Celebrating the Contributions of African American Scientists at NIH

The National Library of Medicine is proud once again to partner with the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to celebrate Black History Month.  This year, we’re marking the occasion by hosting a photographic display celebrating African American scientists at NIH.  The exhibition will be on display through the end of February.

I was delighted to welcome the honorees and their families and friends to the exhibition’s opening ceremony on February 4. Christopher Williams, STEM education director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, acknowledged in his opening remarks the power of being in a room with over 200 people celebrating African American scientists. The event, he noted, “provides an opportunity for those who have been blazing the trails to connect with those who are just starting along the way.”

For Roland Owens, PhD, NIH Director of Research Workforce Development, those just starting out include black youth, hungry for role models. “The purpose of this poster project is to make it easier for everyone to see that there are black scientists doing great things for the world,” he said.

Who are those doers of great things?

Let me introduce you to the 14 black scientists from 10 different institutes and centers across NIH who continue to drive the science and our organization forward.

headshot of Marie Bernard, MDMarie Bernard, MD
Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging


posed photo of Darlene Dixon, DVM, PhDDarlene Dixon, DVM, PhD
Group Lead, Molecular Pathogenesis Group, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences


headshot of Emmeline Edwards, PhDEmmeline Edwards, PhD
Director, Division of Extramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health


headshot of Courtney Fitzhugh, MDCourtney Fitzhugh, MD
Lasker Clinical Research Scholar, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


headshot of Shawn Gaillard, PhDShawn Gaillard, PhD
Research Training Officer, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


posed photo of Gary Gibbons, MDGary Gibbons, MD
Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Carl V. Hill, PhD, MPH, speaks from behind a podiumCarl V. Hill, PhD, MPH
Director, Office of Special Populations, National Institute on Aging


headshot of Alfred Johnson, PhDAlfred Johnson, PhD
Deputy Director for Management, Office of the Director


headshot of Zayd M. Khaliq, PhDZayd M. Khaliq, PhD
Stadtman Investigator, Cellular Neurophysiology Unit, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


posed photo of Worta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MSWorta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MS
Chief of the Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, National Cancer Institute


headshot of Roland Owens, PhDRoland Owens, PhD
Assistant Director, Office of Intramural Research, Office of the Director


headshot of Anna Ramsey-Ewing, PhDAnna Ramsey-Ewing, PhD
Director, Office of Grants Management and Scientific Review, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


posed photo of Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACPGriffin Rodgers, MD, MACP
Director, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


posed photo of Fasil Tekola-Ayele PhDFasil Tekola Ayele PhD
Earl Stadtman Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


The exhibition honoring these scientists is currently on display in the Library’s Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A). The panels recognize each scientist with his or her photograph, current position, and a quote about his or her career path.

I was touched and challenged by these scientists’ insights as I learned about their particular motivations, significant mentors, and notable experiences that shaped their research and their lives. I also marveled at their range of interests and accomplishments, though I couldn’t help but notice the common threads of tenacity, drive, and commitment to excellence that bound them all together.

I was also struck by the connection across generations as I toured the exhibit in the company of Gary Gibbons, MD, and Paule Joseph, RN, PhD. These two scientists represented different points on the career trajectory: Gibbons an accomplished cardiologist who has been the Director of NHLBI since 2012 (and my personal mentor since I arrived at NIH); and Joseph, a young scholar from the National Institutes of Nursing Research. As we strolled together among the panels and discussed the honorees, I felt grateful for the tremendous accomplishments of my colleagues featured in the exhibition, and I also felt excited and hopeful for the advancements yet to come from so many young, innovative researchers just starting out—and by those coming behind them, inspired by their stories. It leaves me optimistic and eager to see the bright future they will help usher in and makes me wonder what marks they will make on biomedical research and discovery.

