teaching, tips, and other sundry things I've learned along the way
Specific Aims Part II - The "Solution"
In Part I of my series on the Specific Aims page I talked about the first paragraph of this page, which sets up the problem. Although a whole paragraph dedicated to the problem might seem like a lot, remember that the problem includes: (1) a couple background sentences to put the problem in context for your reviewer, (2) what has been tried and failed, (3) the gap or obstacle that has to date prevented solving the problem. In paragraph 2, the hero in a red cape and carefully quaffed hair (that’s you), swoops in and saves the day with a solution. A solution, of course, that is not quite there yet but can be had with 1.25 million dollars over 5 years. Because that’s a big chunk of change, bestowing this award on a hero such as yourself requires a strong premise (supporting data). Read on, dear hero, to see how I transition from problem to supporting preliminary data and to the next logical conclusion, your hypothesis.
As previously stated, in the second paragraph you introduce your solution and any information the reviewer will need to understand your specific aims. I usually transition between the first and second paragraphs by indicating there is an overlooked area that may provide a solution or there is information necessary to move the field forward and your work will provide it. By taking the space to clearly define the problem the reviewer is now interested in your solution. You begin by introducing the solution, and then follow with the rationale as to why this solution will work. The rationale is, of course, any background information and your preliminary data that supports the hypothesis.
In this paragraph, you need to provide any information that is essential to your hypothesis. This information is still fairly general - you’ll have space for details later in the proposal. The second paragraph is also a place to mention or define anything critical to the understanding of your specific aims. In my work, for example, I’m using a “home grown” peptide to change the intracellular location of a receptor. Because I used this peptide in one of my aims, I introduced it in the second paragraph. You don’t have a lot of space for explaining in the aims themselves, so you want to make sure you’ve set the stage properly in the paragraph above. If care is not taken to set up the aims properly, your reviewer might be confused. As we know, confusion = no.
To see these ideas in action, I’ve continued the sock theme below. I’m starting with paragraph 1 from the last blog post, so that you can see how the two paragraphs fit together.
Every household is plagued by lost socks in the laundry. In the United States alone, lost socks cost on average 48 hours per person per year in wasted search time.1 Replacement costs for new pairs of socks reached a staggering 1.2 million dollars last year, resulting in a particularly high burden for families of 4 or more.2 Sadly, the psychological cost of the shame and embarrassment caused by wearing mismatched socks to school or work cannot be measured. Efforts by the sock industry to decrease the number of lost socks have, to date, been ineffective. Strategies such as selling 6 pairs of socks in a pack or 3 socks at once have only increased costs and sidestepped the true problem. Without ways to specifically find the lost sock, this problem will only continue to grow. Given the exponentially rising costs of replacement socks, plus the burgeoning number of feet worldwide, by 2040 the problem of lost socks will be the number one drain on family budgets unless a way to recover lost socks is found.
One underdeveloped resource used to find lost items is tracking technology. Tracking technology has improved significantly over the past decade and is now used to find many lost items such as pets, cars, and teenagers. Our laboratory has developed an electronically sensitive yarn (e-yarn) that can be woven into clothing for detection by passive radiofrequency identification (RFID). This yarn was generated through our development of a new metal alloy, nikean, which allows the production of smaller microcircuits with enhanced detectability (insert lab reference here). Our preliminary data show that 1 g of yarn can be detected from 100 feet away, using a standard RFID detection application on a cell phone. Our data also show that incorporation of blue/red clothing dyes into the yarn does not change the magnitude of the RFID signal, and that the signal is resistant to a 30-minute exposure to water. Based on this preliminary data, we hypothesize that socks made from e-yarn are colorful, washable, and trackable. This hypothesis will be tested through the following specific aims:
In the above example, I segue from the urgency of the lost sock problem in the last sentence of the first paragraph to the next by connecting back to the topic of lost items, but in this sentence, I’m changing direction by talking about a general approach to finding lost items. From there, I narrow things down by mentioning how tracking technology is used and what types of things can be found with tracking technology. From there, I introduce the lab’s preliminary data. Although I don’t repeat any words from the prior sentence, I repeat the concept by using the word detection rather than tracking. I tell the reader what the grant will be about, specifically electronic yarn for tracking. I then state the breakthrough from our lab that allowed us to take this step of making electronic yarn, the generation of a new alloy. Here I include a reference from the lab. You can have a few references in the specific aims page, but in general I try to keep them sparse. The specific aims page can be a good place to start referencing your own work, however, as you build your rationale/foundation for your hypothesis. From there, I add preliminary data that builds towards your hypothesis. This second paragraph should include the key pillars on which your aims are built. This preliminary data is described in general terms of main findings; you’ll have room to get into the specifics later in the grant. The last sentence in this paragraph is your hypothesis.
Your entire grant is built around your hypothesis, so it’s worth putting some time into making it a good one. In fact, the hypothesis so important that I’ve decided to give it a separate blog post. Until next time!