NIMH B/START Grants Are Starting Blocks for New PIs

In the nine years since the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) established a grant program to help novice behavioral scientists get their feet wet as first-time principal investigators, many junior researchers have successfully dived into research psychology to the benefit of the field and their careers.

NIMH’s B/START, the Behavioral Science Track Award for Rapid Transition, has funded about 266 researchers between 1994 and 2001 , awarding over $10 million in grants to young investigators for one-year, small-scale research projects. Starting with 31 grants of $25,000 each, excluding indirect costs for university overhead, the program has expanded to grants of up to $50,000 in 2002.

B/START was launched as a joint effort between APS and NIMH. APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut and Alan I. Leshner, then acting director of NIMH, were responding to concerns about the “greying” of behavioral scientists and the need to develop a cadre of new researchers. When Leshner became director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he and Kraut again collaborated to create a B/START program there.

The grant program has provided opportunities for newly minted scientists to launch exploratory or pilot projects. The objective is to provide an opportunity for fledgling researchers to break into the grant business as well as allow institutes to “grow their own” cadre of high-quality behavioral research scientists.

For some, the B/START grant has laid the groundwork for a long-term research focus. “It got me started on a program of research that continues today,” said Irwin Waldman, associate professor of psychology at Emory University and 1995 B/START recipient. “I got started on a small scale and then started a major study.”

Waldman, who received a $39,000 award on the heels of a post-doc fellowship while serving as an assistant professor at Emory, used his B/START grant to create a twin registry as part of a study on childhood disruptive disorders. Using the birth records of twins in Georgia born between 1980 and 1991, Waldman collected questionnaires from 900 twin pairs and gathered data on symptoms for DSM-IV disorders and personality and temperament of the children.

After receiving the mentored research scientist award, known as the KI award, from NIH in 1999, Waldman’s research interests have extended to behavioral genetics of childhood behavioral disorders. The project, he says, is an outgrowth of ideas in his B/START study. “I wanted to find out the cause of the disorders,” he explained.

Like Waldman, 1998 B/START recipient Kathleen McDermott’s preliminary research on the factors affecting the creation of false memory led to a wider interest in human memory. While working as a research assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., where she is now an assistant professor on her second year of the tenure track, McDermott won the $39,000 award.

Using the results from her McDermott B/START studies, she has since adopted a new technique — functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRl) — for her research to examine the neural correlates of human memory encoding and retrieval and how they interact.

“[B/START] helped me set up a baseline of studies. I have an established set of studies from which to pursue the questions,” she explained. With fMRI, “the questions haven’t changed, they just get slightly reformulated.”

Her success with B/START and a two-year R03 grant that provided $50,000 in direct costs have given her a firm foundation to apply to NIMH for an RO1, a regular research project grant, this fall . McDermott believes young researchers need to get short-term funding in order to win bigger grants.

“You have the experience of applying for a grant, administering it and budgeting on a small scale,” she noted. “With B/START, you learn about the entire process. It’s a great mechanism to have in place.”

Subsequent Funding

The experience gained by B/START recipients is helpful in the future when writing bigger grants , said Sonja Lyubomirsky, associate professor at the University of California, Riverside and 1998 B/START recipient.

As a third-year assistant professor at UC-Riverside in 1997, Lyubomirsky chose to apply for a small grant such as B/START because she was focused on writing multiple papers and did not want to tie up her time by undertaking a large study. Her $36,000 B/START grant funded three studies on female ruminators and their common delay in seeking a medical diagnosis after experiencing symptoms related to breast cancer.

Since B/START Lyubomirsky has received several small grants, including a faculty development award from her home institution to continue her research on the causes and consequences of happiness. She is currently awaiting a decision on major NIH grant. Lyubomirsky also credits B/STA RT as an important step along her path toward securing tenure, which she received in 2001. “People knew that it was prestigious,” she explained. “It looked good for my performance review.”

External Funding Pressures

Winning a B/START grant also demonstrates that a young researcher can come up with credible ideas and get funding outside of their university, said 1996 B/START Recipient Laura Carlson, who is an associate professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame.

“It was the first external funding I received,” she said adding that B/START helps researchers establish track records. Reviewers are more likely to award a multi-year grant to researchers with previous experience in administering a grant, Carlson explained.

She said the grant, which funded a project on remembering relational information across eye movements, benefited her career. It served as a positive reflection of her work during the tenure process and taught her to describe the relevance of her research for grant applications. After B/START, Carlson achieved further success by winning a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation in 1998.

“Especially with the funding picture being the way it is now, one-year young investigator grants are invaluable,” she noted. “More programs like B/START are definitely needed.”

Carlson said not everyone secures further funding after B/START. She knows peers who have gotten turned down for R03 grants, another funding mechanism for one-year projects. It is still difficult for them to compete with senior-level researchers for multi-year grants.

After winning a B/START grant, Eddie Hannon-Jones was turned down for subsequent funding from the NIH as a principal investigator (PI) but won funding from the NIMH as a co-PI.

A 1999 B/START recipient and assistant professor at the University of Arizona, Harmon-Jones studied the exact emotional function of asymmetrical frontal cortical activity with his $36,000 grant.

The study, he said, provided the important basic science evidence to support the idea that the left frontal cortical region is involved in approach motivational processes. With this basic evidence in hand, Harmon-Jones and fellow researcher Lyn Abramson are set to undertake a multi-year NIMH grant in December to study the approach motivation system dysregulation in individuals with bipolar disorder.

Hannon-Jones believes the B/START grant helped him in winning the Society for Psychophysiological Research’s 2002 Distinguished Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychophysiology.

Belief in Oneself

The recognition of being B/START recipient and the additional honors it leads to gives many young investigators confidence as it did with Irvin Katz, a senior research scientist in the Center for New Constructs at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton , NJ.

As one of the few non-university B/START recipients, Katz received a $30,000 grant in 1994 to study how high-school students learn introductory physics — a study that was an extension of work done during his postdoctoral fellowship at Keio University in Yokohama, Japan in the late 1980s.

At ETS, he explained, B/START gave him a rare opportunity at ETS to focus on basic cognitive issues of learning or fundamental psychological issues. Since then, Katz ‘s research interests have not strayed far from cognitive learning. He applies theories of cognitive learning to issues of educational assessment and designing computer tools that support complex reasoning.

Katz said his B/START experience was slightly different from other recipients because he had to recruit participants independently from the Web, rather than draw people from within a university. During the one-year project, he became the first person to have a lab at ETS.

Many things have changed since then at ETS, Katz noted. In the early 1990s, he was one of two cognitive psychologists at ETS — today he is among a team of a dozen.

He recommends B/START to younger investigators who are able to dovetail the ETS interests with the more basic research interests on NIMH. “They would have to creative about it”

Observer Vol.15, No.8 October, 2002

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