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Grants & You Newsletter Winter 2017: McIsaac First AZ Campus Researcher to Earn NIH Research Grant

  Successful Grantsmanship Requires Teamwork:

McIsaac Becomes First Arizona Campus  Researcher to Earn NIH Research Grant

Bringing a research idea to the point of funding can be like training for a marathon, alternating between successes and setbacks over a period of months or, often, years. It requires persistence, adaptability, and teamwork. Dr. Tara McIsaac, associate professor of physical therapy at the Arizona School of Health Sciences (ASHS), is a prime example. Through her own persistence and collaboration with available ATSU resources, her grant proposal, “Multi-limb Control in Parkinson’s Disease: Implicit and Explicit Control of Attention” was recently funded in the amount of $384,000 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).   

The Beginning

Like most ATSU faculty, Dr. McIsaac recognized from the beginning that it would be a delicate balancing act to carve out sufficient time from teaching, advising, and service obligations to advance her research. McIsaac didn’t let that stop her; instead she sought support to make it manageable within her already loaded schedule.

Roughly four years ago, at the beginning of Dr. McIsaac’s journey to funding at ATSU, she met with the Sponsored Programs (SP) team to discuss her plans. She was pleased to learn that SP could offer significant support in prospecting for funding and serving as a liaison with potential funders; developing budgets, biosketches, and letters of support; writing support sections for proposals; editing and assisting with overall quality assurance; and other support services. As her interaction with SP developed, Dr. McIsaac continued to refine her research protocol. She was encouraged to seek internal funding, first through ATSU’s Warner/Fermaturo Research Grant program and later through the University’s Strategic Research Fund. These internally-funded pilot and translational research grants provided $34,000 between 2014 – 2017. Through this internal seed funding, Dr. McIsaac was able to establish sufficient preliminary data to support a competitive bid for external funding. Around this same time she also submitted a small grant request to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, but was not among the few grants awarded that year. Undaunted, she and her project team continued to work with SP to discuss and resolve challenges, shape her evolving aims and research design, and create visuals to concisely present key information.  

Proposal Submission

In 2011, while on faculty at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College, Dr. McIsaac prepared and submitted an R01 research grant application to NIH, but was not funded. The R01 is considered the gold standard for federal research funding—with very low success rates, even among investigators at the nation’s major research-intensive universities. Based on prior experience and in consultation with the ATSU SP team, Dr. McIsaac recognized that her chances for funding would likely be better under a funding mechanism other than the R01. To increase her odds for funding, she sought guidance from the NINDS program officer and ATSU’s SP team to determine which federal funding mechanism would best suit her research goals. “I've worked most closely with Debbie (Clay) and Kathy (Rushlo), both of whom are extremely thorough, accurate, detailed, and knowledgeable about the dynamic and changing NIH grants processes. Their guidance and suggestions have been very helpful in appropriately framing my NIH proposal for the particular grant mechanism I chose, the R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award.” The R15 grant mechanism is specifically designed to support meritorious research; expose graduate and undergraduate students to hands-on, mentored research; and strengthen the research environment of schools that have not been major recipients of NIH support.

With the level of scientific scrutiny understandably more rigorous when competing for federal vs. intramural funding, the SP team suggested that Dr. McIsaac engage additional assistance from ATSU Research Support. This expanded internal support helped to ensure the scientific validity of the proposed research design, including appropriate power analysis and regulatory compliance. After a final quality assurance review, the proposal was submitted.

The Work Continues

But the work didn’t stop there. Dr. McIsaac and her team were well aware of the hyper-competitive federal funding environment, with NIH application success rates steadily declining over the previous 15-20 years and hitting an all-time low of 14.6% in 2013. So, while the team waited for NIH review, they continued to work, hoping for a Notice of Award but remaining engaged with an eye toward the likely need for resubmission. Dr. McIsaac’s first R15 research proposal was among the ~85% of NIH grant applications not funded that year. The NIH reviewers, however, indicated clear interest in the project, acknowledging its strengths and providing substantive feedback on how it might be improved. “Indeed,” Dr. McIsaac states, “the NIH program officer told me after the initial review that the panel thought our proposal did an outstanding job on the unique focus of the R15—incorporating students into the proposal and exposing them to research.”


Encouraged, Dr. McIsaac and the team brainstormed a plan to address the reviewer feedback in a resubmission application. Dialogue with the NINDS program officer also provided key insights that helped shape the revised research plan. In collaboration with the SP team and expert reviewers affiliated with the A.T. Still Research Institute, Dr. McIsaac’s revised proposal underwent rigorous pre-submission peer review. After making final edits, Dr. McIsaac’s grant application was resubmitted in October 2016. Nearly a year later, in September  2017, Dr. McIsaac received a much anticipated Notice of Award from the NIH, advising that her three-year study was approved for funding.

The currently-funded NIH grant supports translation of Dr. McIsaac’s preliminary research to a “real world” simulated environment, allowing research participants with Parkinson’s Disease to complete the study’s experimental protocol without posing danger to the themselves or other motorists. The grant is a collaboration with Jyothi Gupta, PhD, professor and chair of occupational therapy at ATSU-ASHS; Curt Bay, PhD, professor of interdisciplinary health sciences and biostatistician at ATSU-ASHS; Rajal Cohen, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and communication studies at the University of Idaho; and Charles Adler, MD, PhD, international expert on Parkinson’s disease and professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science.

ATSU Sponsored Programs congratulates Dr. Tara McIsaac on becoming the first member of ATSU’s Arizona Campus to earn an independent NIH research grant.

The Multi-limb Control in Parkinson’s Disease: Implicit and Explicit Control of Attention project is supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under Award No. R15NS098340. The Project Period is September 1, 2017 through August 31, 2020. The total NIH-funded award is $384,317.

McIsaac Driving Simulator

Dr. McIsaac's successful bid for federal research funding was built on preliminary results she had produced through years of independent work and with support from intramural funding at ATSU. In fact, one critical piece of lab equipment required for the NIH-funded study (the driving simulator shown below) was purchased with ATSU intramural grant funds.

Dr. McIsaac and Dr. James Lynskey demonstrate use of the driving simulator being used in this study. People with Parkinson disease (PD) commonly experience difficulty driving, which requires the arms and legs to do different tasks simultaneously. Driving difficulties can lead to isolation, depression, loss of independence and mobility, and increased incidence of car accidents. Through understanding the impact of PD on mechanisms underlying attention and multi-limb control, training and rehabilitation programs can better focus on the needs of drivers with PD. Dr. McIsaac's study aims to address this need. See November 2017 iConnect News for additional details.

Closing Comments from ATSU Sponsored Programs

Your Quest for Funding

If you have an idea for which you’d like to seek grant funding, Sponsored Programs stands ready to help. We provide assistance in the pre-award phase to assess overall readiness, refine project ideas and scope, identify and evaluate potential funders, interpret grant guidelines, develop competitive proposals, document institutional support and required approvals, review and edit proposals for quality assurance, and ensure timely grant submission. Be sure to check Grants & You each quarter for news, grantsmanship tips, and funding opportunities.


Your Grant is Approved for Funding... Now What?

Once a grant is approved for funding, the SP team also provides assistance with award acceptance including review of terms and conditions; development, review, and execution of contracts and sub-award agreements; fiscal start-up; and compliance monitoring. In the post-award phase, SP can assist with program start-up and staffing, programmatic and fiscal management, report preparation and submission, compliance monitoring, and serve as a liaison between the research team and the funding agency.