Guest post: Recent changes to NIH R15 mechanism mean Miami faculty are more competitive than ever

Students presenters discuss their poster with an Undergraduate Research Forum attendee.
Highlighting their students’ participation in the Undergraduate Research Forum is one way PIs can demonstrate the excellence of the research environment for undergraduate students at Miami University.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares insights about changes to the NIH R15 mechanism, suggests some tips for writing NIH  grant applications — especially R15s — and offers encouragement for Miami researchers based on his experience.

The major goals of the NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program are to support meritorious research at predominantly undergraduate institutions, strengthen the overall research environment, and provide valuable research experience for undergraduate students. The R15 application is a 3-year award with a maximum of $300,000 in direct costs for the entire project. The R15 guidelines have changed significantly, as described in a new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), PAR-18-714: Academic Research Enhancement Award for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions (R15 Clinical Trial Not Allowed).

Additional changes to the R15 program, including the addition of the REAP program, are coming next year as well.

This fall I was on an NIH study panel that reviewed both R01 and R15 applications. I wanted to share with you some of my experiences from that panel, offer some helpful hints, and encourage more researchers at Miami to apply for R15 funding. First of all, NIH has placed a much greater emphasis on training undergraduate students for R15 applications. This change should have a major impact at Miami University. Researchers at Miami should have a significant advantage with the R15 proposals, since we strongly emphasize and encourage undergraduate research.

The FOA Research Strategy states the following:

Research Strategy: Describe how the proposed plan can achieve the specific aims using a research team composed primarily of undergraduate students. Describe how undergraduate students will be exposed to and supervised in conducting hands-on, rigorous research. Describe how undergraduate students will participate in research activities such as planning, execution and/or analysis of research. Formal training plans (e.g., non-research activities, didactic training, seminars) should not be provided, although a brief description of activities related to enhancing students’ research capabilities and progress (e.g., the use of individual development plans, etc.)  is permitted.

Here are some tips to make your proposal stronger:

  • Make sure that you discuss everything that is listed in the FOA Research Strategy in your proposal. The reviewers of the application are asked to comment on these issues directly.
  • The research team described in your application must be primarily composed of undergraduate students. I would include in your budget salary for undergraduate students during the school year and the summer, as well as salary for a graduate student to train and work with the undergraduate students.
  • In your biosketch and in the proposal, make it crystal clear that you work with undergraduate students in your lab. Dedicate at least half a page in the application to showing that you are training undergraduate students in your lab. In your proposal, I would include the following: “I have been at Miami University for ZZ years and I have mentored XX undergraduate students. These students have published XX papers as co-authors and YY as first authors. I currently have XX undergraduate students working in my lab.”  In the application, you need to explain how students are trained.  Briefly discuss papers that undergraduates have co-authored in your lab and mention what graduate or professional schools your students have attended. This will provide clear evidence to the reviewers that you have a proven track record in training undergraduate students and helping them pursue careers in biomedical sciences.
  • In your biosketch, underline the names of the undergraduate co-authors. Make it easy for the reviewers to clearly see that you are dedicated to conducting research with undergraduate students and that you have plenty of experience in that area.
  • Describe innovative approaches that you are using to engage undergraduate students in your lab. Describe how you will stimulate the interests of the students. Discuss how you will recruit a diverse and inclusive group of undergraduate students to the lab.
  • Make sure you mention that Miami University has a dedicated Office of Research for Undergraduates that provides valuable resources for students interested in research. Discuss all of the outstanding programs that Miami offers undergraduate students who are interested in conducting research, including Undergraduate Research Awards (URA), Undergraduate Summer Scholars (USS), First Year Research Experience (FYRE), and Doctoral Undergraduate Opportunity Scholarships (DUOS). Mention that workshops that discuss all aspects of scientific research are available to students. Finally, have your students present a poster at Miami’s annual Undergraduate Research Forum, held in April. These components of the proposal really emphasize the strength of Miami University and enhance your application.

One of your overall goals in writing the R15 proposal should be for the reviewer to want their son or daughter to conduct research in your lab as an undergraduate student. This is very important. You want the quality of the research work and the training experience to be outstanding in the application.

In addition, here are a few general tips for NIH proposals that are not specific to the new R15:

  • The proposal needs to be strong scientifically; it is not just about undergraduate training. Try to have good preliminary data for each specific aim in the proposal. This will clearly show that you can conduct the experiments proposed in the application.
  • At the very end of each specific aim, discuss outcomes, potential problems, and alternative strategies.
  • Make sure you include a resource sharing plan in the application. Several applications forget to include this.

I strongly encourage faculty at Miami to apply for NIH R15 grants. If any researchers have any questions about this program or other grant applications, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Finally, although NIH funding is still highly competitive, I think it is getting a bit better for researchers. Good luck with your submissions!

Written by Gary Lorigan, John W. Steube Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Miami University.

Photos by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.


A background pattern consisting of different colored equilateral triangles.

NIH issues notice of changes to AREA/R15 program

Gary Lorigan works with a piece of equipment in his lab.
Changes to the AREA/R15 program recently announced by NIH will have very few practical implications for Miami University researchers, including past AREA recipient Gary Lorigan a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

NIH issued a long-anticipated notice about changes to its Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA)/R15 program last week. The changes are being made to “focus AREA support on grants to undergraduate-focused institutions that do not receive substantial funding from NIH, rather than all institutions with less than $6 million of NIH support.” Since Miami University meets both these criteria — it is undergraduate-focused and receives relatively little NIH funding — the impact of these changes on our researchers will be fairly limited, as described below.

CHANGE: The current AREA Parent Announcement will expire after January 7, 2019
EFFECT: Miami PIs will need to look for (and apply under) new FOAs, to be issued soon.

CHANGE: Eligibility requirements are as follows: 1) Applicant institution must be accredited and grant baccalaureate degrees in biomedical sciences. 2) Applicant institution may not have received $6 million or more per year in total NIH awards (direct and indirect costs combined) in 4 of the last 7 years. 3) The qualifying academic component (school, college, center, or institute) within an institution has an undergraduate student enrollment greater than its graduate student enrollment.
EFFECT: 1) Not a change; Miami meets this requirement with accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission. 2) Not a change; Miami meets this requirement, having received no more than $3.9 million (in FY2011) in annual funding from NIH in the last 7 years. 3) A significant change for some institutions, but not for Miami; none of our divisions enrolls more graduate students than undergraduate students.

CHANGE: NIH will no longer maintain a list of R15-ineligible institutions and all applications due on or after February 25, 2019 will need to include a letter verifying institutional eligibility.
EFFECT: OARS will provide the required letter to be included in applications. Anne Schauer, Director of Research and Sponsored Programs, is authorized to sign such letters on behalf of the university, and PIs should not request them from the president or the provost.

CHANGE: NIH will issue separate FOAs for R15 opportunities to support health professional schools and graduate schools.
EFFECT: Anticipated to be minimal.

A description of the R15 Activity Code, which reflects the changes, is available on the NIH website.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Triangle image by DavidRockDesign via Pixabay, public domain/Creative Commons CC0 license. Photo of Gary Lorigan by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

Metamorphosis Cocoon Close Up

Changes to NIH R15 mechanism are coming

Mike Lauer addresses an audience as part of a panel discussion.
NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Mike Lauer (right), says changes are coming to the R15 program, but reaffirms NIH’s commitment to the funding mechanism.

With their focus on engaging students in meaningful research experiences, National Institutes of Health’s Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA, R15) are a popular mechanism for Miami University principal investigators. These grants are designed for institutions receiving less than $6 million per year in NIH support (currently the case at Miami) and emphasize enhancing the research environment at eligible schools.

I attended an NIH Regional Seminar in mid-October. Held semi-annually, these seminars clarify federal regulations and policies and highlight current areas of special interest or concern. The R15 grant mechanism was highlighted in the plenary session presented by Mike Lauer, the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research. Lauer hinted at upcoming changes to the R15 program, but emphasized that the NIH commitment to the R15 program will remain the same.

One change that Lauer made clear is that the current practice of the NIH maintaining a list of institutions ineligible for AREA grants will be discontinued. It will become an institution’s responsibility to affirm eligibility based on the level of NIH funding over the last 7 years. OARS will be developing a template letter to cover this requirement.

In spring 2018, the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) issued a specific call (PAR-18-714) for R15 proposals with an emphasis on providing biomedical research experiences primarily for undergraduate students. While graduate students shouldn’t be excluded, they are not the focus of this call.

In a seminar breakout session on R15 grants, the presenter, Tracy Waldeck, Director of the Office of Extramural Policy and Review (OPER) for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stated that other NIH institutes and centers will be signing on to participate in this call. The current call lists all the institutes and centers that have signed on to participate, some as recently as October 31. Waldeck also alluded to an upcoming announcement about changes to the AREA grant program. OARS is monitoring the situation and will share news as it becomes available.

Written by Amy Hurley Cooper, Assistant Director of Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Cocoon photo via Max Pixel, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Mike Lauer by Ernie Branson and Rich McManus for the NIH, public domain.

Three women pose in front of a Hilton hotel.

Biologist helps explain why cardiovascular health tends to vary by sex

A woman stands in front of a very large poster. She points to her name -- Minqian Shen -- within a long list of names. Visible text: ENDO. 2015 Abstract Awards and Travel Grants. Early Career Forum Travel Awards. Supported by the Endocrine Society. These application-based travel awards are presented to graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinical fellows in endocrinology. 125 travel awards supported by the Society; 2 additional travel awards supported by Women in Endocrinology.
Minqian Shen, a graduate student of Dr. Haifei Shi, points to her name on a list of students who received Early Career Forum Travel Awards for the 2015 Endocrine Society Annual Meeting.

There are a number of reasons women tend to live longer than men. One of them is cardiovascular disease – on average, women develop it about a decade later than men. The female hormone estrogen seems to play a role, by keeping women’s arteries healthier until menopause. But Haifei Shi, an associate professor of biology at Miami University, thinks brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may also play a role.

BDNF is a protein that helps sustain existing neurons and encourages the development of new neurons and synapses in the brain and central nervous system of humans and other mammals. In her lab, Shi has found that exposing rats to BDNF causes them to eat less and exercise more.

Assuming the same thing is true in humans, BDNF could one day be used in therapeutic treatments to help control obesity, which is a major risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease.

But to develop safe and effective treatments, scientists need to better understand how BDNF works in the nervous system, and how it might work differently for male and female patients.

Shi is contributing to this understanding by studying rats. She has found that female rats are more sensitive to BDNF than male rats are. That is, it takes less BDNF to produce an advantageous ratio of food consumption to energy expenditure in a female rat than it takes to produce the same advantageous ratio in a male rat. She says this suggests that any BDNF-based drug therapies should be developed with gender-specific dosing in mind.

Dosing isn’t the only consideration, though. The route of delivery is also important. According to the FDA, there are some 100 ways of introducing a drug into the body, everything from auricular (by way of the ear) to oral (by way of the mouth) to subcutaneous (injected under the skin). The form a drug comes in – say, ear drops, pills, or injections – influences how quickly it is released into the system, how it is distributed throughout the system, and how quickly it is absorbed and eliminated. Those things can have a huge effect on the safety and efficacy of a specific treatment.

To determine the optimal route of delivery for a BDNF-based drug, Shi says it’s important to find the parts of neural circuit in the autonomic nervous system that BDNF activates, including brain nuclei, ganglia cells, and nerve terminals.

“If BDNF activates different parts of these neuralcircuits in males than in females,” she says, “then the targeting sites and route of delivery for any future drugs could be different as well.”

Shi plans to study this question using funds from a $390,150 grant she recently received from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Given how difficult it is to receive funding from NIH right now, at first I was not sure if I could get funding,” Shi says. “When they sent me the award notice I felt very fortunate.”

She was also gratified to find that the program officer and every member of the NIH panel that reviewed her grant proposal characterized Miami’s research climate as excellent.

Contributing to that excellence, Shi says, are the research facilities and internal funding support provided by the Department of Biology, the College of Arts and Science (CAS), and the University Senate’s Committee for Faculty Research (CFR). She has received the Madalene and George Shetler Diabetes Research Award from the CAS and two CFR Faculty Research Grants – one in AY2009-2010 and one in AY2013-2014. These awards helped her gather preliminary data that enabled her to demonstrate the potential of her work in applications to the NIH and other funding agencies, including the American Heart Association.

Shi’s most recent NIH grant uses the R15, or Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA), mechanism. Consistent with this program’s goal to expose students to research, Shi plans to involve students in all aspects of her current study, just as she did with a previous AREA grant study. Graduate students Xian Liu, Minqian Shen, and Qi Zhu and undergraduate students Annie Davis and Anjali Prior will help design, troubleshoot, and carry out experiments. They will collect data, run analyses, write manuscripts, and present results at local, national, and international conferences.

Davis, a sophomore double majoring in premedical studies and public health, attended the international meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior with Shi and graduate students Xian and Minqian in Denver this past July.

“Annie learned so much. I think it was really good exposure for her,” Shi says. “In the future, I’d like to take more students to this and other conferences.”

Given Shi’s continued success, not only in doing research, but also in securing funding to support it, that seems a likely prospect.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Xian Liu, Haifei Shi, and Minqian Shen courtesy of Haifei Shi. Photo of Minqian Shen courtesy of Haifei Shi.