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Grants and Loraxes: Big goals and high hopes

Writing grants is one of the most critical skills you will acquire as a scientist, regardless of whether you end up in academia or not. However like all skills it must be developed through practice and with feedback. As part of Thesis Development we will be spending time helping you grow your grant writing skills so that you may successfully obtain funding to support your thesis.

There are several blog posts out there that will provide useful tips and pointers. In particular I found this and this to be of great value. Several helpful hints keep reappearing so I want to emphasize them here:

  • Read the request for proposal all the way through. These documents contain useful information like when the grant is due and to whom you should send it. They also have fine print, like if research in particular areas is or is not covered. No sense wasting your time writing a grant if that funder is not going to cover your research
  • Look at what other projects the funder has supported. This will give you an idea of what their funding philosophies are, what kinds of projects resonate with the funders, and if there are funding trends that may or may not hurt you. It is worth seeing if you can talk to a program officer or a past winner to get a better idea of what helps makes a successful application.
  • Sell yourself and you team. Funders tend to be risk adverse and they want to make sure that if they give a team money to do a project, that the project will get done. As a new student you probably have not yet developed a track record to ensure funding confidence. You can circumvent that problem by building a good team. Make the case that ever person on your team fills a role and that together you are more than the sum of your parts.

Assembling a team for a grant: NB My students did not get this reference


  • State your hypotheses! You want to be very clear about the quality of your science and if you do not have clearly stated hypothses, and methods that will generate data to sufficiently test those hypotheses, your grant will be dead in the water.
  • Quantify your output. One of the biggest red flags for reviewers is a proposal becoming very vague about what the researchers are going to do once the experiment has been run. You can help this by being specific about where data will be archived, what conferences you will present at, and how exactly you are going to quantify your outreach and broader impacts.

Students doing serious work about a silly grant topic

To help the students focus on the art of writing a grant I asked them to formulate proposals based around deforestation of Truffula trees and the impacts on endangered Lorax and other populations in that ecosystem. Based on the criteria of the American Philosophical Society’s Lewis and Clark grants, I gave the students 40 min to prepare a short grant and then 7 min to present that idea and field questions. The three grant proposals were:



1) Loraxes derailed? An exploration of the effects of Thneedsville commuter rail development on truffula forest habitat and its endemic Lorax population

Brief Summary: In 2010, the City of Thneedville approved plans to build a commuter rail that transects surrounding Truffula tree forest (Figure 1; Thneedsville Mayor’s Office press release 2010). We seek to examine the impact of this development on Truffula forest habitat and of its endemic Lorax population






swomeeswans2) The effect of noise pollution of the super axe-hacker on the Song of the Swomee Swan

Brief Summary: The Swomee Swan, which lives in the Truffula forest, is known for its song. The logging of the Truffula tree is not thought to affect the Swomee Swan. We hypothesize noise pollution influences the song of the Swomee Swan, that may be related to the decreasing trend in Swomee Swan populations.


3) The effect of deforestation on Lorax reproduction during breeding season (May-July) in the Trufffula forest.

Brief Summary: The endemic Lorax population has been found to exhibit breeding site fidelity in dense truffula forests far from edge habitat (Seuss et al. 1971). Their breeding season occurs in early summer May-July (Seuss et al. 1971). Our study aims to determine the potential impacts of deforestation of truffula trees on Lorax reproduction. We hypothesize that the loss of important breeding sites and increase in noise pollution due to deforestation will negatively impact Lorax populations. We predict that loss of breeding sites will increase population fragmentation and make finding a mate more difficult, thereby leading to reduction of offspring.


Overall I found this a very enjoyable exercise to do in class. My 30 minute lecture helped frame the topic and provide useful information. The group work got students thinking about the topic as a cohort and gave them some ownership of the information, and the presentation allowed us to have some fun while practicing talking about our proposals to audiences.

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