Whatever they are, I expect NLM will be there to tell their story. The Library remains committed to showcasing the contributions of African Americans in health care and biomedical science. In fact, four of our History of Medicine’s recent exhibitions highlight those contributions:

  • Binding Wounds, an exhibition about African Americans in Civil War medicine
  • Opening Doors, stories of contemporary African American surgeons
  • Fire & Freedom, a look at power imbalance, food, and enslavement in the early days of the United States
  • The Politics of Yellow Fever, which includes the essential role Philadelphia’s free African American residents played during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793

You can see three of those exhibitions on display now at NLM. Two, Binding Wounds and Opening Doors, are set up in the Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A) around the corner from the panels featuring our 14 scientist honorees. The third, The Politics of Yellow Fever, which just opened January 11, occupies the entryway to our History of Medicine Division.

If you can’t visit in person, check out the companion websites for each of these exhibitions. You’ll be glad you did—and grateful, like me, for the  contributions of African American healers, clinicians, and scientists.

Promoting Trust in Trustable Information

NLM is and always has been committed to providing access to trustworthy information. We pride ourselves on being an authoritative source of reliable biomedical and health information for scientists, clinicians, the public, and policy makers—a role that begins by building a collection of quality materials, carefully selected.

Our collection development policy, coupled with long-standing library principles, scientific expertise, and years of collective experience, helps ensure the quality, accuracy, and currency of our resources, whether that’s our literature repositories, our consumer health information, or our biomedical data banks. And that excellence is reflected in the trust we’ve earned, trust validated by the millions of users who visit our website each day.

But for all the authoritative information we and others share online, the internet serves up false or misleading information almost as frequently. How can we—and the citizens we serve—function effectively in such an environment?

A recent article in The New York Times helps highlight one possible path.

Pointedly titled “Why do people fall for fake news?” the article offers insights applicable beyond the political arena on which it focuses. The article’s authors, Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, ran studies to test participants’ ability to distinguish true statements from false claims. Their results highlighted the power of reflective reasoning to help people interpret information’s veracity. That is, the more people could think critically and be conscious of the steps in their own thinking, the more accurate their understanding of the information and the less likely they were to be swayed by their own rationalizations or weighted down by intellectual laziness.

What does this mean for NLM?

That beyond providing trustable health and biomedical information, we can also help our customers by building their reflective reasoning  and critical thinking skills and giving them the confidence and practice to use them. By integrating training, tools, and tutorials into our outreach programs we can boost people’s ability to distinguish good health information from the bad, which will help them make better decisions for their own health and the health of their loved ones.

After all, providing accurate information gets us only part of the way. We also need to be sure that people are recognizing and using quality, trustworthy health information and shunning the inaccurate, the biased, and the just-plain-dangerous. Our health depends on it.

Data Discovery at NLM

Guest post by David Hale, Information Technology Specialist at NLM.

Did you know that each day more than four million people use NLM resources and that every hour a petabyte of data moves in or out of our computing systems?

Those mammoth numbers indicate to me how essential NLM’s array of information products and services are to scientific progress. But as we gain more experience with providing information, particularly clinical, biologic, and genetic datasets, we’re finding that how we share data is as critical as the data itself.

To fuel the insights and solutions needed to improve public health, we must ensure data flow freely to the researchers, industry innovators, patient communities, and citizen scientists who can bring new lenses to these rich repositories of knowledge.

One way we’re opening doors to our data is through an open data portal called Data Discovery. While agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are already utilizing the same platform with success, NLM is the first of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to adopt the platform. Our first datasets are already available, including content from such diverse resources as the Dietary Supplement Label Database, Pillbox, ToxMap, Disaster Lit, and HealthReach.

Why did NLM take this step? While many of our data resources have long been publicly available online, housing them within Data Discovery offers unconstrained access and delivers key benefits:

  • Powerful data exploration tools—By showing the dataset as a spreadsheet, the Data Discovery platform offers freedom to filter and interact with the data in novel ways.
  • Intuitive data visualizations—A picture is worth a thousand words, and nowhere is that truer than leveraging data visualizations to bring new perspectives on scientific questions.
  • Open data APIs—Open data alone isn’t enough to fuel a new generation of insights. Open APIs are critical to making the data understandable, accessible, and actionable, based on the unique needs of the user or audience.

What does this mean in practice?

