Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vulnerability and Study Section

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change."

These words from Brene Brown jumped out at me one day as I listened to a TED podcast (Making Mistakes) on the way to work.

"That's really it, isn't it?" I thought. "That's exactly correct."

Vulnerability is the predominant reason why we don't innovate, are not creative, and aren't inclined to change. It's because we have to open ourselves to judgment, and sometimes attack. As animals, we have been designed to avoid vulnerability.


At no point in my career have I experienced vulnerability and rejection to the same extent as I do today. It's the grant proposals, of course.

I submitted my first NIH R01 application in October, and it was reviewed by a study section that met this past week. The likelihood that my proposal will be funded is low (median age of first R01 is a sobering 41, and I am all of 34).

OK. But you can't win if you don't play, so I gathered my ammunition and I polished it until it gleamed like the light of a thousand suns. And then I rammed it into the barrel of a canon and shot it  down to Bethesda, MD where it was received by someone who told me that I need to start coming up with better analogies if I'm going to use them so frequently in my writing.

For those that don't know, NIH submissions are reviewed by three scientists who give preliminary scores. If I was lucky, the average score for my proposal fell into the top 50% of New Investigator submissions to the study section (NI submissions are reviewed separately from other apps). In which case, the reviewers would present my proposal to the rest of the study section, lively discussion would ensue, judgement would happen, and I'll receive a score and feedback at some point hopefully in the near future.

Anyway, I did my best, and there's nothing more I can do at this point. Nonetheless, I've been feeling extra vulnerable in recent weeks, knowing that other scientists out there have been actively judging my (best) efforts, potentially in less-than-flattering ways.

It's like standing naked in front of a group of your peers, wondering where you left your damn towel. They're scrutinizing your love handles (your preliminary data), the superfluous mole you recently developed on your thigh (your credentials), and the tone of your biceps (your writing ability). Very quickly, they will cast judgement upon your body (your entire application), which is a cumulative product of many years of scientific effort, mental exercise, and dietary choices.

This is vulnerability.

Some criticism is easier to handle than others. You try not to take it personally, right? But when reviewers tell you that your Winter LayerTM is overly ambitious and lacks adequate definition, it hurts. Meanwhile, you are still looking for your towel.


I can't do good science without funding. I can't help patients without funding. Every day, the ideas that swirl around my head get better and better, and I am so eager to do lots of science. But I can't do any of that without funding, without being judged, without opening up my own best efforts for others to scrutinize.

Practice helps. Deep breathing helps. But mostly, it's a desire to do something meaningful with my life. When I think about that, the hard parts of this job become easier.

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