The Psychological Impact of a Discovery Grant by Melissa Skala

May 15, 2013

Melissa Skala

Melissa Skala

I’d like to talk about the psychological impact that the Young Ambassadors Discovery Grants have on the new investigators who receive them. Newly independent scientists who start their own research labs are vulnerable in the same ways that new businesses are vulnerable. We suffer from inexperience and “rookie” mistakes, a lack of resources to start-up and sustain growth, and a lack of a knowledgeable support crew. Moreover, we are vulnerable to tremendous self-doubt as we have to stand on our own for the first time.

When I first started at Vanderbilt, I had enough enthusiasm and drive to start 10 labs, but after multiple grant rejections and reviewer comments stating “this is not a terribly innovative application,” or that the work “is unlikely to have any real impact,” I questioned whether I had the creativity and intelligence to really excel as a scientist. I love this job, but perhaps I just wasn’t meant to have my own lab. The Young Ambassador’s Discovery Grant came at just the right moment for me, when I was most sure of my own failure. It provided a little hope that maybe this adventure would work out.

The Young Ambassador’s proposal was much different than a typical grant proposal. I had to pitch my idea to non-scientists in a way that convinced them that I could make a difference in the lives of their friends and family who were affected by cancer. This required me to re-think the problem, and my own proposed solution. Once I had turned the whole thing around and looked at it from a new perspective, I had crafted a much more compelling argument for my own solutions to cancer. The Young Ambassadors were convinced, and importantly, I successfully used similar arguments to secure follow-up funding from government agencies.

So in the end, the Young Ambassadors support provided a much-needed pat-on-the-back at a critical time in my career, but also forced me to re-think my research in a whole new way, which led to a more convincing argument for larger grant funding. When I presented my ideas to the Young Ambassadors, I immediately knew that these advocates expected results. They wanted to know how I could help them, their mother, or their friend battle cancer, and I had to convince them that I would use their hard-earned money wisely. I was motivated by meeting the expectations of real people who had lofty goals. I’m happy to say I’m much more comfortable in my role as an independent scientist now, and my experience with the Young Ambassadors was an important part of that scientific growth. I hope that many more scientists have the opportunity to meet the Young Ambassadors, to see how their research can really make a difference.

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