Building Bridges Throughout My Career

Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting a fireside chat with Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH and our nation’s top infectious disease expert. This event took place as part of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) 2020 Virtual Annual Symposium and was shared with almost 1,000 AMIA attendees.

I will share a few key points of wisdom that Tony provided a little later in this post, but first I want to share the experience of bridging my life-long affiliation with a dynamic professional society and my current responsibilities as NLM director.

Making Connections

As NLM director, I support the work of the 1,700 women and men who conduct research, enable access to the vast biomedical literature, and accelerate data-driven discovery. I understand the importance of professional societies, like AMIA, that advance the field by nurturing and supporting health information professionals, providing platforms for sharing research findings, and creating spaces that inspire discoveries and improve health through information technologies. Rarely has the critical importance of the field of biomedical informatics been more sharply focused than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moments of joy with Dr. Fauci during our fireside chat.
AMIA Fireside Chat
Top row (L to R): Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan
Bottom row: Dr. Eneida Mendonça, Chair of the AMIA 2020 Scientific Program Committee

During the hour spent with Tony, I was reminded that engaging with domain experts can elevate awareness of where biomedical informatics challenges exist and the potential solutions that could have a broad impact. Taking part in this event with a giant in the field, like Dr. Fauci, was like taking a tour through the fields of microbiology, immunology, chemistry, pharmaceutical development, public health, and science education, highlighting the many points of impact open to biomedical informatics interventions.

It was wonderful to be able to introduce AMIA to Dr. Fauci, and vice versa. Tony spoke passionately about the importance of data sharing — emphasizing that peer review brings trust to data, and that data should be shared in ways that people can easily access and use. In his closing remarks, Tony expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to talk with the biomedical informatics community and acknowledged the benefits of building bridges to learn from each other.

Sharing What We Learned Together

Shared with permission:

Through this interaction with Tony, I developed a deeper sense of his passion for science as well as his confidence in science. In considering how to best understand the long-term effects of COVID-19, Tony advocated for the effective use of patient registries – an area where biomedical informatics could make considerable contributions. When asked about how to better infuse science into our educational system, he enthusiastically responded that introducing children to science and scientific concepts in early childhood can foster a lifelong love of science, adding that “science can be love at first sight!”

I learned that preparedness is more important than prevention when it comes to pandemics. I was inspired by many of his views, including that supporting local public health authorities is the best first step to strengthening the national public health infrastructure. Finally, I developed a new perspective on the importance of scientific communications during emergencies and the challenges that can emerge when mixed messages and differing perspectives create confusion and uncertainty. 

The AMIA audience also shared what they learned from this session. Dr. Fauci’s clear explanation of the current trend that 75 percent of emerging infections originate through zoonotic transmission (i.e., disease that is passed from animals to humans) put into perspective his advice to prepare for — not try to prevent future pandemics. As one AMIA attendee offered, “It takes everyone to beat back this pandemic, and informatics has a role to play.” Another attendee shared of learning about new opportunities for biomedical informatics in global health.

As two of the 27 Institute and Center Directors at NIH, Tony and I share many responsibilities and have many opportunities to collaborate. Certainly, our mutual regard provides a strong platform for a discussion. What I didn’t expect from this discussion was to walk away with new insights about the importance of NLM’s support for open data, data sharing, and outreach to the public through our highly trusted information resources. I am delighted that we may have inspired AMIA attendees to answer some of the many challenges Tony described in guiding science and society through this pandemic.

Bridges are built by the concerted efforts of many people.

For this event, the AMIA Board of Directors brainstormed to come up with a set of questions that allowed for a lively discussion. AMIA members posed additional questions through a crowdsourcing strategy. Staff from NLM, NIAID, and AMIA collaborated to coordinate logistics, technology, messaging, and outreach to support the success of this conversation between two colleagues.

Did you attend the fireside chat at AMIA with Dr. Fauci? If so, what new planks on the bridge of your life did you discover?

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