The Transition from Postdoc to Research Development: Maile Henson

The following is part of a limited blog series from the Strategic Alliances Committee highlighting NORDP members who have transitioned from postdoctoral positions to careers in research development.

Henson photo
Maile Henson, Research Development Associate, Office of Research Development, Duke University School of Medicine

Describe your work in research development (RD): Our office facilitates the development and submission of complex (i.e. multi-investigator, multi-institutional, multi-component) and individual grant proposals, mostly to NIH. I work with principal investigators and research teams to develop their study designs and grantsmanship strategies, providing advice on programmatic intent, content, organization, and presentation, as well as critical editing and writing support. Besides proposal development, I assist with grant writing workshops and develop project management tools for defining RD best practices for our office.

Describe your postdoc work: I studied the process by which connections, or synapses, between neurons in the developing brain are weakened and eliminated. I manipulated the strength of synapses by treating brain tissue with drugs, and determined synaptic changes with confocal imaging. My work showed that synapses have to be weakened multiple times to be eliminated, which requires gene and protein synthesis, as well as activity by enzymes involved in cell death and brain functions (such as learning and memory).

Describe your transition from your postdoc/research background to RD: Close to the end of my NIH postdoc, I realized that my motivations for getting the PhD had changed and I no longer enjoyed the bench work. I needed a different kind of challenge. Through an internship opportunity in the Scientific Review Branch at NIH/NIEHS, I helped manage the grant peer review process for two reviews, and participated in several others. I then worked briefly with small biotech startups applying for non-dilutive NIH research funding through SBIR/STTR grants. These experiences solidified my decision to pursue a career away from the lab. During this time, I met my soon-to-be supervisor through an informational interview, where we shared our mutual interests in the art of grantsmanship and the drive to help scientists get funding to do their great science. I applied later for an opening on her Office of Research Development team, and here I am in my third year of RD.

Describe the benefits your postdoc work provides to your skill set related to RD: Trained as a neuroscientist with extensive experience writing and editing scientific manuscripts and grant applications, I had a solid foundation moving into research development. My many years spent in lab research helped me to understand the grant applicant’s perspective. However, I also brought a unique perspective to the job: managing both grant proposal preparations and peer reviews after submission gave me key insights into the behind-the-scenes processes of the NIH funding world. I interacted with multiple parties (PIs/applicants, peer reviewers, scientific review staff, program staff, grant administrators), managing deadlines; observing and documenting review panel deliberations; advising investigators on funding opportunities, proposal strategy, content, organization, and requirements; and ensuring successful integration of grant components. These experiences frame my RD work every day.

What words of wisdom do you have for postdocs who might consider an RD career? Learn all you can about the field. Talk to an RD professional. Find an institution with an internship program that will give you exposure to the type of work and skills required to be successful in RD.

What has been your best experience, so far, with your work in RD? I enjoy working with the faculty on strategies in developing their proposals. The gratitude from the investigators for all we do to help them submit polished, competitive proposals, and the thrill of getting funding to enable cutting-edge science are wonderful affirmations to me. I know I made the right career choice.

Why do you think RD is a good career choice? I love my job! RD suits my strengths and interests well. I know this is what I am meant to be doing in my career and I think many others would agree if they had an opportunity to explore RD.

Posted on behalf of the Strategic Alliances Committee committee


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