When Jamaica Rettberg, a PhD candidate in the Department of Neuroscience in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, decided to apply for a research fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she knew it wouldn’t be easy. The applications are famously complicated and take most people months to complete.

But by the time she finished the process, she would make it much easier for those who followed by making a video guide that even NIH staffers call, “a wonderful resource.”

Rettberg was applying for what is known as an F31, an NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA), intended to help doctoral students get additional training in fields related to their core focus. For Rettberg, who studies risk factors and therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, the F31 would not only support her doctoral research, but would also enable her to get a Master’s in Regulatory Sciences from the USC School of Pharmacy. She felt that a deeper understanding of the regulatory aspects of drug development would enhance the quality and efficiency of her research.

When she started working on the NRSA grant, Rettberg made it a point to find out everything she could about the application process. She took a seminar in the neuroscience department about NRSA grants and applications, sought advice from mentors and colleagues who had been through the process, and  spent many days on her own parsing dozens of questions, running down required documents and information, drafting statements about research goals, and more.

Rettberg finally submitted her application, and in 2012 the NIH granted her the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.

That might have been the end of Rettberg’s application saga, had not Cecilia Patino-Sutton, MD, MEd, PhD, and Director of Education for the SC CTSI Education, Career Development, and Ethics program, asked her to give a presentation about the application process for other pre-doctoral students in the TL1 program. The SC CTSI’s TL1 program provides unique professional training for graduate students aspiring to careers as clinical and translational researchers.

Rettberg was happy to help. Using her own application forms as examples, she took fellow students step-by-step through the application process, from minute but important matters of font size and type to pointers on writing effectively about research goals. “It’s much more helpful when you’re hearing from a peer who has gone through the process recently and understands the sticking points,” she said.

Rettberg’s presentation was so well received that Patino-Sutton suggested she make it available beyond the USC community — by turning it into a series of eight short online videos, titled, “So You Want to Apply for an NRSA,” since no such tutorial for the NRSA grants existed.

The response to the videos was immediate and positive and news of the series spread even to the NIH, where officials were similarly impressed — and welcoming. “This is the first tutorial focused on NRSAs by someone who has been through that process that I have ever seen, and it was excellent,” said Molly Wagster, Rettberg’s NIH program officer. “It is a wonderful resource for applicants.”

—Paul Karon