Chair’s Research Award is a ‘lifeline’ for junior investigators

Friday, May 1, 2020

Each year, the Department of Medicine provides funding through the Chair’s Research Award to support the fellow-to-faculty transition for those in need of protected research time. 

Kathleen Cooney, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, has announced that the 2020 recipients of the award are Marat Fudim, MD, MHS, a fellow in Advanced Training in Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiology, and Julia Messina, MD, MHS, assistant professor of medicine (Infectious Diseases). Each will receive $95,000 in protected research time for one year to continue developing data and findings for their applications for NIH K funding.

Dr. Fudim plans to use his newfound protected time to jumpstart projects related to his NIH K23 application focused on volume management in heart failure and neuromodulation. He used his K23 submission as the basis for his Chair’s Research Award submission, 

“I would suggest that everyone who is submitting or resubmitting an NIH training grant as an early career investigator consider applying for this award,” Fudim said.

Dr. Messina, who will receive the Chair’s Research Award for a second time, echoes Fudim’s recommendation. 

“The structure of this grant is similar to other career development awards and is a good way to start developing your scientific concepts and career development plan,” Messina said. “Grant-writing is a learned skill that can only be developed by experience, and this grant is worth the effort.”

Messina plans to use her protected time to submit a K23 application as well as two manuscripts[MOU3] . Her long-term research goal is to design and lead a translational clinical trial in microbiome-based therapeutics to prevent infectious complications in patients with acute leukemia. 

The Chair’s Research Award tangibly demonstrates the Department’s outward commitment to a recipient’s research career, something National Institute of Health (NIH) study sections look for when awarding training grants.

“The first few years on faculty are crucial. We want to support as many new investigators with protected research time as we can,” said Scott Palmer, MD, MHS, professor of medicine (Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine) and vice chair for research. “The time it offers can be career-changing.”

Mechanisms like the Chair’s Research Award provide credibility to NIH and Veterans Affairs (VA) career development award applications and can be an important step in the pathway to funding. 

“We are investing in your science by offering you the time to cultivate quality investigative work,” Dr. Palmer said. “We want to see you succeed, and it’s for that reason I encourage junior faculty and investigators in their final year of fellowship to start thinking about applying for this award early on.”

“The first few years on faculty are crucial. We want to support as many new investigators with protected research time as we can."

Scott Palmer, MD, MHS

Tom Ortel, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Hematology, coordinates the annual selection process for the award. He remembers when former Chair, Harvey Jay Cohen, MD, and former Vice Chair for Research, Howard Rockman, MD, created the Chair’s Research Award (then known as the Barton F. Haynes Research Award) over a decade ago. 

The award has since expanded the number of opportunities for physician-scientists at a pivotal time in their careers. 

“For many of these applicants, we see their success out in front of them, but they need a little extra protected time to make it there,” Dr. Ortel said. “Fellowship goes by pretty fast. You need to be competitive to apply for NIH grants, and one-to-two years of protected time could be what helps to give you that edge.”

The Chair’s Research Award covers one year of funding, giving recipients the option to request a second year.

Dennis Abraham, MD, assistant professor of medicine (Cardiology), received this award twice, and credits the impact the protected time had on his successful scientific career. 

“Had I not been able to get my research salary funded, I likely would have gone into clinical work primarily. I just would not have had the time I needed to invest in my research,” he said. 

Dr. Abraham now runs a successful basic science lab where he studies obesity and congestive heart failure. He recently submitted a Research Project Grant (R01) application to the NIH. 

“The Chair’s Research Award was a lifeline for me. When people ask me about doing science as a career, this is something I talk to them about,” Abraham said. “There aren’t many mechanisms out there like this one and getting that protected research time is key to becoming independently funded.” 

Another accomplished investigator and 2013 Chair’s Research awardee, Sudarshan Rajagopal, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine (Cardiology), advises current applicants to apply as early and as often as they can to mechanisms like this one, even if they don’t think their proposals are developed enough. 

“Many junior investigators come up with a hundred excuses for why they shouldn’t apply for awards like the Chair’s Research Award because they are afraid of failure. You have to inure yourself to that possibility,” Dr. Rajagopal said. 

Rajagopal emphasized that persistence in applying is key.

“Going through the writing and application process can help to crystalize your ideas. As a junior faculty member, it is probably the most important skill that I have learned. The best way to get used to writing grants and to become competitive with them is to write grants. Just do it,” he said. 

Getting into the habit of applying for grants early and often is a principle Juliessa Pavon, MD, assistant professor of medicine (Geriatrics) also emphasizes to trainees.

“Just the process of getting your ideas onto paper in proposal format will serve you well for your next application. It’s never a wasted opportunity in that sense, even if you aren’t funded,” Dr. Pavon said.

Pavon said that receiving her  2014 Chair’s Research Award had a marked influence on her research career. 

“That protected research time was a catalyst. It enabled me to build my portfolio of scholarly work that became the groundwork for my current research program,” Pavon said. “Receiving this award then helped me to secure my Small Grant Program (R03) award in the same year. I was able to add this funding support to my R03 application to help support my career development plan.”

Samira Musah, PhDassistant professor of medicine (Nephrology) and biomedical engineering, chose to come to Duke University for the collaborative culture and copious resources to support her cutting-edge research in engineered stem cell models in human kidney disease. She received the Chair’s Research Award in 2019.

“I think progress in science and medicine rely on the ability to illuminate the unknown. I am grateful for this award as it has helped my lab make the critical first steps towards this goal,” Musah said. “The Chair’s Research Award is partially what is enabling me to pursue this type of unique investigation, and I believe this will position us well for timely submission of successful external grants including R01.”

Palmer believes applicants for this award get better every year. 

“I want to encourage anyone who needs protected research time to apply because this is a great opportunity that truly can change the future of an investigator’s science,” Palmer said.

Letters of intent for the 2021 Chair’s Research Award will be due in November of 2020; applications will be due in January 2021. 

Learn more here, or contact Ashton Spicer, program coordinator.