Let’s look at the Office of Dietary Supplements’ (ODS) Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD) to illustrate the potential of leveraging Data Discovery.

More than half of all Americans take at least one dietary supplement a day. Reliable information about those supplements is critical to their appropriate use, making DSLD a timely and important dataset to make available in an open data platform. Through Data Discovery, researchers, academics, health care providers, and the public will be able to explore and derive insights from the labels of more than 85,000 dietary supplement products currently or formerly sold in the US.

Developers and technologists who support research, health, and medical organizations require APIs that are modern, interoperable, and standards-compliant. Data Discovery provides a powerful solution to these needs, supporting NLM’s role as a platform for biomedical discovery and data-powered health.

Beyond fueling scientific discovery, open access to data holds another benefit for advancing public health: contributing to the professional development of data and informatics specialists. An increasingly important part of the health care workforce, informaticists help researchers extract the most meaningful insights from data, driving new developments in the lab and better management of patients and populations.

I invite you to explore the new Data Discovery portal. It’s an exciting step forward in achieving key aspects of the NLM Strategic Plan—to advocate for open science, further democratize access to data, and support the training and development of the data science workforce.

headshot of David Hale
Credit: Jacie Lee Almira Photography

David Hale is an Information Technology Specialist at the National Library of Medicine. In addition to leading Data Discovery, David is also project lead for NLM’s Pillbox, a drug identification, reference, and image resource. He received his Bachelor of Science in Physical Science from the University of Maryland.

Revving Up NLM Research

Last week NLM took another big step in revving up its intramural research operation. On Tuesday, January 15, we launched a national search for a scientific director to oversee all intramural research, a move that elevates the position and reflects its broad-based, trans-NLM scope of responsibilities.

The new position arises in response to the Blue Ribbon Panel that recently reviewed NLM’s intramural research programs and recommended, among other forward-looking ideas, unifying the programs under a single scientific director. That shift also aligns the Library with NIH’s other Institutes and Centers, most of which are guided by one scientific director.

The NLM intramural research program includes activities housed in both the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHC) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The researchers in these two centers develop and apply computational approaches to a broad range of problems in biomedicine, molecular biology, and health, but they do so via different channels—LHC focusing on medical and clinical data, NCBI on biological and genomic data.

But as the Blue Ribbon Panel noted, the boundaries are dissolving between clinical and biological data, and the analytical and computational strategies for each are increasingly shared. As a result, the current research environment calls for a more holistic view of biomedical data, one best served by shared approaches and ongoing collaborations while preserving the two centers’ unique identities.

A single scientific director will help make that happen.

Such unified leadership is expected to yield a number of benefits for NLM’s intramural research, including a sharper focus on research priorities; collective alignment with NLM and NIH strategies; fewer barriers to collaboration; the cross-fertilization of ideas; and the optimization of scarce resources. Essentially, we expect to spark synergies and garner efficiencies, with accelerated research the result.

As one of the first orders of business, the new scientific director will be asked to craft a long-range plan that identifies research areas where we can best leverage our unique position and resources. We’ll also look for ways to allocate more resources to fundamental research while streamlining operational support. Down the road, we’ll expand our research agenda to include high-risk, high-reward endeavors, the kinds of things that raise profound questions and have the potential to yield tremendous impact.

It’s a bold and significant undertaking.

Fortunately, the new scientific director will be supported by the experienced intramural investigators already onboard and by a seasoned NLM leadership team. In addition, three new investigators currently being recruited will complement our strengths in machine learning and natural language processing.

It promises to be a fabulous and exciting journey.

Do you know someone who’d make a great scientific director? Or maybe you’re ready to step up to this opportunity yourself. If so, please let us know by contacting the search committee at NLMSD@nih.gov.

Or, if you’d like to talk about the direction we’re heading, add a note below. I look forward to hearing from you.

More information
NLM Scientific Director Job Announcement

In Support of Sick Leave

Last week I took a sick day. It’s a rare thing for me, but I was just too ill to come to work. A nasty bout of food poisoning coupled with a fever had me lying low for 48 hours, most of which I slept through.

