Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now

I’m just passing the one-year mark in my tenure as Director of the National Library of Medicine. It has been an exciting year for me, filled with many learnings and lessons, and with each week I grow more delighted with this outstanding organization. I have the great good fortune of having taken a leap into an uncertain-but-promising opportunity and finding it to be more rewarding, more delightful, and more engaging than I had anticipated—and I took this position with very high hopes!

I have grown a lot since I arrived here in August 2016, and as the master balladeer Bob Dylan noted, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” A deep passion for NLM, its mission, its resources, and the people who work here replaces the early hope and excitement that accompanied me on my move to Bethesda. The bravado of vision is supplanted by the realities of working in the federal system. Acronyms and abbreviations now evoke people and processes for me. I have learned to appreciate the rich tapestry of scholarship, service, citations, and collections that make up the NLM. I have met many of our stakeholders and have come to see them as collaborators. And I’ve developed a new appreciation of the Library, not simply as a collection of resources, but also as a dynamic interaction of health and information.

Here are some surprises. I am struck by a sense of patriotism I found resting quietly deep in my soul. As the director of the only federally funded health library, I am responsible for ensuring our resources are expended in support of the public’s health—supporting discovery, knowledge delivery, and personal health management. I am proud of the 1,700 women and men who choose to work here, applying their knowledge and talents in service of society. And I am committed to weaving the tenets of open science through the mantle of government service.

I am amazed at how big the Library is—not just our buildings, with their byzantine hallways and underground spaces, but the human and electronic reach. Because of our 6,500-member National Network of Libraries of Medicine, the NLM has a footprint in almost every single county, and in American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. There is no country in the world that our resources can’t touch. We have 26 million citations in our PubMed bibliographic repositories, and petabytes of data moving in and out of our NCBI resources EVERY DAY!

And I am grateful—to the security guards who help protect our precious holdings, to our scientists who are finding ways to use literature and data to help our nation meet health crises such as the opioid epidemic, to our technical services team who keep our resources available 24 hours a day. I am grateful to the staff who have greeted me with welcome and patiently reminded me of their names. I am making progress, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Dylan’s words appeal to me because they characterize the arch of a journey, from initial awareness through growing familiarity to deep realization that the National Library of Medicine is truly a national treasure, and I am both humbled and proud to be guiding it towards its third century of service.

Photo credit (hourglass, top): Scott Schrantz [Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

Are we there yet?

On the road to data science at NLM

I can’t believe eight months have passed since I promised to “outline NLM’s plan to become what the ACD report recommended—the ‘epicenter of data science for the NIH.’” In June I sketched out a bit of that plan in our companion blog, DataScience@NIH, and recapped a handful of NLM efforts and accomplishments in data science.

I am immensely proud of these accomplishments, but I cannot take credit for them. As is often said, it takes a village…and we could achieve all that we have only through the combined efforts of staff across the entire Library.

How have we done it?

First, we try to be clear about the issue we’re addressing, clarifying and refining what we mean when we say “data science.” For me, data science comprises the principles and practices that underlie the effective use of data to glean insights and make new discoveries. To others it’s applying machine learning or biostatistics to investigate massively large data sets, as in our Lister Hill Center scientists’ exploration of the MIMIC data set or the Medicare claims data. And through Extramural Programs, we’re helping to fund yet another view of data science—the development of new analytical and methodological tools that can make personal medical data useful to patients and family members.

Second, we listen to the wisdom of our advisors. We’ve engaged over 150 experts and colleagues from across the country in NLM’s strategic planning process overseen by Drs. Dan Masys and Jill Taylor from our Board of Regents. Their report is still forthcoming, but in essence, they’ve advised us to build on our strengths, to remain true to our core mission, and to prepare for a future where data serve as a substrate to discovery.

To me their guidance translates to generating new methods at the intersection of library science, data science, and computer science to acquire, catalog, preserve, and make available data in the same way we’ve done for the scientific literature. If done well, that work will help accelerate the NIH “big science” initiatives (e.g., the BRAIN Initiative, All of Us Research Program, the Cancer Moonshot) while simultaneously ensuring the data can be applied to the broad range of environmental, behavioral, and social determinants of health.

Achieving a data-driven future will be—in fact, must be—a trans-NH accomplishment.

Third, we interact with colleagues across the NIH. Every month or so I convene a panel of directors of NIH institutes and centers to get their perspectives on the data science issues NIH faces and the ways NLM might respond to these challenges. Together we’re working to pair the institutes’ and centers’ domain-specific needs, which call for a certain degree of independence and flexibility, with the wisdom, benefits, and power of a collaborative response. It’s a balancing act, one made easier by a shared dedication to a data-powered future for health and biomedical research.

