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Videos broaden understanding of federal grants

PhD candidate helps peers complete a complex application

by Paul Karon

When Jamaica Rettberg, a PhD candidate in the USC Neuroscience Graduate Program, decided to apply for a research fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she knew it wouldn’t be easy. The famously complicated applications take most people months to complete.

Rettberg applied for what is known as an F31, an NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) intended to help doctoral students get additional training in fields related to their core focus.

When she started working on the grant, Rettberg made it a point to find out everything she could about the application process.

“The NIH provides some guidance and explanations, but there was nothing really from the point of view of an applicant,” she said.

She took a seminar in the neuroscience department about NRSA grants and applications, sought advice from mentors and colleagues who had been through the process, and of course spent many days on her own parsing dozens of questions, running down required documents and information, drafting statements about research goals and more.

Rettberg finally submitted her application, and in 2012 the NIH granted her the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.

Peer to peer, step by step

That might have been the end of Rettberg’s application saga, had not Cecilia Patino-Sutton of the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute (SC CTSI) asked her to give a presentation about the application process for other pre-doctoral students in the TL1 Training Program.

Rettberg was happy to help. Using her own application forms as examples, she took fellow students step-by-step through the application process, from minute but important matters of font size and type to pointers on writing effectively about research goals.

“It’s much more helpful when you’re hearing from a peer who has gone through the process and understands the sticking points,” she said.

PhD candidate Jamaica Rettberg

Jamaica Rettberg explains the grant application process in a video.

So well-received was Rettberg’s presentation that Patino-Sutton suggested she make it available beyond the USC community — by turning it into a video that could be posted online. It filled a much-needed gap: In an era when it is common to find answers or how-to guides on the Internet for even the most mundane matters, no such tutorial for the NRSA grants existed.

That, of course, led to the problem of actually producing the video. Fortunately, the SC CTSI has among its resources a fully equipped video production facility, now run by the Department of Preventive Medicine of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Gary San Angel, a distance education specialist, was able to help Rettberg transform her hour-plus presentation into a series of eight shorter videos titled So You Want to Apply for an NRSA. The sub-sections have names based on sections of an NRSA application, such as, “Research and Related Forms” and “PHS Fellowship-Specific Components.”

“The studio and Gary were the key resources,” Rettberg said. “Without them, I couldn’t have created anything nearly as high-quality and professional.”

The online response to the videos was immediate and positive, numbering among its early fans USC Graduate School Vice Provost Sally Pratt and Executive Vice Provost Michael Quick. The Graduate School tweeted about the videos and posted links on the school’s Facebook page.

“It’s critical that applicants focus on the details, as well as the whole picture, and Rettberg’s presentation can save people enormous amounts of time and trouble,” Patino-Sutton said. “Any student researcher interested in these sorts of grants should watch Rettberg’s video series.”

News of the series spread to the NIH, where officials were similarly impressed.

“This is the first tutorial focused on NRSAs by someone who has been through that process that I have ever seen, and it was excellent,” said Molly Wagster, Rettberg’s NIH program officer. “It is a wonderful resource for applicants.”

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