Interview

Paige Green-McDonald of the National Cancer Institute

Official discusses NCI’s approach to supporting basic and applied behavioral science.

The American Psychological Association has been touching base this spring with federal research funding managers to learn how their agencies are coping with current budget challenges.  The federal budget for Fiscal Year 2011 was only recently made final, and it is already clear that negotiations over the 2012 budget will be a battleground for funding cuts.  How’s a scientist to cope?  Fortunately, opportunities can still be found.  APA is talking to people who can help scientists navigate these difficult times.

Paige Green-McDonald, PhDPaige Green-McDonald, PhD, MPH is the chief of the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch (BBPSB), Behavioral Research Program (BRP), Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS), at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. McDonald has served as a program director in BRP since 2001. In that role, she cultivates the growth of the biobehavioral research portfolio that focuses on elucidating biological mechanisms of psychosocial effects on health and disease.

Prior to joining the NCI, Dr. McDonald was a research psychologist at Howard University Cancer Center (HUCC) and a faculty member in the Department of Medicine at Howard University College of Medicine. Her research interests include stress and immunity within a cancer risk context, the influence of behavioral factors on breast cancer risk and survival, and the perceptions and knowledge of breast cancer and early detection behaviors.

Dr. McDonald received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. Her doctoral training included an emphasis on behavioral medicine and psychophysiology within the context of cardiovascular disease. Dr. McDonald completed her clinical psychology internship, with specialization in health psychology, at the Brown University Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium and postdoctoral fellowships at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the HUCC. In 2005, she received a Master of Public Health degree from Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, she was elected to the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.

Dr. McDonald leads an extramural research branch at NCI to advance research in biobehavioral mechanisms and psychological processes to reduce cancer risk and improve outcomes. She spoke with Pat Kobor, senior science policy analyst at the American Psychological Association.


Pat Kobor: Despite the best efforts of research advocates like APA, the Fiscal Year 2011 budgets of NIH institutes are flat or slightly below FY 10 levels. How is NCI managing?

Dr. McDonald: Reduced appropriations and an increased commitment base have indeed created a challenging fiscal climate for FY2011. However, despite reduced resources, we remain committed to preserving funding for existing Research Project Grants (RPGs) and maximizing the number of newly awarded RPGs, especially those of meritorious early stage investigators. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has had to make difficult fiscal decisions, but with a FY2011 budget of $5.059B, we are hopeful that we meet the target of up to ~1000 new RPGs. Scientific leadership is being called upon to strategically deliberate research priorities and gaps in our portfolios. While this practice is not a departure from our standard operating procedure, it highlights our deliberate and dedicated stewardship of the nation’s investment in cancer research. We are optimistic that we will successfully sustain the accelerated pace of discovery and translation to realize continued improvements in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship.

Kobor: Are there new or continuing research initiatives you especially want behavioral scientists to know about?

Dr. McDonald: It is paramount to note that NCI honors the longstanding commitment to basic and applied behavioral and psychological sciences. Last year, there was a $321,385,107 investment in behavioral and social science research at NCI, up from $304,343,442 in FY2009 (http://fundedresearch.cancer.gov/). I encourage readers to periodically visit our web site to review active funding opportunity announcements at http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/funding_apply.html. We realize the importance of building a cadre of behavioral research scientists in cancer control and offer small grant (R03) and exploratory grant (R21) funding mechanisms to cultivate new discoveries in behavioral research. NCI continues to champion basic behavioral  and social sciences research through our involvement in the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) and other trans-NIH initiatives, which remain quite energized.

Kobor: Are there agency-wide or cross-cutting initiatives that you would encourage APA's scientists to apply for?

Dr. McDonald: Stay tuned for more information on the NIH OppNet initiative. We have pushed forward an impressive number of funding opportunities for basic behavioral and social sciences research into open competition over the last two fiscal years. More funding opportunities and career development and training opportunities are on the horizon.

Kobor: NCI is a leader at NIH in funding psychological science.  Is NCI funding any areas of behavioral or psychological research that you think our readers would be surprised to know about?