Fourth, we look within. Members of NLM’s leadership team are working with the women and men in each of their divisions to critically appraise what resources, processes, or practices we already have that can help resolve existing challenges in data science (e.g., the principles of curation or our investments in common data elements), as well as to figure out what new skills and resources we must develop. This whole process requires that we provide a safe space for staff to explore their future options while feeling confident and secure in their present positions—not a simple task.

And finally, we strive for efficiency. We’re sorting out the roles and responsibilities of a range of committees, work groups, and task forces, trying to avoid redundancies and respect boundaries while making effective use of the time and talents we have to apply to this exciting opportunity.

In summary, we are making progress in data science by talking (and listening) to each other—a lot—and by keeping in mind that achieving a data-driven future will be—in fact, must be—a trans-NH accomplishment.

So, are we there yet?

We know the future of NLM as the epicenter of data science will draw on our past and be shaped by the interactions of our present. We have over 180 years of tradition that serve as a solid platform from which to launch that future. We’re building the communication pathways to support visioning, accountability, and engagement. Most importantly, we’ve got the right people in the right discussions at the right time.

So, we may not be there yet, but we are well on our way!

But what more do we need to do to fuel our journey? What road hazards lie ahead? Let me know what you would do if you were at the wheel.

On the Importance of Getting Away

Work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization.

You can’t tell, but I am actually on vacation. I’ve taken off on a two-week road trip with a good friend. We’re traveling through the South and Southeast, enjoying friends in Asheville and Birmingham, checking out the music scenes in Memphis and Nashville, and visiting the monument to the Little Rock Nine honoring the high school students who, in 1957, braved physical and verbal abuse to desegregate Little Rock Central High School.

Two weeks of relaxing, reading, learning, visiting, and spa-ing are definitely good things.

I’ve been fortunate to have had many memorable vacations throughout my life, from camping trips in Maine with my parents and nine siblings to quick get-aways to the Jersey shore to some delightful work trips that let my son, Conor, and I add on time to explore parts of Asia, Europe, and South America. I have been lucky to have had the resources to fund vacations and the support of colleagues who made sure the work at home continued while I was away.

Through it all, I have come to realize it is just as important to have spaces between work as it is to have meaningful work.

As a nurse and an industrial engineer, I know that human performance is at its best when one takes breaks to relax and refresh. Inspiration gleaned during a hike through the woods can fuel the next research idea. Appreciating a centuries-old temple can open the mind and put into perspective a particularly knotty work challenge. And cleaning out closets or attending to family matters during a staycation can ease worry and bring a sense of peace that leaves you feeling rejuvenated.

At NLM I encourage staff to take time away. I believe that a high-quality work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization. It’s important to me as a leader to accept, even support, time away from the office and away from work.

So I urge you—to the extent possible—take time and get away: a week, a weekend, even a day. You’ll return to your work with fresh perspectives and a well-rested countenance.

Remember, too, to help colleagues get away, both through your encouragement and by picking up a bit of extra work, if needed. You’ll learn something, your coworkers will benefit, and your operation will be well on its way to greatness.

Is NLM Building a Library on Mars?

Safe, productive human space travel requires more than sophisticated spacecraft. From environmental conditions to the physiological and psychosocial impacts, NASA’s astronauts face unique challenges while living in space.

To help address those challenges, NIH and NASA established a research partnership in January 2016. The research opportunities arising from this partnership and through NASA’s Human Research Program are expected to improve health both for the population on Earth and for those who travel to Mars and beyond.

What’s the Library’s role?

Well, we’re not getting ready to build an NLM outreach-to-Mars program (yet!), but we are involved in issues related to informatics and health information technology.

We’re expanding our collections and the standard health care terminologies (MeSH, SNOMED, LOINC, RxNorm) to address new environments (i.e., space) and the health concerns faced there (e.g., long-term muscle wasting, bone loss, space radiation exposure). MeSH, for example, already includes terms related to space flight, such as hypogravity and weightlessness; PubMed offers a subset of content focused on space life sciences; PubMed Central houses peer-reviewed papers resulting from NASA-funded research; and our History of Medicine Division holds a unique collection of scientific studies, technical reports, books, and pamphlets received from NASA in 2015.

We’ll also work to fully identify the information and resources needed to support biomedical research and to deliver health services to humans who may be light years away. We can potentially build upon NLM’s current work with machine learning and image recognition to speed diagnosis, and enhance our telemedicine efforts to account for an interplanetary communications delay approaching 42 minutes between Earth and Mars. We’ll further refine our emerging data science methodologies to accelerate discoveries in real time during manned missions. And perhaps most important to me, we’ll imagine—and plan for—a future without the internet.

No internet?!

Astronaut and moon reflected in the window of the space stationCurrently the internet is essential for the delivery of NLM’s most-used services, but there is no internet in space. We need to anticipate an independent technological infrastructure that will allow us to support research and medical care without it.

