Emory Ranks First in NIH Fellowship Recipients

Photo by Hagar Elsayed.
Photo by Hagar Elsayed | Photo Editor

This year, for the first time, Emory had the most graduate students who were awarded National Institutes of Health (NIH) Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) predoctoral fellowships than any other university, according to the NIH.

“Emory is always striving to be number one in things as much as possible, and we are number one here,” said Anita Corbett, a professor of biochemistry at the School of Medicine, who added that this ranking could aid both graduate student and faculty recruitment efforts.

​According to Corbett, 50 Emory applicants received the competitive research fellowship — more than the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins University. This is despite the University’s ranking at 14th in total NIH funding, according to the NIH.

Each fellow receives a $23,000 stipend, tuition funding and other costs, such as health care, according to the NIH.

Together, the Emory fellows won a total of roughly $2 million, around $850,000 of which will go to the University in the form of tuition, according to Corbett.

Corbett and biochemistry professor Richard Kahn said this year’s successful rate is due to a grant writing graduate course. After Kahn was “shocked” that there was no formal process for writing grants when we arrived at Emory, he developed a second-year graduate “Hypothesis Design and Scientific Writing” course in 1998 that Corbett now teaches. Before the course, Kahn said, Emory received close to zero fellowships like the Kirschstein NRSA. 

The course, he said, is “very labor-intensive” for both students and professors, requiring students to submit one writing assignment each week, to think critically of their research projects and to improve their English skills.

“The hard work comes not from spitting out 10 to 12 page papers — most of us did that the night before [they were due] as undergraduates,” Kahn said. “This is about writing it, rewriting it, often throwing away what you wrote and then rewriting it multiple times.”

Kahn cited one issue with the course that he said he hopes professors will avoid in the future: the temptation to rewrite a student’s grant request for them in the hopes of winning the University some extra funding.

“I started this as a student exercise, but too often, the student’s mentor views it as an opportunity to make money,” Kahn said. “One has to constantly point out that this is a class — this is not the NIH.”

The course’s success has coincided with a proliferation of NIH grant offerings in the past few years, according to Kahn. With so many more NIH institutions, such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Kahn said he expects other institutions to follow Emory’s footsteps in creating a grant writing course. 

The course is now required for second-year graduate students in the School of Medicine, according to Corbett. Students must write a proposal in the style required for the Kirschstein NRSA fellowship, work closely with a mentor, cover other components of the application process and eventually submit a version of their application. Corbett and six other School of Medicine faculty teach “Hypothesis Design and Scientific Writing.”

Kevin Morris, a second-year medical school student and 2015 Kirschstein NRSA fellow who researches genetic causes of intellectual disability, said the course not only helped him attain the fellowship, but also helped him prepare for the qualifying exams.

Another fellow, Julia Omotade, who researches brain cell development and neurodegenerative diseases, said her writing style improved after she took the course.

“It helps you learn to market your science to a broader audience,” she said. “It showed me how to sell the importance of my science and how to show why I’m uniquely qualified to receive the money.”

— By Lydia O’Neal, News Editor

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