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Finding Success in Failure: Building a Research Program

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Finding Success in Failure

Spring 2022

Dana M. Litt, PhD and Dennis McCarty, PhD

Finding Success in Failure: Building a Research Program

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Dana M. Litt, PhD
Associate Professor
School of Public Health
University of North Texas Health Science Center

When I moved to my current position in 2018, I set out with Dr. Melissa Lewis to create the STARR Lab, which would house our funded projects, staff, and students. Although we had been faculty in part of a successful center at the University of Washington led by the amazing Dr. Mary Larimer, creating our own lab was quite daunting. Knowing what a good lab looks like is one thing, but building it from the ground up is something else entirely. I know I certainly never formally learned about lab or personnel management in school, so it was definitely scary at first to create something brand new. The biggest challenge, honestly, was figuring out where and how to start. In terms of our initial tasks, some were more technical (space, organization, guidelines, etc.), while some were more about creating the type of lab environment we envisioned. From the beginning, as co-directors, Melissa and I had in-depth discussions related to the lab culture that we wanted to foster. Both of us felt very strongly that we wanted to create a friendly, collaborative, and positive work environment to conduct our research. Part of this was coming up with a set of guidelines or strategies to maximize cohesion and harmony. We knew that a central activity toward this goal was to fill the staff and students with people who held our same values related to lab culture. In our interviews with both potential students and staff, we focused on questions that highlighted an individual’s ability to communicate, work as a team, and manage conflict. When we hired, we specifically looked for people who were not only excited about our science, but also those who would fit in well with the other members of the team. We strongly felt that teaching someone the literature or specific methodologies would be easier than teaching someone to be a good member of the team, and we based our decisions heavily on that. Part of our interview process also included clearly communicating our expectations for a positive lab culture as well as the strategies we take to maintain such an environment so that everyone is on the same page from the start. Hiring is only the first step, however. Part of maintaining a positive environment is leading by example and also being involved enough to spot potential problems before they could become larger issues that could threaten our lab harmony. It is amazing how quickly something small can spiral and potentially impact additional members of the lab. Being an engaged leader means knowing your lab members well enough to know when someone might be struggling and having a trusting enough relationship to discuss with them directly. Now that we are starting our 4th year of running our lab together, I can tell you that things haven’t always been perfect, but I do believe that keeping in mind the overall positive culture and how I can model being a good lab citizen has helped keep me grounded even when things have been less than ideal. As our lab grows and evolves, I want to remain mindful of the culture that we set out to create and to continue to find others to join who hold the same values.


Dennis McCarty, PhD
Professor Emeritus
OHSU-PSU School of Public Health
Oregon Health & Science University

Three points are key to building a successful externally funded research program: 1) Learn the unwritten rules, 2) Talk to project officers, and 3) Improve your writing skills. My first NIH application was an F32 application to support post-doctoral training. I prepared the application without guidance. I read the application materials and wrote. Not surprisingly, the score was very poor. I did not have mentorship, and my writing was not effective. The comments from the review helped me understand what makes stronger and weaker applications – the practical guidance that is not covered in the application materials. I needed to learn the unwritten rules; I needed to listen to the guidance the reviewers provided.

A year later, I participated in the development of an application for an NIAAA cooperative agreement. The application team prepared a strong application with the university’s support. The application received one of four awards. Even though I was not the Principal Investigator, I was learning more unwritten rules participating in multi-site meetings with the project officer and the contractors coordinating the awards.

I was still learning. I prepared five or six applications that were weak. The feedback from the reviews, however, helped me understand the weaknesses in the applications. I needed to strengthen the research designs and enhance the outcome measures. My biggest mistake, however, was my failure to build relationships with project officers. I wrote the applications with no interaction with project officers. Finally, a project officer reached out to me after I submitted a proposal addressing alcohol use among women and men who were homeless. She was leading NIAAA’s demonstration grants to address homelessness. She invited me to a small meeting where the literature was discussed. The meeting guided the development of a Request for Applications to provide services to individuals without stable housing. I listened, I learned, I applied, and I received my first award as Principal Investigator. I am so grateful. The project officer elevated my career and gave me the opportunity to chair the multi-site grantee meetings and showcase our work.

I was still learning. When I began to review applications, I learned a lot more. Reviewers read strong applications and weak applications. They learn more unwritten rules, they spend more time with project officers, and, most importantly, they recognize that the key is concise, effective writing. Applications are sales proposals. You are selling your ideas. Competitive applications are concise and clear. Sentences are active and written in present tense. They tell a compelling story, have a believable research approach, a strong management plan, and a reasonable budget. The need for clear writing is another unwritten rule and a key to building a strong research program. Ultimately, I had 30 years of externally funded support, primarily from NIH. You can too.

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