Such foresight, planning, and commitment can yield great results. Indeed, because of NLM’s leadership of the High Performance Communication and Computing Program 24 years ago (1992), we had satellite communication services in place to support the long-distance conversation between NIH Director Francis Collins and Astronaut Kate Rubins last October (2016).

But thinking systematically about how to deliver scientific knowledge in space will yield benefits long before the Orion spacecraft sets course for Mars.

While we don’t expect the internet here on Earth to go away, we must be prepared to deliver 24/7 access to NLM resources in the event of an interruption in internet service, whether due to natural disasters, construction failures, cyberterrorism, or even solar flares.

So, the next time you hear that NLM is working on human space exploration, remember that, while we’re planning for an information-rich future, we’re also ensuring an information-available present.

The library on Mars will come later.

Co-authored by Dianne Babski, Deputy Associate Director for Library Operations, who serves as the NLM representative to the NIH/NASA Biomedical Research Partnership.

Photo credit (Mars in space, top): Composite NASA Hubble Space Telescope Image (October 19, 2014) | cropped

Channeling My Inner Betsy

A few of the lessons she imparted to me

In just a few days Betsy Humphreys, MLS, will officially retire from the National Library of Medicine after 44 years of outstanding service.

Over the past two weeks we have been celebrating her and acknowledging her incredible contributions to the nation’s health through her many roles at NLM. Currently NLM’s deputy director, Betsy served as the first woman and first librarian to lead the Library (2015-2016 Acting Director) after many, many years in various leadership positions here, including as associate director of Library Operations. Over the years, Betsy received many accolades for her work, including the Medical Library Association’s Carla J. Funk Award, the Morris F. Collen Award from AMIA, and even an honorary LOINC code, 86466-0: Maestro of scalable info infrastructure. And though I could go on at length about Betsy’s accomplishments and all that she has done to advance access to medical information—for the good of NLM and the country—I’ve been pondering instead how I’m going to keep Betsy with us after she retires by channeling my “inner Betsy” as I lead NLM toward its third century.

Humphreys holds a plaque while standing next to Vreeman
Betsy Humphreys accepts a plaque from Dr. Daniel Vreeman of the Regenstrief Institute acknowledging her enduring contributions to health data standards.

First, I will draw on the amazing storehouse of knowledge Betsy developed over decades about how best to deliver the scientific literature to researchers, clinicians, and the public. That knowledge significantly exceeds what she managed to transfer to me over the 10 months we worked together, but fortunately, it exists in the work processes and practices of the 1,700 women and men at NLM and in the national bodies shaped by Betsy’s influence. Whether it’s an efficient and effective way to apply the MeSH terminology to citations or the importance of making SNOMED CT freely available, Betsy not only knew what to do but made sure it was done in a sustainable manner.

Next, I will conduct myself with generosity, grace, and good will. Betsy can discern the best talents within everyone, and she consistently noted those talents when she introduced someone or described his/her work to a new colleague. More than once I heard Betsy say, “You know, we have just the best person for handling…” whatever task needed to be handled. Obviously, she knew the players, but it was her ability to hold her colleagues in unquestioning positive regard that enabled the most effective partnerships to flourish and got the best people to address complex tasks.

I will channel a commitment to accountability—to science, to society, to patients, to partners, and to the authors who entrusted their works to NLM for archiving and distribution. Betsy didn’t wait for someone to ask for follow-up; she provided it as part of the workplace discourse. Maintaining accountability to our diverse stakeholders sometimes meant describing to one set of stakeholders why a decision apparently in support of a different set of priorities needed to be made and was most likely the best course. Betsy took that on and did it with tact and skill.

I will try to channel Betsy’s loyalty to her colleagues, to NLM, and to NIH. Betsy’s sense of accountability arose from this loyalty—her commitment to make possible a scientist’s research, a work team’s new process, a colleague’s investment in one of NLM’s services. Betsy didn’t often speak of loyalty; she simply demonstrated it.

Still from the video of a smiling Betsy Humphreys
Click to watch the tribute video to Betsy Humphreys.

Finally I will channel Betsy’s commitment to personal health and work-life balance. While many of us are sipping that second cup of coffee as we peruse the Sunday paper, Betsy and her husband/hiking partner, Glenn, are out traversing some trail, whether somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region or across the globe in the Italian Dolomites. Many a Monday was enriched by Betsy’s enthusiastic, bright-eyed description of how she and Glenn enjoyed a vista or found new flowers on a familiar path.

Betsy imparted these and many other lessons I’m sure I can put to good use, and I hope to channel my inner Betsy throughout my entire tenure at the National Library of Medicine.

How you will channel your inner Betsy? Chime in below.