly recommended it. To date, the HDRI has been one of the best things I have ever done.
The HDRI is not an initiative for beginners to learn how to write NIH grants. It is an enhancement program for people who already have certain knowledge about NIH grants or those who are actively writing a proposal for application after the workshop. I would encourage people who are thinking of applying for HDRI to keep this in mind.