Turning Talent into Treasure

One of NLM’s greatest assets is its talented, creative workforce. Last year, NIH called on its 27 Institutes and Centers to step up to mount an effective response to COVID-19. Supported by Congress, NIH invested more than $2 billion to ensure rapid access to COVID-19 testing for everyone in the United States — funding research to accelerate access to vaccines and therapeutics and leveraging existing clinical trials and electronic health record data to characterize, monitor, and treat the long-term sequalae of COVID-19 infections.

How is NLM supporting NIH’s COVID-19 response? Well, not surprisingly, our literature and genomic repositories are key to inspiring new research and providing the reference annotated genomes used to evaluate the SARS-CoV-2 virus and help discern its variants. Our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) gives NLM a face in communities across the United States, providing trustable, community-specific health information and increasing community engagement in NIH research programs. Our researchers are developing new analytic tools to more efficiently interpret medical images and refine the taxonomy of viruses so the properties of related viruses can be better understood. All of these activities draw on the talents of our almost 1,700 staff and the extensive partnerships we have with collaborators within the government and across the country. But it’s our special knowledge of data science, library science, and informatics that is making it possible for NIH to set up many new research programs with systematic attention to data coordination, data reuse, and data integration.

I want to highlight the talents of people working diligently across NIH. When NIH receives congressional funding for new programs or innovative research, a lot of work happens behind the scenes before these funds are awarded to investigators. Program announcements are written, solicitations offered, proposals received and reviewed, and awards made. Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of human effort. NIH has staff engaged in all of these activities for our typical programs and standard research mechanisms. To date, NIH received almost $4.9 billion to fight COVID, which is about 8.8% of the NIH’s total budget of nearly $43 billion for fiscal year 2021. NIH efforts to address COVID required a legion of staff members to refocus their regular priorities to participate in this emergency response. The contributions of NLM staff in this effort were amazing, with nearly 50 people from NLM stepping up to help write funding announcements, participate in reviews, and/or managing the awards process.

In particular, I want to elevate the work of three of our NLM staff who have made significant contributions to this effort. Yanli Wang, PhD, is a program officer in our Division of Extramural Programs. Because of her expertise in data science and training in chemistry, Dr. Wang was detailed to the RADx Radical (RADx-rad) program. RADx-rad is supporting innovative approaches, including rapid detection devices and home-based testing technologies, that will address current gaps in COVID-19 testing and extend existing approaches to make them more usable, accessible, or accurate. Dr. Wang serves as the program officer for the Discoveries and Data Coordinating Center and is working to provide programmatic stewardship and make sure that data across all studies is collected in a systematic manner that fosters data integration and data reuse. A critical aspect of Dr. Wang’s work is fostering the uses of common data elements across the projects and over time.

Two NLM staff members support NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery or RECOVER Initiative. RECOVER is studying the post-acute experiences of the estimated 10% to 30% of people who contract COVID-19 and continue to experience a range of symptoms. Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of NLM’s Office of Engagement and Training, is our representative to the RECOVER Initiative executive and coordinating committee. In this role she helps prepare the many funding announcements that stimulate research or reuse of clinical data to best understand this complex problem. Ms. Wilson leverages the extensive resource of the NNLM in support of community-based education and support of the COVID-19 crisis.

Another NLM staffer supporting the RECOVER Initiative is Paul Fontelo. In addition to his roles in training and research in NLM’s Intramural Research Program, Dr. Fontelo is a pathologist by training. He provides specialized expertise to the Autopsy Cohort Studies to identify tissue injury due to SARS-COV-2 infection, delivers technical direction to awardees, and approves certain deliverables and reports as required. He also participates in the application reviews of the Autopsy Cohort and the Mobile/Digital Health platform and is a member of the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Executive Coordination Committee.

I’m grateful to these colleagues, and many more across NLM, who are going above and beyond their usual job responsibilities to help NIH step up to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic! Join me in thanking them for their efforts and using the talents of the NLM to create invaluable treasures for NIH!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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