I taught my first dream grant-writing course today. It’s been a long time coming. What we will be waits in us like an ache and today I saw it with my own eyes. I didn’t know where the words were coming from. They seem to come from a place carefully crafted for a moment like today. I saw myself see myself in ways I shudder to describe. My spirit led the entire session and we let it lead. Grant writing can be so much more if only we speak from our soul. I saw that today for myself and I am me and all the things I dreamed of. This course is a big thank you to everything that paved the way, including my dreams. Keep dreaming dreams that are beyond your own understanding.
I woke up today to the news that I was not selected to mentor trainees interested in writing grants. They had over 70 mentors who expressed interest and well, none of the students had similar interest as mine, so I was not needed for mentoring. At first, I was stunned. It’s not every day that people reject me with grant writing. But then I remembered maybe it was all for good.
My ways are unconventional and well, this isn’t the first time I have been counted off. So I decided to write this to myself. Mostly to showcase that until it exists, then all the dreams I have with grant writing would be dreams. To turn it to reality, I need to put it in words. I need to be deliberate about what I mean for example when I say grants are stories. I also lack time and patience. My head is still on a long break from work that the idea of teaching or mentoring may not be right for me these days.
But I can persevere. The next couple of days are my attempt at making sense of grants as stories, my attempt at explaining it, celebrating it, and bringing it to the center of my life so that folks will understand how it has helped me soar. I don’t know what the structure will look like but I will try to share tibits of what I imagine this can be. Motivated by this rejection, I wrote a lot today, as in a lot and for the first time, decided to keep it from here. Not because I don’t think there are aspects of it worthy keeping, but more so because I am learning to find myself in this process, learning to persevere courageously too, until this story I have been telling to an audience of one, makes sense.
If anything I do, in the way of writing grants or whatever I write, isn’t about lasting, or sustainability or the community or villages I belong too, then it’s a waste of time. These days I want to indulge myself in open conversations that allows the collective ‘we’ to dream, which is to say, sustainability, is like air. Everything we do must have that at it’s core.
The best grants I have ever written, those that failed and those that succeeded, have at their rim, a desire to last, a desire to remain, long after the funding ends. We begin always with the end in mind as the end is certain. But what we do from the beginning is unquestionably crucial. When you don’t plan to last, when you don’t even know why you ought to last, you ultimately keep nothing. You are also lost. Which is why I ask always, what will you keep? For me these days, every single thing.
Keep your failures!
There was a time, all I did was fail with every grant I wrote. Welcome to a new month. I woke up to an email sent to the entire university celebrating a recent success today. I am honored and grateful but I can’t help but remember the times of failure. Yes, failure. Sure the messages and all the well-wishes, have been heartfelt and words fail me. But it’s the failures that I want to dwell on today. I want you reading this to know that success comes at a major cost. For me, with every one grant you see that is successful, there were close to 7 (in my beginning days, but now 2-3) that were not successful. So when I see this beautiful write up of one success, my heart goes out to wrinkles along the way. All of them that paved the way to make this one success come through.
So with the story of STAR, what many may not know was that it was written after a major loss. I had written a grant called, I-ARISE. I love naming all my grants by the way and everyone writing a grant should always be intentional with their names.
I-ARISE was over $13 million or so. It was and still remains the most expensive NIH grant I have ever assembled. It also failed. I went into depression. I still remember seeing the news of it’s failure that faithful July month and just being in a rot for days. I didn’t eat. Just slept in my room and cried and cried and wondered why such a beautiful grant failed. When I got through the sadness, I got our team together and we immediately started taking pieces of it apart. What many may not know was that I-ARISE became LIGHT (see here:LIGHT), which was literally a sidenote on the grant. I turned one massive failure into the thing that gives me joy everyday.
With the beginning of LIGHT, came thoughts on what else to do that would literally bring more light. Enter STAR. I-ARISE is also STAR and much better. We began writing that grant in August (please I do not recommend writing an NIH grant in a month. I just have a decade of experience with plenty failures).
We were also writing an NIH Fogarty D-43 at the same time. I tend to write 2 grants with similar deadlines. It seems to help me see things better. The D-43 was aptly called I-RISE, and yes it was my self-care attempt at getting over the failure of I-ARISE. The name alone got me through the failure. I worked on the D-43 literally feeling like I was rising from the ashes like a Phoenix.
While writing the D-43, I came across the NIAID R-25 announcement. They were both similar in nature, only that one was for my work in Nigeria, while the other would allow me to finally give back in the US. It was no brainer. I am a Penn State McNair Scholar, a Penn State MHIRT scholar, a Penn State Bunton-Waller scholar, all of which were geared towards helping minority students succeed at Penn State. McNair in particular was my first foray to research with Dr. Cassandra Veney, a woman studies professor, as my very first mentor ever. Dr. Airhihenbuwa was my second mentor. The two of them are the foundation upon which I stand.
