Today at Berkeley Lab

Q&A With ECRP Winners on How Award Can Transform Careers

For the past seven years the Dept. of Energy has used its Early Career Research Program awards to provide support to exceptional researchers in the crucial early years of their career. Researchers typically receive up to $2.5 million over five years to support their work. To date, 24 Berkeley Lab researchers have received awards.

For many recipients, the ECRP awards are a first step towards future achievements. We revisited three past winners — from 2010, 2011, and 2012— to see how the awards influenced their work and to see where they are now in their careers.

ECRP

Susannah Tringe, a Staff Scientist at the Joint Genome Institute, is a 2011 awardee. Soon after her award, she was named one of Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10.” Now, Tringe is the Joint Genome Institute’s Deputy Director for User Programs and the Microbial Systems Group Lead in the Environmental Genomics and Systems Biology Division.

Kevin Wilson won his award in 2012. He’s now Division Deputy for Science for the Chemical Sciences Division and the initiative lead for the Chemical Observatory.

In 2010, Feng Yuan of the Nuclear Sciences Division received his Early Career award.  He is now a Senior Scientist with the Nuclear Theory Program and played a leading role in the development of the Electron-Ion Collider.

Q: Now that you’ve each been funded with $2.5M over five years, how has that changed your research projects? How has it helped you advance your career?

FY: It supported me to develop my own research portfolio and expand the nuclear theory program at Berkeley Lab. We could hire postdoc researchers to explore new research directions and as a result, we pioneered the theoretical efforts for the science case of the planed electron-ion collider in U.S. This set the stage for us to play a leadership role to push for this machine in the national/international-wide nuclear physics community.

KW: The award in many respects has been transformative for my career.  It allowed me to build an entirely new laboratory capability focused on a topic that is important to both my long-term research interests and for broader activities in interfacial science in the Chemical Sciences Division.  In retrospect, I think of this award as fairly equivalent to a new faculty start up package that allows me the space to think creatively about new science directions.

ST: The funds allowed me to hire postdocs right away, and gave me a lot of freedom to try new directions and approaches since it was a five-year award.  It also forced me to build my own research program, rather than relying on collaborative projects which I tended to feel more comfortable with.

In terms of my career, the award definitely heightened my visibility in the DOE research community and demonstrated my ability to obtain funding, which helped me move up to a staff scientist position as well as my current role as a deputy director at the JGI.

Q: Did you think, when you applied, that you had a good chance at receiving the award?

KW: No.  I applied for the award three times and was successful only after two failed proposals.  I learned a tremendous amount about what makes a solid and compelling proposal.  In fact, it was senior mentors in my division that provided the needed encouragement to apply so many times.

FY: Yes, I did think I had a good chance to receive the award. A strong proposal always wins. You may lose once, but eventually you will succeed.

ST: No, in fact I assumed I had very little chance!  But my supervisor at the time, Jim Bristow, convinced me that it was worth a try and that the proposal, even if unsuccessful, would be a useful start for applying to other opportunities like LDRD.

Q: What would you tell someone who’s thinking, but not sure yet, of applying for the awards this year?

FY: It is DEFINITELY worthwhile to put your efforts towards writing a good proposal. The benefit is too good to be ignored. Although sometimes it doesn’t work out as expected, you can always learn from the review process and write a stronger proposal for the future.

ST: It’s an amazing opportunity to get such a large amount of funding for a relatively short proposal, and those kinds of opportunities aren’t common.  Even though it may seem like a lot of work, it’s a huge potential payoff.  And even writing an unsuccessful proposal and getting feedback on it is a valuable experience for an early career investigator.

KW: While this award is very competitive, there is tremendous value in applying.  First, it refines your proposal writing skills.  Perhaps more importantly it is a very good way to communicate your science ideas broadly to your division and DOE.  There are many ways for an unsuccessful proposal for the Early Career award to eventually be repurposed into something else (e.g. core program funding).  It is amazing how many parallel opportunities (alternative funding opportunities) appeared after writing two formal, yet unsuccessful, proposals.

 

Full-time, career or career-track Berkeley Lab researchers who have received their Ph.D. no earlier than January 2006 are encouraged to apply.

Join Lab Director Mike Witherell for this year’s brown bag roundtable discussion and networking social on Friday, August 19 in Perseverance Hall at noon. For more info and to find your Area/Division representatives, visit the Berkeley Lab ECRP website.