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If President Bush’s 2007 budget request is enacted, the NIH estimates only 19 percent of
Elizabeth Shane, Thomas Nickolas
Elizabeth Shane, a mentor to Thomas Nickolas, stands with Dr. Nickolas near the Scanco machine, which assesses bone density by taking very high reso-lution images of bone. Dr. Shane wears the immobilization device used during the imaging procedure.
grants it reviews will be funded, down from a success rate of more than 30 percent just a few years ago.
    “There were tough periods in the 90s, but this is tougher,” says Jaime Rubin, Ph.D., director of research development in the Department of Medicine in P&S. “At the same time, the NIH is undergoing a major evolution. They’re now interested in multi-investigator, interdisciplinary research as well as translational research. The age of the single investigator RO1 grant is changing.”
    Keeping basic and clinical researchers competitive in this evolving landscape is driving the Department of Medicine to take a more proactive approach in helping its faculty. The department has instituted a formal mentoring program for young faculty; hired its own grants coordinator – Dr. Rubin – and has plans to create a fund to support researchers who are temporarily without NIH funding.
    “The department has enjoyed a lot of success even in these tough economic times. Between 2004 and 2005 our grant income increased 20 percent,” says Ira Tabas, M.D., the Richard J. Stock Professor of Medicine, who instituted these programs when he became vice chairman of research of the department. Three of the department’s researchers were also among top 50-funded scientists in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island in rankings published by Crain’s New York Business. Those researchers are the No. 2-ranked Betty Diamond, M.D., the Dorothy L. and Daniel H. Silberberg Professor of Medicine, $7.8 million; No. 39-ranked Thomas Pickering, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, $3.4 million; and No. 45-ranked Alan Tall, M.D., the Tilden-Weger-Bieler Professor of Medicine, $3.2 million. “We want to make sure the trend continues and gets better,” Dr. Tabas says.
    The young investigators in the department receive special attention through a formal mentoring program that makes it clear to the mentors what is expected of them and helps keep younger faculty from falling through the cracks.
    “Most young investigators are told early on that it’s important to find a mentor, but it may not be as easy as it seems,” says Elizabeth Shane, M.D., professor of clinical medicine, who mentors Thomas Nickolas, M.D., Instructor in Clinical Medicine. “A career in academic medicine is very confusing at the beginning because there are many different demands on your time. It may not be clear how one gets promoted or how to apply for grants, so it’s important to have a relationship with someone more senior who can guide you through the process.”
    In applying for grants, for example, Dr. Shane successfully steered Dr. Nickolas to foundations and faculty development grants because he had just begun his research and did not have enough data to successfully compete for a NIH grant.
Many mentees also say their mentors have steered them to research areas that they may not have considered on their own.
    “I never saw myself as someone who works with mouse models,” says Jose Luchsinger, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and an epidemiologist who recently discovered that diabetes and high insulin levels are risk factors for Alzheimer’s. “My mentor, Richard Mayeux [the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry and Epidemiology], strongly suggested that I try to elucidate the mechanism in animal models. I’m a bit apprehensive but he’s been very helpful in connecting me with people here who can help me move into the translational research arena.”
    For Ali Gharavi, M.D., Irving Assistant Professor of Medicine, it’s equally important that a mentor also knows when to stand back. “There’s a danger when you tell people too much what to do. You want new people to bring in new ideas and give them an opportunity to be creative,” he says. “Qais [Al-Awqati, the Robert F. Loeb Professor of Medicine and Professor of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics] has let me develop my own program, but at the same time he periodically points out areas that could be improved. The expectations are pretty clear – to have an independent, productive career.”
    Young researchers, as well as those who are more established, get valuable help from Dr. Rubin. She began her career at Columbia as a researcher, moved into the grants office in 1992, and was acting associate vice president for research administration before moving to the Department of Medicine. She’s also had first-hand experience at the NIH as an ad hoc review administrator.
    “For someone like me who is new to the system, Dr. Rubin proved very helpful in navigating some of the important parts of the grant application process,” says assistant professor Tony Ferrante, M.D., Ph.D. For example, she showed me how to learn who sits on the NIH study section that reviewed my grant, so I was better able to tailor my grant writing to their perspective. I study obesity and its complications, but if all the reviewers are neuroendocrinologists, then I need to put the proper background into the grant.”
    Dr. Rubin also gets to know each researcher and sends weekly emails about funding sources that mesh with a researcher’s needs. “She’s able to identify opportunities that we might not be aware of,” Dr. Gharavi says. “I’m investigating the toxicity of a chemotherapy drug to the kidney, so she suggested applying to cancer foundations. I’m now waiting to hear if I’ll be funded. It’s been a huge help.”
    Says David Brenner, M.D., Samuel Bard Professor of Medicine and Chairman, Department of Medicine: “The Depart-ment of Medicine is committed to providing the infrastructure for research. We want our faculty and, in particular, our junior faculty to become successful physician scientists. We want to make it as easy as possible to write large multidisciplinary grants and take advantage of the diverse strengths in the Columbia research community.”

—Susan Conova