Because I took the time though, I came back to the office rested, refreshed, and feeling much better. I also returned with renewed gratitude and appreciation for sick leave as part of my benefits package. I know many are not so fortunate.

When it’s provided as a workplace benefit, sick leave assures those who are ill that they can take time to recover or to care for an ailing family member. It also protects those at the office from being exposed to infectious diseases and may in fact lessen the spread of contagious illnesses like the flu. Knowing that any one of us might end up out on sick leave also encourages us to be prepared not to be at work—to make sure that, even in our absence, the communication lines remain open, the information necessary to keep the work place humming is available, and back-ups are in place and ready to step in.

But aside from those basic and important ways that sick leave serves us all,  it also influences a practice called “presenteeism.” While the definition of presenteeism can vary, it generally means coming to work when ill or in pain. While that might sound admirable to some, research (including a recent paper by Allen and colleagues) has shown that presenteeism can cause serious problems both for the work place and for the people who work there. Employees impaired due to health issues show poor concentration and are less productive, which directly impacts the quantity and quality of their work. Those same employees might also find they don’t recover as quickly or that their illness is exacerbated by trying to push through. And the situation isn’t much better for their co-workers, who might still be called upon to pick up the slack while risking exposure to whatever contagious illness their sick colleagues have.  As a result those individual decisions to come in to the office despite illness might ripple through the team or organization for weeks, causing more absences and lost productivity.

Many factors contribute to presenteeism, including a sense that we are essential to our work place. (I can be guilty of that one.) We also often hold a high bar to what constitutes being “sick enough” to take a day off, a factor frequently impacted both by one’s personal sense of commitment and responsibility and by the work group’s norms and expectations. Others, particularly those who’ve experienced serious illness, know the value of banked sick leave and look to preserve hours whenever they can. And sometimes the leave policies themselves lead to a perverse use of sick time, such as when all personal time off is lumped into a single category, so that taking a sick day runs tantamount to shortening your next vacation. (The federal leave system does not work this way.)

Regardless of what is behind it though, presenteeism costs us all. In contrast, using sick leave appropriately helps us all, by ensuring that you’re tending your health, reducing the spread of contagious illnesses, and contributing fully to work once you’re back in the office.

So, the next time you feel under the weather, have a slight temperature, or are struggling with chronic pain, think more seriously about taking a sick day. Chances are you’ll make the workplace healthier and more productive, and even more importantly, you’ll make yourself feel better.

Keeping Up with the Information Onslaught

Organizing your resources sustainably

Guest post by Helen-Ann Brown Epstein, MLS, MS, AHIP, FMLA, informationist at the Health Sciences Library Virtua in Mt Laurel, New Jersey.

I am of the generation that fondly remembers when the comedian George Carlin mused about our obsession with stuff.

“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff,” he said. “That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff.”

And having a place for our stuff, he observes, allows us to relax, whether we’re at home or traveling.

But what about the stuff that matters to us as health information professionals? How can we sustainably organize all that while keeping up with the literature for both our customers and ourselves?

The information explosion keeps creating more and more stuff. Currently, PubMed has more than 29 million citations, but they’re not stopping. On average, NLM adds about 1.1 million citations per year to PubMed. That’s nearly 92,000 citations per month or over 21,000 citations per week. Who can keep up with that?!

Once upon a time, we used index card files of relevant citations, clustered by MeSH or our favorite terms, to organize key references. Sometimes, we ripped out relevant articles or photocopied them, building stacks of stuff we promised ourselves we’d read.

Today, online databases make it possible to retrieve smaller, more precise results sets. We’re also able to create online alerts focused on special topics or specific journals. We can then store these citations in My NCBI accounts that can be exported into bibliographic citation management software. Some of these software packages even allow us to download PDFs, add notes to them, and then share them with colleagues.

We’ve come a long way.

