Mentorship program supports junior faculty researchers applying for NIH grants

The Research Center in Minority Institutions (RCMI) at Stempel College recently graduated its first cohort as part of the Investigator Development Core Pilot Grant Program. Four junior faculty members completed the one-year program that helps support them in achieving their research goals, all of which are related to addressing some of our most persistent and complex national health disparities issues.

“We launched the Pilot Grant Program to support junior faculty who are ready to apply for NIH and other government grants, but need pilot data to help them develop a competitive NIH application,” said Mary Jo Trepka, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and principal investigator of the program. “Through the program’s funding and mentorship and training activities, the pilot grant awardees obtained experience and support designing and implementing a research study and are now in a better position to successfully compete for NIH funding to continue their impactful research.”

The program is led by Trepka and includes Diana Sheehan, assistant professor of epidemiology and co-investigator on the project, and Sofia Fernandez, post-doctoral associate on the RCMI.

The first cohort included four faculty who each had distinct takeaways from the program.

For José Colón Burgos, whose research is entitled “Examining the Syndemic of drug use and HIV among Latino MSM who work in the Tourism sector of South Florida,” it was about getting a support network that would help him learn about the process. “For a rookie, the program taught me the how to comply with the reviewers’ expectations and the support to help implement my project. There was a lot of accountability, which helped keep me on track,” said Colón Burgos.

Meanwhile, Sabrina Sales-Martinez, whose research is entitled “Effect of cocaine use on the intestinal microbiome and metabolome and inflammation in HIV-infected adults in the Miami Adult Studies in HIV (MASH) Cohort,” felt that the program gave her to confidence to apply for a grant that was her own. “As far as the process, I’ve been involved in writing other NIH grants, but the difference here is that this was something that I was specifically interested in, and the pilot program gave me the push I needed to develop the research that I wanted to do,” said Sales-Martinez. 

For her research, “Substance-using parents’ needs and receipt for ancillary services, their relationship to substance use treatment compliance and new child maltreatment reports,” Hui Huang, gained a better understanding of how to budget. “While the whole process was very helpful in opening my eyes to the NIH, for me the different workshops really helped me understand how to plan my budget. I am working with community agencies, and I needed their personnel to help collect data and the pilot program helped me budget for that,” said Huang.

The program also helped the junior researchers embed themselves in the community and begin paths that will lead to future research. “The program was an opportunity for me to get more involved with the community through the grant and my research, and building longstanding relationships. As a researcher, I feel that getting to know members of the community and fostering relationships with them is essential to making a difference, and I will look to them for help with my next study,” said Karina Villalba, whose research is entitled “Effects of childhood abuse on emotion and cognition and health-risk behaviors among alcohol using women of color at risk for HIV.”

Overall, each participant came away with a $50,000 grant to support their work throughout the program and take part in various writing workshops and group sessions that help them frame and further their research ideas through skills-based trainings. The program also supports participants’ travel to various conferences and external trainings needed to propel them into independent careers.

“This is an opportunity for us to help our faculty shine and advance their careers, which we hope leads to each researcher choosing to remain in academia and continue on the pathway that promotes important research that will bring about change and improve lives,” said Fernandez. “The transdisciplinary approach also gives the researchers the chance to think about their research from different perspectives as the cohort works together and learns from each other.”

The Pilot Grant Program recently kicked-off its second cohort and is currently recruiting for the third cohort. Early stage investigators from throughout FIU who are interested in health disparities are encouraged to attend the kick-off session on Aug. 29; preliminary applications will be due Sept. 30.

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