Looking Backward, Looking Forward—Together

photos of Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan's time as Director of the National Library of Medicine

Last week, NIH announced that I am retiring from the National Library of Medicine and federal service on September 30. One thing I’ve learned as a federal employee is that nothing at work ever happens all alone as we work collaboratively. We are always in the actual or mental company of colleagues and coworkers with whom our combined efforts knit together to produce the research and services that bring insights from biomedical data or information that advance science and society to the world. In this posting, one of more than 300 that I’ve shared with you over the past seven years, I invite you to look backward at what we have accomplished together and look forward to the next journey for NLM, and for me.

Let’s go back to Monday, August 15, 2016—my first day on the job. I was excited to learn all that NLM staff could teach me to help me lead this great institute! I walked quickly, wide-eyed, up to the NLM building from the metro stop, ready and anxious to start this new journey. NLM’s then deputy director, Betsy Humphreys, MLS, greeted me, and the amazing staff in NLM’s Office of Computer and Communications Systems made sure that I had the equipment to get started on the business of the day. Very quickly, I learned to ask about and jot down all the various acronyms that people were using.

Move forward a few weeks to Monday, September 12—when I was publicly sworn in as director, and a prelude to my first NLM Board of Regents meeting. I shared my vision for the role and tried to give NLM a chance to know me and to encourage you all to join me. (Recently I had a chance to review the videocast from the swearing-in ceremony, and I must say I am surprisingly pleased how many of the issues of which I spoke emerged as important to the NLM!) Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, former director of NIH, officiated the ceremony, and six of my siblings and my mother attended. I remember a sense of readiness (in me) and acceptance (from NLM), which prompted my younger brother to remark with surprise, “These people really seem to like you!” Brothers, really! I think we all learned to like each other.

Move forward to 2017 when I worked with NLM’s director of the Division of Extramural Programs (EP), Valerie Florance, PhD, to add $1 million to the EP budget to stimulate data science training through our T15 training programs. That led to the development of curricula and tools and inspired new approaches to pre- and post-doctoral training in biomedical informatics and data science.

In 2019, Dr. Collins and many of the NIH leadership team met in a room on the NLM’s mezzanine level (the second floor of the NLM building) with the NLM ClinicalTrials.gov team as that group laid forth a vision of a modern ClinicalTrials.gov operation. The NLM team did a super job walking Dr. Collins through the challenges of creating a global resource for clinical trials registration and reporting while leveraging modern computational technologies. This effort resulted in a major investment and multi-year effort to modernize ClinicalTrials.gov, with oversight by the NLM’s Board of Regents Public Service Working Group on ClinicalTrials.gov Modernization.

Before anyone realized that March 2020 heralded an auspicious period for the world, NLM was busy launching two initiatives important to our future. Our National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) staff started migrating the Sequence Read Archive from our on-premise storage to the commercial cloud. Now the largest biomedical database in the commercial cloud space, the SRA migration took more than seven weeks and almost brought down the internet. Twice. At the same time, NLM established an agreement with the NIH Office of Research Facilities that would lead to a $30 million building renovation, our first major investment in the building in over 70 years. The builders and architects predicted that we would have to move out of most of Building 38 for the better part of the next two years. But then the COVID-19 pandemic required that all our NLM telework-eligible staff work from home for over two years. The building renovation proceeded, slowly at times, and the plan is to move into NLM’s newly renovated physical space by spring 2025.

And the pandemic… what did we learn? We learned that we can preserve our operations, even at a distance. We delivered NLM products and services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during a global disruption caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and we showed how historical literature can help inform social and political responses to modern pandemics. NLM staff not only ‘held the line’ but envisioned new ways of working and delivered on new accomplishments! Our investigators applied new techniques to understand the evolution of the virus and to better detect the virus in wastewater. Our computer scientists and indexers worked remotely to transform a human endeavor into an automated process, which reduced the overall time required to add MeSH terms to MEDLINE articles from months to just a day.

Now we are learning how to improve our operations through the skillful application of large language models and other technologies, how to function creatively in hybrid meetings and distributed work models, and how to devise creative strategies to manage and curate the tsunami of data long anticipated that has finally arrived. And weren’t we ahead of the curve on coordinating standards! We are reaching out to young investigators to ensure that they achieve success in research funding and access to open data that infuses scholarship in biomedical informatics and data science with new ideas and novel approaches.

I hope you look forward with me to the vibrant future that will be NLM’s trajectory as we approach our third century. I don’t have a crystal ball, but if one can believe that the past is prologue, I foresee a period of unbridled growth through the creation of a culture of continuous innovation. The success of NLM’s 2023 Summer Sprint activity, in which three teams representing staff across NLM identified and crafted new approaches to participatory decision making, staff communication, and career development, demonstrated that we at NLM can blend our talents towards improving operations and advancing our mission. A major reorganization of our Library Operations and NCBI will streamline operations and improve the integrity of our collection management and delivery. The Network of the National Library of Medicine, a core component of our outreach, will evolve to meet its mission to reduce health disparities and improve health information literacy by providing funding, professional development, and learning opportunities to its 9,000+ members.

Investments in our Intramural Research Program (IRP) portend a period of growth in knowledge driven by data. Some researchers are looking for new ways to use large language models to improve NLM services and offerings such as improving recruitment to clinical trials. We’ve appointed eight new investigators to the IRP whose research contributions span areas ranging from predicting protein folding failures to improving clinical prediction in internal medicine and critical care by applying machine learning to patient records.

I am excited about how physical workspaces inspire creativity and help people perform at the top of their skills. I look forward to the future of work, when work conducted in distributed spaces is enhanced and enriched by meaningful collaborations and engagement. We have made great progress towards the One NLM model, and it will see you into the future that the worlds of science and society require of this great institution.

It is awesome to know that the end of my career was spent in the presence of the outstanding professionals of the National Library of Medicine. You have inspired me, and together we have done good!

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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