Gambling and Grant Reviews

It has been a very long week. My husband and I spent Tuesday to Friday morning in New Orleans. My PhD thesis advisor is currently the president of the American Society for Human Genetics. I had not seen him in years. His former administrative assistant schemed to get those of us who trained with him through the years to attend either the annual meeting or to come to a smaller party hosted in his honor that coincided with the meeting. The email invites started at least 6 months ago. It is amazing how much guilt can be conveyed via email. “But even —– will be there. How could you not come?” I knew for months that I would succumb to the peer pressure but did not schedule my trip until last month.

I do not know if it is possible to overstate the impact that my thesis advisor had on my life: what kind of scientist I am, who I am as a person. I was with my thesis advisor longer than I was with my first husband. I was with my thesis advisor longer than I was with my biological father. I remained close with another student who finished about when I did. Whenever one of us has seen our thesis advisor, we always ask the other “So, how is our scientific papa?” Perhaps it is because I started graduate school so young (I was 20). Perhaps it is because I took 6 long years to complete my PhD and stayed an extra year as a post-doctoral fellow. I really do not know the cause. I only know that that when I look back on the life changing events of my life, none had more impact than this. It was good to see so many people again that I had lost touch with. It was interesting to meeting some of the new graduate students in the laboratory. One young lady asked a few us for advice and about our experiences. We shared knowing looks and began to laugh. How can you, in a few minutes, possibly explain what her experience will be like, what she will experience.? How can you explain that she will be forever changed and carry it with her wherever she goes in the future?

A few weeks ago, a master’s degree student started in my laboratory. Until now, I had successfully avoided taking on the responsibility of mentoring. I did not want to have so much impact on another human being. I am hopeful that since the program is shorter, less rigorous, that the risks are fewer. Many of my colleagues love to mentor, to shape young scientists in their image. Like having children, the concept has always filled me with abject terror.

I had not been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. I had been in the past for meetings and Mardi Gras. Because my husband had never been to New Orleans, I invited him along for my reunion travel (plus I needed him to hold my hand). Our hotel was lovely and was within easy walking distance of the convention center, gambling and the French Quarter. Compared to other cities, some things struck me as incredibly odd. For example, both cab drivers were American and at least one of them was native to New Orleans. I also expected the recovery from Katrina to be much further along. We walked so very many streets where every single storefront was still boarded up, even churches. Construction to roads and sidewalks continues. Some businesses were incredibly hungry to satisfy customers. We had three servers for our table at lunch one day (separate servers for drinks, food & any other need we may have). Finding restaurants where a lunch entree was under $25 was almost impossible. Food courts in shopping malls closed prior to 3PM even though the malls stay open until after dinner. Staying close to Paleo or even Body for Life was virtually impossible in New Orleans although I came close on most meals. There is no Chipotle in Louisiana.

There’s a Harrah’s in New Orleans. My husband and I gambled a bit. I quit after I won a small amount  on a goofy game called “Slotto” which had lottery balls drop down to determine your winnings. My husband enjoys the process so spent a bit more time there. I also used this trip to get caught up on grant reviews for a coming meeting. The current funding line at NIH is quite draconian. Less than 10% of grant applications are getting funded. Our group has more than 100 grants to review. I have 9. This means it is possible, likely even, that NONE of the grants that I am reviewing have any chance of being funded. By probability I should perhaps have 1 grant that is fundable. Grants are reviewed for significance, quality of investor, institution, proposed work, potential impact, feasibility, etc. In some cases, the grants can be outstanding and yet be unlikely to benefit enough people to cross the “significance” threshold. These are terribly difficult grants to review. Ideally reviewers will provide sufficient feedback that should the investigator implement the recommendations a fundable score will be possible. In some cases, the grants are as good as they can be for what the scientist wants to study. There is no lottery for these grants. There is no raffle process by which they can win. Sure, occasionally someone’s congress-person, can get special treatment for a proposal but for the most part the peer review process is honored. At least with the slot machine, everyone has a chance of winning, even though the odds are remote.