Celebrating the Contributions of African American Scientists at NIH

The National Library of Medicine is proud once again to partner with the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to celebrate Black History Month.  This year, we’re marking the occasion by hosting a photographic display celebrating African American scientists at NIH.  The exhibition will be on display through the end of February.

I was delighted to welcome the honorees and their families and friends to the exhibition’s opening ceremony on February 4. Christopher Williams, STEM education director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, acknowledged in his opening remarks the power of being in a room with over 200 people celebrating African American scientists. The event, he noted, “provides an opportunity for those who have been blazing the trails to connect with those who are just starting along the way.”

For Roland Owens, PhD, NIH Director of Research Workforce Development, those just starting out include black youth, hungry for role models. “The purpose of this poster project is to make it easier for everyone to see that there are black scientists doing great things for the world,” he said.

Who are those doers of great things?

Let me introduce you to the 14 black scientists from 10 different institutes and centers across NIH who continue to drive the science and our organization forward.

headshot of Marie Bernard, MDMarie Bernard, MD
Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging

 

posed photo of Darlene Dixon, DVM, PhDDarlene Dixon, DVM, PhD
Group Lead, Molecular Pathogenesis Group, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

 

headshot of Emmeline Edwards, PhDEmmeline Edwards, PhD
Director, Division of Extramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

 

headshot of Courtney Fitzhugh, MDCourtney Fitzhugh, MD
Lasker Clinical Research Scholar, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

 

headshot of Shawn Gaillard, PhDShawn Gaillard, PhD
Research Training Officer, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

 

posed photo of Gary Gibbons, MDGary Gibbons, MD
Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

 

Carl V. Hill, PhD, MPH, speaks from behind a podiumCarl V. Hill, PhD, MPH
Director, Office of Special Populations, National Institute on Aging

 

headshot of Alfred Johnson, PhDAlfred Johnson, PhD
Deputy Director for Management, Office of the Director

 

headshot of Zayd M. Khaliq, PhDZayd M. Khaliq, PhD
Stadtman Investigator, Cellular Neurophysiology Unit, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

 

posed photo of Worta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MSWorta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MS
Chief of the Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, National Cancer Institute

 

headshot of Roland Owens, PhDRoland Owens, PhD
Assistant Director, Office of Intramural Research, Office of the Director

 

headshot of Anna Ramsey-Ewing, PhDAnna Ramsey-Ewing, PhD
Director, Office of Grants Management and Scientific Review, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

 

posed photo of Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACPGriffin Rodgers, MD, MACP
Director, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

 

posed photo of Fasil Tekola-Ayele PhDFasil Tekola Ayele PhD
Earl Stadtman Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

 

The exhibition honoring these scientists is currently on display in the Library’s Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A). The panels recognize each scientist with his or her photograph, current position, and a quote about his or her career path.

I was touched and challenged by these scientists’ insights as I learned about their particular motivations, significant mentors, and notable experiences that shaped their research and their lives. I also marveled at their range of interests and accomplishments, though I couldn’t help but notice the common threads of tenacity, drive, and commitment to excellence that bound them all together.

I was also struck by the connection across generations as I toured the exhibit in the company of Gary Gibbons, MD, and Paule Joseph, RN, PhD. These two scientists represented different points on the career trajectory: Gibbons an accomplished cardiologist who has been the Director of NHLBI since 2012 (and my personal mentor since I arrived at NIH); and Joseph, a young scholar from the National Institutes of Nursing Research. As we strolled together among the panels and discussed the honorees, I felt grateful for the tremendous accomplishments of my colleagues featured in the exhibition, and I also felt excited and hopeful for the advancements yet to come from so many young, innovative researchers just starting out—and by those coming behind them, inspired by their stories. It leaves me optimistic and eager to see the bright future they will help usher in and makes me wonder what marks they will make on biomedical research and discovery.

Whatever they are, I expect NLM will be there to tell their story. The Library remains committed to showcasing the contributions of African Americans in health care and biomedical science. In fact, four of our History of Medicine’s recent exhibitions highlight those contributions:

  • Binding Wounds, an exhibition about African Americans in Civil War medicine
  • Opening Doors, stories of contemporary African American surgeons
  • Fire & Freedom, a look at power imbalance, food, and enslavement in the early days of the United States
  • The Politics of Yellow Fever, which includes the essential role Philadelphia’s free African American residents played during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793

You can see three of those exhibitions on display now at NLM. Two, Binding Wounds and Opening Doors, are set up in the Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A) around the corner from the panels featuring our 14 scientist honorees. The third, The Politics of Yellow Fever, which just opened January 11, occupies the entryway to our History of Medicine Division.

If you can’t visit in person, check out the companion websites for each of these exhibitions. You’ll be glad you did—and grateful, like me, for the  contributions of African American healers, clinicians, and scientists.

Promoting Trust in Trustable Information

NLM is and always has been committed to providing access to trustworthy information. We pride ourselves on being an authoritative source of reliable biomedical and health information for scientists, clinicians, the public, and policy makers—a role that begins by building a collection of quality materials, carefully selected.

