The Clemson University Department of Public Health Sciences can boast two faculty members involved in federal grant reviews for internationally recognized health care agencies. In April, Dr. Joel Williams, director of graduate studies and associate professor, and Dr. Lu Shi, assistant professor, were involved in federal grant reviews for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), respectively.

Dr. Rachel Mayo, director of research and professor in public health sciences, said these opportunities reflect well on Williams and Shi as individuals and on the department as a whole. She said researchers relish the opportunity to evaluate the finest research projects and network with other respected researchers in the field.

“Dr. Williams and Dr. Shi’s work on these review panels is truly an honor for the department,” Mayo said. “These invitations speak to the caliber of these researchers and their recognition as public health leaders in the country.”

Joel Williams

The grants Joel Williams reviewed involved research in minority health and health disparities.
Image Credit: Clemson

The NIH invited Williams to review two of more than 40 grant proposals submitted to NIH in 2016. The grants he reviewed involved support of transdisciplinary centers in regional areas to focus on research in minority health and health disparities. Williams referred to NIH funding as the “pinnacle” of funding for a public health professional, so he was not surprised to find the review process intensive.

“These are multi-million dollar grants, applications are well over 600 pages in length and NIH typically only awards two or three of them—if any—each year,” Williams said. “As reviewers we owe it to the researchers and NIH to be as thorough as possible in these reviews.”

Williams received training via webinar from NIH staff on the review process and then spent three full days studying both grants before submitting his critiques to NIH. Each grant application included an administrative core, consortium core, methodological core, two to three intervention projects and a dissemination core. According to Williams, all these sections combined read like seven grants in one.

He then traveled to Washington D.C. on April 5 to participate in a two-day discussion with three fellow reviewers before an NIH board. Williams and the reviewers did not make recommendations to fund, but instead provided comments, scores and the reasoning behind their scores. He said he was honored to be included in the grant reviews, but he did have other motives for participating.

“The experience has better prepared me for when I apply for a grant in the future,” Williams said. “It showed me there are circumstances over which one has no control, so it’s even more important that the researcher pay attention to every detail regarding the granting organization’s criteria.”

Lu Shi

Lu Shi’s experience with grant reviews for the CDC involved HIV and AIDS research.
Image Credit: Clemson

The CDC invited Shi to participate in a special emphasis panel to evaluate the scientific merit of proposals involving HIV and AIDS research. Much like Williams, Shi was required to submit critiques electronically before meeting via teleconference on April 26 with other reviewers working with the CDC.

Shi said the experience with other reviewers and the process in general was extremely valuable. Much like Williams’ experience, Shi provided comments and scores he then discussed with fellow reviewers.

“It is a process that I highly respect, and I did learn a lot from the discussions,” Shi said. “I would encourage any of my colleagues—especially junior colleagues—to participate in grant reviews if they get the chance.”

Shi said the experience acted as a healthy dose of reality for him that left him “both optimistic and pessimistic” about pursuing grants in the future. It confirmed for him that junior scholars without adequate experience need to think twice before applying for grants of this kind, but it also confirmed that years of perseverance and work truly helps.

“It proved to me that everything counts,” Shi said. “If you ‘fight the good fight’ and document every piece of hard work and service you do in your field, these things will pay off in the end and you will be recognized.”