K Halfway: Reflections on the First Half of an NIH K23 Award

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By Dr. Dani Arigo (K23 HL136657)

In January of 2018, I received the wonderful (and unexpected) news that my K23 application was in line for funding through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH. The award was funded in March 2018 (see me with the notice of award while crying, right), to support my research and continued training in intensive assessment methods and physical activity promotion for midlife women (ages 40-60). Since then, I’ve transitioned a new institution, moved my home twice, shared in the growth of the CHASE Lab, and attempted to adapt our work to the realities of a global pandemic. I’m now halfway through the 5-year K23 award, and I want to share some reflections on the first stages of this process.

Planning and Tracking

Five years sounds like a long time, but I knew from the start that time could easily fly by. And the goal of a K23 award is to set you up well for future grant funding; the process of developing a large-scale grant proposal, submitting, receiving reviews, and responding to critiques can take years in itself, so it’s recommended that you start working on this next step in Year 3. (See here for some timeline descriptions.) So you really only have a little more than two years to put everything in place for the next stage, including executing major components of the training plan and collecting preliminary data. My sense is that the second half of a K seems much shorter than the first half; the first half is focused mostly on the work proposed in the award, whereas the second half includes doing the work you planned for this award and working toward the next one. (Plus any other duties you have as a faculty member, which increase over time.)

Knowing all this from the start, I wanted to avoid looking back at any point and realizing that I hadn’t maximized the time. So from the first day of the award, I’ve planned for and tracked my progress in several ways. First, I keep track of ongoing projects/papers via whiteboard and paper notebooks; I use these to plan out the next steps for each project and then transfer the plans to Google Docs that are shared with the CHASE Lab, so that the team knows what steps they can take in each domain. (My newest weapon: The LOT Planner.)

At the start of each workday, I also set tasks and goals for myself and share them via Twitter, using tweets as markers for how long I’ve been on the K. (I’ve done this since K23 Day 1, and today is K23 Day 913 – the halfway point!) This not only helps me stay accountable, but it also allows me to (1) give others insight into the day-to-day operations of a K award, and (2) get a daily reminder of where I am in the timeline, so that I don’t lose track.

Second, I track my individual progress and productivity with a Google Doc. (Also started this on K23 Day 1.) I have a section for each week where I update work done on each aspect of the K award, as well as work done in non-K domains, such as service to my department or research projects not funded by the award. Together, these include training activities, recruitment and enrollment stats for ongoing data collection, status/progress on each paper and grant application, meeting attendance, and behind-the-scenes committee work (institutional and professional). I also highlight to-do items and transfer them to my planning docs.

I update this Google Doc daily or as progress is made in each area. I sometimes post progress updates on Twitter to indicate whether I accomplished my goals each day, but I’m less consistent about that than I am about the morning agenda posts. This amount of progress monitoring probably seems like a lot, but it has advantages. It provides regular input for planning, keeps me from getting lost in the sea of specific work tasks, and makes drafting other progress reports fairly painless. For example, I send my mentors quarterly updates on progress toward each training/research goal of the K23, and I’m required to submit periodic reappointment applications until I’m tenured at my institution. And, like all NIH investigators, I submit yearly reports to my institute for their review. When it’s time to prepare each of these, I scroll back through my Google Doc and pull out the information I need. Much easier than having to track down and organize all that information when I’m writing reports! This is probably the most useful set of procedures I adopted when the K23 was funded, and I anticipate continuing them long after it’s over.

