Recently, a friend who was working on a grant proposal asked if I have the specific experiments in mind first and then come up with the framing from there, or if I have the big picture framing in mind and develop the specific experiments from there. I was a little stumped at first, then realized that was because I don’t really use either of those approaches. Instead, my initial motivation is usually preliminary data that I’m excited about and where it’s clear more work needs to be done to figure out what is really going on.
Here’s an example: As a graduate student, I carried out a study on a population where I tracked a parasite outbreak and host population dynamics and, at the same time, assayed the susceptibility of the population to that parasite at three time points. The results of the susceptibility assays were not at all what I expected at the start of the experiment:
(Figure 2 from Duffy et al. 2008 BMC Evolutionary Biology)
The best explanation was that there was disruptive selection on susceptibility during the epidemic, with more resistant and more susceptible clones having higher fitness during the epidemic. There’s plenty of theory that predicts parasite-mediated disruptive selection (especially if there’s a tradeoff associated with resistance; we now know there is, but we hadn’t measured one at the time), but, at the same time, it was not what I predicted. There was also the intriguing bit shown in the bottom panel: the offspring that were produced sexually at the end of the epidemic seemed to show the same bimodal distribution that the population did at the end of the epidemic. That was even more unexpected.
These results led to so many questions: when should we expect to see directional selection for increased resistance vs. disruptive selection? And theory predicts scenarios where we would expect directional selection for increased susceptibility, even during a disease outbreak—does that happen? Does it relate to tradeoffs associated with resistance? Do those vary across environments? And what is the effect of sexual reproduction and hatching from the egg bank on the distribution of susceptibility the following spring—does it go back to a normal distribution? Do we see resistance phenotypes from prior years? And what happens between when things hatch in the spring and when disease outbreaks happen in late summer and autumn? What about predators—do they alter tradeoffs and selection?
So, when I started my faculty position, it was clear to me that this was what my first grant proposal should be on. The figure above was the central motivation for that proposal.
Things have been similar for many future proposals: There’s often a particular result that makes me think “Huh, what is going on with that?!?” That suggests a general theme for the proposal, and often there are some obvious follow up experiments, and from there it’s sort of a jumble of working on framing and experiments at the same time, all motivated by an intriguing pattern I’m hoping to understand.
It’s interesting to me that I hadn’t really thought carefully about how I approach proposals before my friend asked, and it also makes me wonder what others do. Do you tend to start with a question/topic? A set of experiments? An intriguing observation? Something else?
* At first, I considered titling this post, “What motivates your grant proposals?” But the honest answer to that would be “needing money to support the people in my lab and do research”, not any of the things discussed above!
** My mentors drummed into my head that we write proposals, not grants. If we wrote grants, we’d be in great shape!