Tomorrow, August 15, marks my two-year anniversary as director of the National Library of Medicine. Last year I acknowledged the occasion by reflecting on Bob Dylan’s famous line (appropriately, for a library, from the tune “My Back Pages”), “Ah, but I was so much older then…I’m younger than that now.” This year I’m inspired more by the tone poems of Erik Satie, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Jean Sibelius.
You don’t come here expecting a musicology lesson, but do permit a brief one.
A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in one movement, which evokes the content of a poem, novel, painting, or other work of art. In the case of these three composers, the weaving of their beautiful melodies evokes the Library’s many parts, all of which contribute to our amazing products and services. And they do this in perfect harmony.
These innovative compositions can also inspire me to tear up the rule book and move in unexpected directions. And one composition, Sibelius’ Finlandia, particularly resonates with my sense of patriotism, which helps sustain my commitment to this position and to the work we do.
What has also sustained me over the last two years is the amount of change I’ve seen and experienced.
As NLM Director, I’ve learned there is no need to go it alone. We are an ensemble, each of us bringing our talents and skills to the performance. As I’ve fully embraced that idea, I’ve recognized the most knowledgeable and skilled person for a job might be—and often is—someone other than me.
I’ve watched NLM’s leaders coalesce into a team, learning more about each other and what it’s going to take to prepare this institution and its people for its third century. Recognizing that the Library’s ongoing vitality requires harmonies and synergies between the various divisions, the leadership team and I meet twice a month to identify the themes or motifs that transcend our organizational boundaries. We look for ways to make more efficient use of our resources, to leverage human talent and ensure the robustness of our services.
We’re also tackling the strategic plan’s implementation, debating priorities, making trade-offs, and holding each other accountable. My colleagues have offered tremendous wisdom and guidance, and they’ve helped raise the bar, expecting more of me and of each other. I now do meetings as a high art, ensuring the time is used effectively and everyone leaves with a clear plan and action items. It’s work and it takes discipline, but it’s also encouraging and rewarding, and it leaves me hopeful for what lies ahead.
Along with the tempo I’ve set at NLM, I’ve found a rhythm for working across NIH. I meet every 1-2 weeks with NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and the other Institute and Center (IC) directors. I serve on several trans-NIH committees, including the NIH Scientific Data Council and Data Science Policy Council. And I’m building more informal connections with many of my peer IC directors, getting together occasionally for meals to share best practices, avoid serious pitfalls, and help NIH and our respective ICs grow in our missions.
We’re well on our way. NIH leadership supports the NLM strategic plan. The Board of Regents is engaged with and guiding the implementation of our new initiatives. And staff at every level are involved in identifying tasks and milestones that will lead us toward our goals to accelerate discovery, improve health, reach more people, and build a skilled workforce.
And speaking of our workforce, I hope that everyone here recognizes that, like an orchestra, we need to work together to deliver the best performance we can and effectively serve science and society.
I continue to be both proud and grateful to lead this amazing institution. I look forward to the next movement.