In my everyday life as a health sciences librarian, I work solo for a large three-hospital system. My virtual library frees me up to make house calls to help my customers set up their own current awareness alerts that will deliver the important literature and key tables of contents to their inboxes. I also use my visits to encourage them to setup their own My NCBI accounts and to leverage the power of bibliographic software to manage their citations. And I talk about how crucial it is to decide how to best organize their literature and other sources of information at the start of any project, not later, when the volume gets too big to manage.

As part of the first cohort of the Medical Library Association Research Training Institute, I’m learning from experience the benefits of that last bit of wisdom. Following the advice of our expert faculty, I have created my alerts and determined the headings for my collections of citations. Though I’m at the early stages, I expect taking these important first steps will help ensure that I’m not missing relevant articles as they come out and might even help me unearth applicable research from disciplines I had not previously considered. I also expect to more readily find saved articles more quickly when I need them and possibly uncover connections I had not previously seen. At minimum, I know that building a collection of resources from the beginning will give me the freedom to get to articles when I’m ready for them, knowing they’ll be there waiting.

Ultimately though, by establishing now how I will manage the information, I’ve discovered that George Carlin was right. Now that I have a “house” for my stuff, I can relax. Instead of stressing out over where that stuff is going to go, I can focus on the research, knowing that I have a system in place to keep my resources organized and to keep me on track as I evaluate online journal club formats and their role in an interprofessional patient care team.

How do you keep your information stuff organized? I welcome your comments and questions.

headshot of Helen-Ann Brown EpsteinHelen-Ann Brown Epstein, MLS, MS, AHIP, FMLA, currently serves as the informationist at the Health Sciences Library Virtua in Mt Laurel, New Jersey. She spent the previous 22 years as a clinical librarian at Weill Cornell Medical Library. Helen-Ann is active in the Medical Library Association and has authored or co-authored several articles on medical librarianship.

New Year, New Directions for NLM

Over the past two years I’ve been updating you on the NLM strategic plan and our progress toward making it real. Today, in this first blog post of 2019, I’ve got many exciting things to share with you!

As of January 1, 2019, NLM has a new organizational chart that anticipates the outcome of a first phase of reorganization that will be implemented over the coming year. This initial phase focuses on consolidating NLM staff and related programs into fewer divisions and offices to improve efficiency and our overall effectiveness. We’ll be working out the details of these changes during the year, and we’ll keep you informed of our progress and the implications for specific NLM programs and services as we go along.

First, missing from the new organizational chart is the Specialized Information Services (SIS) Division, the place within NLM that addressed the health information needs of specific communities, including Native Americans, minority-serving institutions, and urban teens. We have not wavered in our commitment to these and other populations traditionally underserved within health care, but we are working to ensure both the sustainability of this notable work and its integration into the fabric of the new NLM. Our new, streamlined organization will incorporate within other offerings the critical information resources and services SIS originally provided.

Second, the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications, situated within the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications since the early 1990s, has closed. This unit offered many innovations over the years, advancing health computing to the 21st century and launching one of our most incredible ventures, the Visible Human Project. NLM will continue to make the Visible Human data available, but staff from the Office will be incorporated into other branches of the Lister Hill Center.

The third arm of the reorganization integrates the creative design and development services of the Audiovisual Programs Development Branch, also from the Lister Hill Center, into NLM’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison. This realignment will help us incorporate advanced media and visualization techniques into our robust communication programs to better inform the public of our many information services and research advances.

Finally, NLM is renaming its Office of Health Information Programs Development the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI). OSI will play a key role in advancing NLM efforts in data and open science, program evaluation, and the strategic plan implementation.

Along with these changes we’ll be assessing staff skills and evaluating their interests to best align those skills and interests with NLM’s evolving needs. We are committed to retaining our federal staff as we realign functions, and we’ll do our best to ensure we have matched our talented staff with work they enjoy and the Library needs.

Reorganizing a successful and beloved institution like NLM requires ongoing communication, lots of listening, sufficient time to make sure we’re on the right track, and a strong dose of trust. We’re well on our way, but this is a journey, not a sprint. We’ll be taking the pulse of NLM, its 1,700 staff, and our global stakeholders along the way. Let us know how we’re doing and how you like the look of our future.