GWISE interviews NIH awardee Noele Certain

Read on for some excellent grant writing advice from a recent NIH awardee and current SBU graduate student

Name: Noele Certain

Education: Bachelor of Science in Biology from St. Joseph’s College; Master of Science in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from Stony Brook University; Currently earning a Doctorate of Philosophy in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology from Stony Brook University 

Research: My research focuses on AMPA receptors, one of the most abundant brain receptors that are critical for the ability to learn and remember. Currently, I am investigating how small regulatory proteins known as auxiliary subunits partner with the AMPA receptor to affect its availability. 

Future goal(s): Following the successful defense of my PhD, I plan on completing a neuroscience-focused postdoctoral training. My ultimate goal is to become a professor on the leading edge of neuroscience research, while teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists. 

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science? Who (or what) sparked your interest in this field?
 Since I was a little girl, I was always curious about the plants and animals around me. I grew up on the east end of Long Island, where there is a tremendous amount of life in the Pine Barrens. Initially, I had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and that led me to pursue a degree in biology. My passion for science really flourished during my undergraduate education at St. Joseph’s College. Many mentors from St. Joseph’s mentored me after graduation and they motivated me to pursue graduate school. However, it took the pursuit of a master’s degree for me to see myself pursuing a career in research. 

What is your research topic and why is it important?
Brain communication is heavily reliant on the receiving and sending of messages. AMPA receptors are important for this process. Without the AMPA receptor, those messages cannot be received, thus no messages will be sent. Therefore it’s important for us to understand what makes AMPA receptors available to receive messages. By understanding this process, we can significantly improve our knowledge of how AMPA receptors mediate healthy brain function, but also what drives the process of brain diseases (e.g. addiction, depression, Alzheimer’s). 

You recently won a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support your work as a graduate student and your transition to post-doctoral work! How did that feel? What was the first thought that went through your head?
It is incredibly humbling to be recognized for your hard work and have your vision for your research validated. Before winning this award I had applied to so many different opportunities since my first year as a PhD student. I knew this was extremely competitive and my chances of receiving the grant were very slim so after my submission I had forgotten about it. When I received the notification, I was overcome with so many emotions. Looking back at my beginnings, I never would have thought that I could have made it this far. This award validated my existence in the scientific community, something that I never fully believed in. I am so thankful for the tremendous support I received from the Wollmuth-Hsieh Lab, but also the Pharmacological Sciences Department. Thanks to the people who believed in my abilities and always reinforced me with positive energy, I was able to succeed. 

Do you have any tips or advice for others applying to NIH awards?
I have quite a few tips that can apply to both NIH grants and other fellowships. First and foremost, know your deadlines. There are deadlines for both Stony Brook University (SBU) and for the NIH. Here at SBU, we have an Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP), which will officially submit your grant documents to the NIH. OSP also helped answer my questions and regularly communicated with me during and after the submission process. For SBU students, see the link for more information to start your submission: OSP Plan to Propose. As for the NIH administration, it is good to start a conversation with your program officer. A program officer is essentially a liaison between the grant program and potential grantees. Project officers can discuss if your proposed project is a good fit for their program, inform you about the initial peer review process, and answer questions regarding specific NIH policies.

During this process, it is really important to ask for help! Normally your advisor will help you to craft your grant. You should also look to other mentors (not directly in your field of expertise) to read through your grant for errors and areas that need clarification. You should also ask other students and previous awardees for advice and application materials. I think reaching out to get an idea of the submission process or the materials needed can be helpful. Especially when you have no idea what the grant even looks like. I have used Twitter and LinkedIn to find previous awardees. Overall, it is good to remember that the journey of the PhD is not a solo journey, you should always reach out to your mentors, fellow peers, grant management, and NIH officials for help. If anyone is interested in applying for the NIH Blueprint DSPAN award (F99/K00) (link), I would be happy to share materials and advice.   

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science? 
In the United States, within science and engineering employment, 29% accounts for women, while only 13.3% accounts for underrepresented minorities (NSF SE 2020). This fact alone communicates to us that structural inequalities and roadblocks prevent science from further diversifying. It’s not a myth, that the scientific enterprise was not developed with diversity and equity in mind. To increase diversity in science, we need to first address the accessibility of science. The resources and opportunities need to be available for everyone, not the privileged few. I think all the way from secondary school up to scientific professionals, we need to give them the tools and support to become and/or continue to be involved. However, promoting STEM participation is still not enough.

A high percentage of women and minorities continue to leave behind their scientific careers – known as the leaky pipeline (Scientific American). We need to construct scientific spaces (laboratories, classrooms, offices, conferences etc.) that are inclusive and safe. We simply cannot expect any scientist to be successful without feeling safe and supported. If a scientist cannot feel safe and be treated fairly in the workplace, then nothing is retaining them in these scientific spaces.

We have a very long way to go and the fight is not over. As a graduate student, my action is through mentoring, advising, and supporting my peers here at Stony Brook. I also participate in outreach in SACNAS and through local programs, to increase the awareness of diversity in science. No action can ever be too small and every step is crucial in closing the gap.

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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