Assessing Progress

The first 2.5 years did go by quickly, but I was able to stay mostly on track, despite the disruption of re-establishing my research program at a new institution. Here is what’s happened during that time:

  • K23 Aim/Study 1 of 2 completed (10-day EMA study)
  • Development for K23 Aim/Study 2 underway (testing a new tech tool)
  • 18 publications accepted, 7 under review/revision (2 published papers were large-scale scoping reviews of topics related to my training plan, and 3 were preliminary work for Study 1)
  • (Also several rejections and several manuscripts in preparation)
  • 3 grant applications in progress as PI
  • 5 grant applications submitted as PI or co-I (no hits yet, sadly, but I’m proud of these and they’ve helped me clarify ideas)
  • 24 conference presentations
  • 3 Ph.D. students, 6 undergraduates, and 1 postdoc joined CHASE Lab at my current institution (10 publications are co-authored with these team members)
  • Service to my primary professional organization (Society of Behavioral Medicine) as chair of a special interest group and council member

I’ve also developed many exciting and productive new collaborations with wonderful colleagues, including psychologists, public health professionals, computer scientists, game designers, and physicians. I can’t wait to see where we take these.

I’m proud of these accomplishments and I’m grateful that the K23 has made many of them possible. Academia provides a constant string of rejections and critiques, and it’s so easy to get lost in what’s not happening while ignoring what is. If I’m being reflective, though, it is important to acknowledge what hasn’t gone particularly well, and what I need to keep working on. Some of this has to do with focus. If my research program were a tree, it would have many branches off of the main trunk. This isn’t uncommon, as projects lead to new questions and angles of approach, especially if the truck is a fairly broad area. Sometimes these branches lead to fruitful (and fundable) lines of inquiry. But it can be easy to let attention get pulled from the trunk to the branches, which then seem more disconnected, and not all branches are equally worthwhile. So it’s a balancing act.

And of course, I’d be happier with my progress and more confident in my future prospects if I’d had any success with new grant applications along the way. To be fair, though, I haven’t submitted that many applications – another balancing act, between executing the plans for current funding and chasing more. Proposals take time and energy to craft that then has to come from other areas. But it seems pretty clear that very successful researchers put themselves out there a lot. So perhaps the balance needs to shift just a bit more toward applying. I submitted two foundation grants this year (1 as PI, one as co-I) and I’m waiting for funding decisions; a few other proposals are in progress, so I think we’re moving in the right direction.

A huge and unexpected change this year is the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with months of protest against unspeakable police brutality in the U.S. CHASE Lab wasn’t immune to its effects; some of our internal resources were frozen, which has changed our plans a bit. But we’re so fortunate that when the pandemic hit, we were in a good place to wind down face-to-face data collection and move into data analysis and writing. So it was a productive summer, even though several papers are still in progress, and we’ve been intentional in our efforts to increase attention to diversity. And we took the opportunity to re-assess some of our participants from 2019 to determine whether what we observed pre-pandemic still holds up. But for the last few months, I’ve wondered whether we could (or should) be doing more to understand the potentially life-changing effect that these events have had on our populations of interest.

To be sure, many other researchers have taken up this charge, with better resources, ideas, and solutions than we may be able to muster. And rushing to put something else together might not end up being better than what we have done, for us or (more importantly) for our participants. So again, it’s an ongoing effort to find the right balance, and our team continually communicates ideas and feedback about whether we’ve found it. This academic year, we’re also looking forward to hiring our first work study students as research assistants, who will bring fresh ideas to the discussion.

So, We’re Halfway!

Looking back, the past 2.5 years have gone really well, and there is still a lot interesting work to do with smart and creative people. Yet, despite all of my emphasis on careful planning, tracking, and evaluation of progress, perhaps the overarching theme of the first half of the K23 has been the importance of maintaining flexibility. Even before the pandemic and civil unrest, there were many unexpected challenges, including:

  • Budget confusion that led to hiring/effort changes
  • Purchasing restrictions that almost prevented the acquisition of necessary equipment
  • Slow participant recruitment
  • Shifts in the technology landscape that required meaningful modifications to development plans
  • Limited time for additional professional development opportunities

My primary K23 mentor loves to say “it will all work out” – no matter what the situation is or how concerned I am about it – which can be more frustrating than comforting, at times. So I hate to admit it, but he’s been right so far, and I hope that I’m starting to adopt that perspective for myself.

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