Dr. McDonald: NCI is interested in supporting innovative analytic and research approaches that move behavioral and psychological research forward, including theory testing and application, data harmonization, team and systems science approaches, psychometrics, and scientific-based participatory research. The NCI grid-enabled measures (GEM) database website is an example of our commitment to the development of infrastructures and scientific-based participatory research approaches in behavioral science. GEM is an internet-based, open source, decision tool to drive consensus on the use of shared behavioral and social measures in research. It runs on a wiki platform and allows users to comment and rate theoretically meaningful constructs and associated measures. Practically, GEM has been used to gain consensus on best patient self-report measures to use in electronic health records (EHRs).

Other emergent priorities include:

  • basic mechanisms of cognition, emotion, judgment and decision-making
  • biological mechanisms of psychosocial influences on cancer biology and outcomes 
  • methodology and measurement of basic psychological, cognitive, and affective processes 
  • biobehavioral mechanisms of comorbidities associated with cancer and cancer treatment
  • basic mechanisms of sensation, attention, and perception as related to cancer risk and control
  • basic mechanisms of the placebo effect
  • integrative data analysis
  • behavioral research on how individuals, teams, and health care organizations are effective agents across the cancer continuum, from prevention and screening through diagnosis and treatment

Kobor: Does NCI have open positions that psychologists should be aware of?

Dr. McDonald: Why, yes! NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences and Behavioral Research Program continue to build programs of research that incorporate psychological science. In fact, the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch has been recruiting biobehavioral scientists with expertise in cancer biology, clinical oncology, or cancer relevant translational research. Candidates should have doctoral level training and substantial research experience relevant to the study of fundamental psychological processes, interactions of those processes with biological factors, and their effect on cancer risk and outcomes. Those with health psychology, behavioral medicine or stress biology backgrounds are encouraged to contact me. Given that our Behavioral Research Program has recently expanded in scope, additional positions are certain to be available in the near future. Check our web site and peruse USAJOBS frequently. The norm for the open announcement of relevant federal positions is now just five days, so it pays to check frequently.

NCI is a great resource for pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training fellowships in behavioral research. The Cancer Research Training Award fellowship provides a unique opportunity to work with NCI scientists who are leaders in behavioral science and cancer control. There are also opportunities for psychologists to obtain a master of public health degree. The Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program provides training for individuals from the health professions and biomedical sciences to become leaders in cancer prevention and control. Through the program, fellows also obtain mentored research experiences at NCI or at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and professional development/leadership training. DCCPS provides opportunities for fellows to focus on social and behavioral research as part of the mentored research experience. Interested candidates are always welcome to contact any of our staff to discuss behavioral research training and career opportunities at the NCI: http://staffprofiles.cancer.gov/brp/prgmStaffHome.do. Go to Meet our Fellows to learn more about our network of mentorship and collaboration.

For those more seasoned behavioral and psychological scientists, consider the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program to share your expertise with the NCI. Among other functions, an IPA provides temporary assignment of academic faculty between the Federal Government and colleges and universities.  Behavioral and psychological scientists that have recently done IPAs with the Behavioral Research Program at NCI include Drs. Jerry Suls, Steve W. Cole, Valerie Reyna, and James Shepperd.

Kobor: Is there any specific advice you can offer to PSA readers who are interested in support from NCI?

Dr. McDonald: The golden rule? Contact NCI Program Directors!  Among other things, we can confirm that your research topic fits within a programmatic priority and provide input as to what mechanisms might be most appropriate. We can review your specific aims and provide limited guidance on your responses to summary statement critiques should you be in the “revise and resubmit” stage of your application.

Our web site offers a useful systematic guide on grant proposal development. It is important to become familiar with grant funding mechanisms, understand submission procedures, be aware of the NIH grants timeline, understand the peer review process, develop your idea and write a strong grant application. Psychologists should become familiar with the research priorities, resources, and opportunities for behavioral and social sciences research at NCI. Information about our major initiatives can be found online. I recommend taking the time to survey what is currently funded in the behavioral and social sciences. This can be done by exploring our portfolio and the Cancer Research Portfolio.

Dr. McDonald can be contacted via email or phone at 301-435-5037.