As you begin your journey as a surgeon-scientist, the factors critical to your success include the support of your department chief, adequate startup resources, buy-in from your research collaborators, a solid laboratory environment with strong scientific mentoring, and protected time. One way to achieve early success and focus your thinking on a specific research direction is to apply for society-based grants. Fortunately, several professional associations of surgeons provide such grants to young surgeon-scientists. These organizations include the Association for Academic Surgery (AAS), American College of Surgeons (ACS), American Surgical Association (ASA), Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO), American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS), American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA), and Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract (SSAT). Grants from these organizations can supplement your existing startup funds, and in some cases they can be used to supplement your laboratory mentor’s funds for a high-risk, potentially high-reward experiment. They can also be used to help pay for basic supplies used for your specific research activities.
I have been fortunate to receive early-career funding from some of these sources. A key factor was that I began thinking about what I was going to write in a grant proposal and about the direction of my research long before my first day as an assistant attending surgeon. Generating promising ideas and setting well-thought-out objectives are essential to the success of a young physician-scientist, and writing a grant proposal is an excellent opportunity to focus your thinking and planning.
Early-career grants range from $25,000 to $75,000, and the duration of support is usually 1 to 2 years. I have applied for several grants in the past 18 months, and after having revised the general research plan multiple times, I now feel that my proposed project is much stronger than before. Applying for several grants allowed me to better focus and fine-tune my project as I wrote. I was fortunate to receive funding from some of the organizations I applied to, but equally important was the opportunity for me to solidify my science, improve my grant-writing skills, and receive valuable feedback from my mentorship team.
Table 1 shows a list of grant opportunities I compiled during my first month as an assistant attending surgeon. I used this list to plan my applications, which required reading guidelines, writing drafts, and mastering the grant application process. The table gives you a sense of the timelines involved. The list is only a sample, and I encourage you to look for additional funding sources specific to your field of study. One item to note is that there is sometimes wording that prevents you from having two ‘career development’ society grants at one time—just be sure to clarify with the funding agency to be certain. In addition, for young cancer researchers who are fellows in training, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) offers a Young Investigator Award for focused projects (this can be ideal in the first year of a 2-year fellowship).
Another helpful funding mechanism for young physician-scientists is the NIH Loan Repayment Program. This program helps repay the educational debts of scientific investigators engaged in NIH mission-relevant research. Funding from the program can also help you establish a track record with the NIH. You can apply for as much as $35,000 per year for 2 years, with an option to renew.
The institution where you work is also an important resource for research funding. Many institutions have award mechanisms in place specifically for young investigators and junior faculty, and I highly recommend that you avail yourself of these opportunities. For example, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), where I work, young investigators can apply for a Society of MSK Award, a Department of Surgery Faculty Award, a Seed Grant, or one of several Development funds. This type of institutional funding is generally flexible and can be used either for specific projects or for general laboratory needs, and in many cases the funding is renewable. You will need to discuss with your research mentor how to best allocate the funds and how to coordinate them with other resources. You will also need to keep your clinical mentor up to date on the status of your funding and the progress of your research.
With an early-career grant, you will be well positioned to begin establishing a track record of productive research and preparing to apply for larger grants from NIH and from broad-membership societies such as the American Association for Cancer Research and American Cancer Society (obviously these societies will be specific to your specialty and interests).
I hope the information in this post is useful to you as you begin you career as a physician-scientist. I welcome questions as well as suggestions for broadening the blog’s scope to include specific surgical sub-specialties. Feel free to send me e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or connect with me via Twitter.
Links of potential interest:
Association of Academic Surgeons (AAS)
American College of Surgeons (ACS)
American Surgical Association (ASA)
American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS)
American Pediatric Surgical Association
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)
Society of Surgery of the Alimentary Tract (SSAT)
Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO)