Principal investigators share the unique significance and challenges of training grants

March 19, 2024
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Tucson, AZ—

Training grants are pivotal in financing university students at all levels, providing stipends and scholarships to support their academic endeavors. Additionally, these grants fund activities that encourage trainees to persist in their studies and graduate from their programs.

UArizona faculty and staff from diverse fields and career stages currently run 41 training grants. Courtney Coffey, RDS Associate and primary creator of the new Training Grants Resources website, is committed to growing that number and hopes interested scientists will reach out to her. “We have so much collective learning about how to write these grants so they’ll be funded,” she said. 

Former principal investigators add their reasons for investing in training programs: 

“A university that excels in training grants showcases that it is serious about preparing the next generation of scientists,” says Michael Johnson, Associate Professor of Immunobiology and principal investigator for NSF-funded National Summer Undergraduate Research Project (NSURP). "Students want to attend that school because they know they’ll be supported." Johnson’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored NSURP program, an online summer research experience for underrepresented minorities, is in its fourth year and up for renewal. “NSURP enables me to meet students where they are instead of just telling them to come into our system. I get to learn about their family and background systems and then teach and mentor in a way that speaks into those systems.” 

Frans Tax, Molecular and Cellular Biology Professor and principal investigator for NIH-funded Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD). “I was on a training grant as a student; it was probably one of the first rounds NIH did. It was an excellent opportunity to connect with scholars interested in my field of study. So, it’s been rewarding over my 28 years at the university to help my students experience similar connections.”

Tax said that obtaining funding for students can be challenging, especially for beginning investigators since early-career grants usually aren’t big enough to fund much. “If you're supporting two students on your research grant and then gain another two through a training grant, your resources go further, and you can be more productive. It can transform your career by setting it on a good path.”

Scott Saleska, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and principal investigator for NSF-funded Building Resources for Interdisciplinary Training in Genomic and Ecosystem Sciences (BRIDGES), agrees. “Students are funded primarily by teaching assistantships, teaching classes, or grants. It’s a luxury to have some who are funded independently. It’s also a great recruitment tool for attracting high-quality students to your program.”

Saleska says one of the most transformative impacts of training grants is their potential to shape interdisciplinary scientists. BRIDGES focuses on training experts in ecosystem genomics. “All we needed to do was build a bridge between two sciences where the University of Arizona is very strong,” said Saleska. “If you want to achieve a new science, you need to build a generation of people in that new area. It’s better than just having us from the old sciences fumbling about, trying to figure out how the pieces fit together!”

Saleska said that over time, BRIDGES cohorts learn how to communicate with each other between departments and understand each other's research. At first, during the spring course, students present their research projects to their cohort and hear a lot of “We don't understand what you're talking about,” said Saleska. After they present their projects repeatedly and refine them, they get to their end product, where everyone’s on board.  Heather Ingram, Program Manager for BRIDGES, believes that working together like this opens opportunities for collaborations in the future. “While it’s not something we'll see right away, I wouldn't be surprised if I saw them co-authoring papers down the road or pulling each other into their projects.”

Felicia Goodrum, Professor of Immunobiology and principal investigator of Infection and Inflammation as Drivers of Aging (IIDA), funded by NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), also emphasizes the interdisciplinarity training grants offer. “We’re bringing students together from many different places, and they're learning things they wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to. I believe the way for your science to have a greater impact is to bring in people from disparate areas that can inform your work. Aging, inflammation, infection, and what dictates their outcomes are complex. We need people to think broadly, interact with others, and collaborate.”

Kevin Fitzsimmons, Researcher and Professor of Environmental Science and principal investigator for USDA-funded Preparing Hispanic and other Underrepresented Students in Fisheries and Aquaculture. He underscored the importance of the practical skills training grants offer students, particularly with hands-on activities. “We’re running the risk of producing students who excel at book learning but don’t know how to use a microscope or telescope or whatever instrument is pertinent to their field,” Fitzsimmons said. “I'm teaching a 400-level course on algae, and when I saw that most students barely know how to use a microscope, I told them to take theirs apart. They looked at me like I was crazy.” Fitzsimmons uses this story to underscore the value of a broader aim of training grants—to equip students with practical skills and industry-relevant experiences that prepare them for success in their future careers.

With all their benefits, obtaining and running a training grant isn’t for the faint of heart. Each PI interviewed acknowledged that securing training grants, particularly in the pre-award phase, can be challenging. Ingram underscored the importance of teamwork in driving the success of training grant initiatives. She emphasized the need for collaboration and community-building to create a supportive environment for students and researchers alike. “Be sure to put together a community of people as excited as you are about the project,” she said. “And don’t just focus on the science but also think about people who will reinforce connections and keep things running in the day-in, day-out tasks.”

Goodrum said UArizona would not have the T32 grant she leads were it not for the substantial institutional support she received. “I just wouldn't have done it; I don't have that kind of time. Yes, I'm a scientist and want to train students, but the time and effort it takes to put that kind of proposal together can be prohibitive.” She says the type of support the University of Arizona offered was critical to her success but that many of her colleagues at other institutions don't have it.

So, what kind of faculty or staff member should aspire to a training grant? Those interviewed agreed that this type of grant takes significant time and effort. Johnson acknowledged there will always be other demands on a researcher’s schedule. “It has to be so important to you that it becomes a priority, and you make the time to do it,” he said. “If you truly value the mentorship process and what you can instill in the next generation of scientists, what you get out of training can be a hundred times more than you put into it.”

Heather Ingram said the reward for her as BRIDGES program manager is supporting something she’s passionate about. “At this stage in my career, I’m not going to go back to get my Ph.D., but I can use the degrees and experience I have to help train this new class of researchers to do ecosystem genomics. By creating a community for them and keeping them in the fold, ensuring they can succeed, I know I'm making a real difference."

Saleska pointed to a researcher’s legacy as a reason to do training grants. “The measure of any scientist’s success is their trainees. It’s the people who have learned from them and are trying to do the next big things.”  

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