Guide to the BWF CASI application process

If you’re a postdoc thinking about transitioning into faculty in the US in the coming years, obtaining a transition grant can provide a helpful boost to your application. While the most common of these grants is the NIH’s Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) if you’ve reached this page you are probably also aware that the Burroughs Wellcome Fund offers a similar grant called the Career Awards at the Scientific Interface. Since I’ve had multiple people contact me for advice, I’ve written this quick guide to the BWF CASI application process. The following advice is based solely on my experience so carpe diem applies as always.

In my opinion, the best advice I received was to be bold, risky, and innovative with the ideas in my proposal. Do not follow the advice you typically hear for the NIH K99 (keep it safe, incremental work, have lots of data already, etc…). The CASI’s advisory committee is full of top scientists in their fields, and they want to see that you’re thinking big. Highlight your background and how you transitioned towards biology. This is an interface grant, so you should make it clear how you leveraged your previous background. Emphasize anything that makes you stand out since the CASI is about 5x more competitive than the NIH K99.

The Pre-proposal
You will have one page to make your pitch. Keep this at a high level and describe why the proposed research is so cool and why you’re the perfect person to do it. Your postdoc advisor will have to write a letter for you at this point. Note this letter is reused for the full proposal, but cannot be resubmitted again for the full proposal. The deadline for submitting the preproposal is in early September. For the 2017-2018 round, there were 287 applicants at the pre-proposal stage. Put the key sentences in bold to draw the readers attention. I took some of the formatting and structuring advice from the NIH Grant Writer’s handbook section on writing specific aims:

The Full Proposal
You will find out if you are invited to the next round in early November. In the 2017-2018 round, 85 of the 287 preproposal applicants were invited to submit a full proposal. You will then have two months to write the full proposal, which is due in early January. The timing here is key because the deadline is in January right after the winter holidays. This means reference letters and feedback must be arranged quickly if you hope to hear back before the holidays. Don’t expect to do much else in your winter holidays, I was writing and editing the entire time. If the bureaucracy at your institution is slow, try to get the process for the Institutional Certification Form started as early as possible. Many institutions will also require a PI exemption form (which states that you can apply as a PI even though you are not a PI at the university). You will need an NIH biosketch, use the NCBI website to make one if you haven’t already. The one-page scientific abstract is similar to the specific aims page of the K99 and should probably be similar to the page you submitted for your pre-proposal. The scheme I followed was 1) introduce background/describe problem 2) postdoc aims 3) faculty aims 4) conclusion/big picture. For the research plan (6 page limit) I started with background, description, and placing the project into context (1 page). I then listed all my initial aims and long-term goals. I then had a Scope and significance of postdoctoral research section with each aim described in detail (2.5 pages). This was followed by a Research in faculty phase section (1 page). Then the Career objectives section describing your ideal career path forward and how it flows from your previous experience (0.5 page). Then the Competitive advantage section describing why you are the best person to do this (0.5 page). Finally ending with a brief summary/conclusion (0.25 page). It is unlikely you have all of the expertise required for a huge project so you should try to establish a collaboration if possible with a leading expert in the area where you will work who can complement your skill set and obtain a Statement of Collaboration. You will need to do this well ahead of time. If you are also applying for a K99 in the February cycle, expect to be writing non-stop for 3-4 months. You will have zero time for experiments in this period.

The Interview
In the 2017-2018 round, 23 of the applicants were invited to interviews out of the 85 which submitted full proposals. You will find out if you got to the interview stage in mid-March. If you get to the interviews, statistically your chances of getting the grant are about 50%. The interviews take place in late April at the BWF headquarters near Durham, NC. You will have to make a 5 min presentation with 4 slides, followed by 15 min of questions from the scientific committee. You have to submit your final slides about two weeks before the interview and you will not be able to change them after. All of the standard advice for giving good presentations applies. Get feedback, polish, and practice (a lot). The committee members have diverse backgrounds so keep it high-level, simple, and to the point. Try to build a story with a narrative and convey your enthusiasm for the project. Just as the NIH review panels, your grant will have one main reviewer and a secondary reviewer. The main reviewer will be most familiar with your grant, the other committee members have probably only skimmed through your proposal. The main reviewer will give an overview of your grant to the rest of the committee and ask the bulk of the detailed technical questions at the start. The other committee members will ask more general questions. The committee members are listed on the website so you can often guess who the main reviewer will be based on their area of expertise. You should anticipate potential questions and have some good answers.

The Award
You will be notified if you received the award in late May and the award will start July 1st. For the 2017-2018 round, they gave out 11 awards.