I wrote the D-43 and R-25 at the same time. Deadlines were very close. D-43 in August, R-25 in September. The D-43 failed. It wasn’t even discussed. In fact, reviewers said I had no business or experience writing one, my paraphrase of their summary statement. The R-25 is what we celebrate today. I share this story because behind every success, there are failures and honestly I made crucial mistakes with the D-43. I saw them while writing the R-25. I needed to write the D-43 in other to get the one that was meant for me. I am nothing without my failures and I hope they inspire you to keep yours too. They will one day inspire your success. You can read the successful story here: STAR R-25 Grant . I only want you to keep all your failures in mind.
‘Won’t you celebrate with me.’ These opening line to Lucille Clifton’s poem is my mood for the year.
Today is my first team meeting too. I like to take my time to usher in the New Year. Somethings take time.
So I begin this year with my team, asking them to celebrate all our wins.
See the life we have shaped for ourselves too. We had no model too.
Dwelling in Midwest. Both non-white and woman, a black one too.
They have tried to use words that couldn’t stick like ‘overworked.’
What do you expect when I exist beyond work?
You may call it work, but I call it life, this lively lush thing I have shaped for myself with no model in the Midwest.
So come celebrate with me. We defied the odds. We are soaring too.
I wrote more than I ever imagined with grants last year. Only time will tell how the story unfolds. But until then, celebrate with me as we move along this new year win or lose.
All the things that tried, failed. We are still here and 2023 is the start of something special.
This is the year we learn to finally fly. Keep flying.
Keep 4 girls and women with ending cervical cancer!
Each day, nearly 28 women die from cervical cancer in Nigeria. Angela Akumuo, my sister-in law, was one of them in the summer of 2021. She was 53 years old. Her death, like those of many women who continue to die from cervical cancer in Nigeria and globally, could have been prevented. It was also discovered late. She lived in pain for years, and died within 3 months of finally opening up about her illness. There are so many effective evidence-based tools to prevent, diagnose or treat cervical cancer. Research too, with the field of dissemination and implementation science, my chosen field of study. Yet, why are women, like my sister in-law, in the prime of their lives, still dying from cervical cancer in Africa?
Look at the state of cervical cancer in Nigeria and many other African countries and you’ll understand. With an estimated population of 206 million individuals, Nigeria has over 56 million women aged 15 years and above who are at risk of developing cervical cancer. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, with 67% attributed to HPV 16 and 18. As a result, the government recommends screening for cervical cancer from aged 30. Young girls and women are recommended to get vaccinated as well from age 9. Yet less that 10% of eligible women are screened and 14% of girls are vaccinated. Is it any wonder that cervical cancer remains the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, also one of the most preventable?
In 2020, nearly three years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) and 194 countries, pledged for the first time to eliminate cervical cancer by pursing three key steps: vaccination, screening and treatment. A recent costing exercise by WHO for the Nigerian government’s strategic plan on prevention and control of cervical cancer estimated that $18.1 million will be needed to fully immunize Nigerian girls at $3.98 per girl aged 9-13 years, $919 million will be needed to provide 24.8 million screening services and 2.2 million pre-cancer treatments, while $59 million will be required for cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliative care. Right now, Nigeria dedicates 5.75 percent of its budget to health with about N81 billion naira (roughly $100 million dollars) to health care services, all of which are insufficient to help the country reach its global goals for cervical cancer elimination by 2030. The cost of vaccination, screening and treatment remains an obstacle for many Nigerian women and girls. So, it’s no surprise then that Nigerian researchers and key stakeholders are turning back to Nigerians themselves to find innovative ways to lead the national response to eliminate cervical cancer.
Enter For girls and women by girls and women. This new crowdsourcing program led by myself and researchers at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research led by Dr. Oliver Ezechi and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, led by Dr. Joseph Tucker, is the latest from our, for youth by youth group, that has spent the past five years working to promote HIV self-testing with Nigerian youths themselves using crowdsourcing open calls, 48-hours designathons, month-long innovation boot camps and subsequent implementation of finalist programs in community settings. Crowdsourcing allows large number of people to become involved and engaged in developing solutions to health issues. Our program, now in its fifth year, boldly displays how Nigerian youth themselves can be partners and leaders with HIV prevention interventions and not just beneficiaries of interventions designed by researchers alone. Interventions created by the group, has led to an increase in HIV self-testing from 29% at baseline to 90% at 3 months follow.
We are striving to repeat the same success but this time with HPV vaccination among girls and HPV screening among their mothers or female caregivers. We know that the thought of cervical cancer may strike fear in people’s heart, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But it is possible to act against it by partnering with us to lead the design and implementation of HPV campaigns, particularly HPV vaccination of young girls and HPV screening of eligible women. Our crowdsourcing open calls will be launched in Nigeria this January and it is our hope that through our program goals, Nigerian girls and women can become prime leaders in designing, implementing and evaluating interventions that increase uptake of HPV vaccinations and HPV screening, while eliminating cervical cancer as we know it.
Angela Akunmo may have died from a disease so preventable. However, through the launch of the crowdsourcing open calls for HPV campaigns for girls and women by girls and women, her death will not be in vain.