Tag Archives: nsf

The acknowledgement section of our NSF proposal

25 Aug

A few weeks ago two colleagues and I submitted an NSF proposal. We submitted on a Friday afternoon even though the deadline wasn’t until Tuesday! I am proud that we managed this almost without any deadline stress!

I had fun and we wrote a great proposal

I know that we may not end up getting funded by NSF, but until we get that message, I plan to be very optimistic. We wrote a really neat proposal for a great project. I can’t wait to get started! The ambitious goal of the project is to determine the fitness cost of every possible point mutation in the HIV genome in vivo.

I think nobody likes to write proposals when the success rate is only 5%, but I actually enjoyed working on this proposal and I learned a lot while writing it: both about the biology of our project and about the art of proposal writing. It’s important for me to commit that to paper (OK, screen) so that if NSF decides not to fund us, I will remember that writing the proposal was actually a good experience.

Writing with a newborn

In addition the many scientists and administrators who contributed to the proposal, I also want to mention how I could write a proposal with a newborn. We started working on the proposal two weeks before I gave birth and we submitted the proposal when our baby was just shy of seven weeks old. The hours that I spent on the proposal were made possible by my mom who flew in to help and by the fact that Facebook gives new parents four months paid paternity leave so that my husband was also at home during my maternity leave. It was fun to be home together with my husband and we took shifts working and taking care of Maya. Most days I worked on the proposal just two or three hours, so a large part of the work was done by others.


Me in my home office with baby, changing table, a laptop and a grant writing handbook.

It was a huge team effort

Many people were involved in writing the proposal. Many more than I ever expected to be. I want to list them here so that I remember who helped out and also to show that being a researcher doesn’t have to be a lonely affair.

Note that these people are only the people I am aware off. Others certainly helped my co-PI Adi Stern.

The main team that wrote the proposal consisted of four people:

  • co-PI Adi Stern (Tel Aviv)
  • postdoc Marion Hartl (SFSU)
  • professional grant writer Kristin Harper
  • myself

At SFSU, people from the Office for Research and Sponsored Programs helped:

  • Rowena Manalo
  • Raman Paul
  • Michael Scott
  • Jessica Mankus
  • Uschi Simonis (vice-dean for Research)

At Stanford there were

  • co-PI Bob Shafer
  • collaborator David Katzenstein
  • Elizabeth White (Katzenstein lab)
  • Holly Osborne (Office for Sponsored Research)

In Tel Aviv

  • Office for Sponsored Research
  • Adi Stern’s lab members brainstormed ideas
  • Maoz Gelbart help with ideas and figures

Colleagues who read earlier versions of the proposal

  • Sarah Cobey (U Chicago)
  • Sarah Cohen (SFSU)
  • Alison Feder (Stanford)
  • Nandita Garud (UCSF)
  • Arbel Harpak (Stanford)
  • Joachim Hermisson (U Vienna)
  • Claus Wilke (U Texas Austin)

A huge thank you to all these amazing people! I am lucky to be part of such a supportive community.


Why I write my NSF preproposal by hand and to a lay audience

18 Jan


Susan Holmes suggests (here) that it’s best to write your first draft of anything on paper, with an old fashioned pen, rather than on your computer. She believes
that the process of writing by hand helps us clear our thoughts. l think she has a point. So, I am writing this blog post on paper.

I would like to add my own piece of advice for better writing: l like to write my first draft as if I am writing to a friend or family member. For me, this strategy helps to remedy some anxiety I have thinking about the colleagues who may ultimately read my manuscript or proposal, and who may be harsh and skeptical. Writing with a lay person in mind also helps me to use simple words and to get to he point faster.

Years ago, l was struggling with the introduction chapter of my PhD thesis. The audience for this chapter would be my advisor and the other committee members. They were all well established and accomplished researchers in the field of population genetics. I was completely writer’s blocked. What could l write that they didn’t already know? l guess the only real information they were going to get from this chapter was whether I had mastered the material, but I had no motivation at all to write the chapter as a test of my knowledge.
l don’t remember who or what gave me the idea, but I decided to write the chapter as if it was meant for a lay audience. I actually didn’t think that my committee cared about the chapter much anyways, so I imagined an audience of friendly lay-people and students who were interested to enter the field., and I started to write for them.

This change of perspective made a huge difference to my writing. Suddenly, I was eager to write and I enjoyed the process. I had no more fear and a clear goal. (If you’re interested, you can download the introduction of my thesis here:  2007_Pennings_Pleuni_ThesisIntroduction).

This week, I am working on an NSF proposal. This is just as daunting and possibly nearly as futile as writing an intro chapter to my thesis (OK, not really). I therefore decided to try the same trick. I will write my first draft as if I’m writing to a friendly lay person, not the NSF committee that will ultimately read and judge my work. In addition to writing to a lay person, I will write my first draft on paper, following Susan Holmes’ advice. Clear thoughts and sentences, here I come!