Our collection development policy, coupled with long-standing library principles, scientific expertise, and years of collective experience, helps ensure the quality, accuracy, and currency of our resources, whether that’s our literature repositories, our consumer health information, or our biomedical data banks. And that excellence is reflected in the trust we’ve earned, trust validated by the millions of users who visit our website each day.

But for all the authoritative information we and others share online, the internet serves up false or misleading information almost as frequently. How can we—and the citizens we serve—function effectively in such an environment?

A recent article in The New York Times helps highlight one possible path.

Pointedly titled “Why do people fall for fake news?” the article offers insights applicable beyond the political arena on which it focuses. The article’s authors, Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, ran studies to test participants’ ability to distinguish true statements from false claims. Their results highlighted the power of reflective reasoning to help people interpret information’s veracity. That is, the more people could think critically and be conscious of the steps in their own thinking, the more accurate their understanding of the information and the less likely they were to be swayed by their own rationalizations or weighted down by intellectual laziness.

What does this mean for NLM?

That beyond providing trustable health and biomedical information, we can also help our customers by building their reflective reasoning  and critical thinking skills and giving them the confidence and practice to use them. By integrating training, tools, and tutorials into our outreach programs we can boost people’s ability to distinguish good health information from the bad, which will help them make better decisions for their own health and the health of their loved ones.

After all, providing accurate information gets us only part of the way. We also need to be sure that people are recognizing and using quality, trustworthy health information and shunning the inaccurate, the biased, and the just-plain-dangerous. Our health depends on it.

Revving Up NLM Research

Last week NLM took another big step in revving up its intramural research operation. On Tuesday, January 15, we launched a national search for a scientific director to oversee all intramural research, a move that elevates the position and reflects its broad-based, trans-NLM scope of responsibilities.

The new position arises in response to the Blue Ribbon Panel that recently reviewed NLM’s intramural research programs and recommended, among other forward-looking ideas, unifying the programs under a single scientific director. That shift also aligns the Library with NIH’s other Institutes and Centers, most of which are guided by one scientific director.

The NLM intramural research program includes activities housed in both the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHC) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The researchers in these two centers develop and apply computational approaches to a broad range of problems in biomedicine, molecular biology, and health, but they do so via different channels—LHC focusing on medical and clinical data, NCBI on biological and genomic data.

But as the Blue Ribbon Panel noted, the boundaries are dissolving between clinical and biological data, and the analytical and computational strategies for each are increasingly shared. As a result, the current research environment calls for a more holistic view of biomedical data, one best served by shared approaches and ongoing collaborations while preserving the two centers’ unique identities.

A single scientific director will help make that happen.

Such unified leadership is expected to yield a number of benefits for NLM’s intramural research, including a sharper focus on research priorities; collective alignment with NLM and NIH strategies; fewer barriers to collaboration; the cross-fertilization of ideas; and the optimization of scarce resources. Essentially, we expect to spark synergies and garner efficiencies, with accelerated research the result.

As one of the first orders of business, the new scientific director will be asked to craft a long-range plan that identifies research areas where we can best leverage our unique position and resources. We’ll also look for ways to allocate more resources to fundamental research while streamlining operational support. Down the road, we’ll expand our research agenda to include high-risk, high-reward endeavors, the kinds of things that raise profound questions and have the potential to yield tremendous impact.

It’s a bold and significant undertaking.

Fortunately, the new scientific director will be supported by the experienced intramural investigators already onboard and by a seasoned NLM leadership team. In addition, three new investigators currently being recruited will complement our strengths in machine learning and natural language processing.

It promises to be a fabulous and exciting journey.

Do you know someone who’d make a great scientific director? Or maybe you’re ready to step up to this opportunity yourself. If so, please let us know by contacting the search committee at NLMSD@nih.gov.

Or, if you’d like to talk about the direction we’re heading, add a note below. I look forward to hearing from you.

More information
NLM Scientific Director Job Announcement

In Support of Sick Leave

Last week I took a sick day. It’s a rare thing for me, but I was just too ill to come to work. A nasty bout of food poisoning coupled with a fever had me lying low for 48 hours, most of which I slept through.

Because I took the time though, I came back to the office rested, refreshed, and feeling much better. I also returned with renewed gratitude and appreciation for sick leave as part of my benefits package. I know many are not so fortunate.

When it’s provided as a workplace benefit, sick leave assures those who are ill that they can take time to recover or to care for an ailing family member. It also protects those at the office from being exposed to infectious diseases and may in fact lessen the spread of contagious illnesses like the flu. Knowing that any one of us might end up out on sick leave also encourages us to be prepared not to be at work—to make sure that, even in our absence, the communication lines remain open, the information necessary to keep the work place humming is available, and back-ups are in place and ready to step in.

But aside from those basic and important ways that sick leave serves us all,  it also influences a practice called “presenteeism.” While the definition of presenteeism can vary, it generally means coming to work when ill or in pain. While that might sound admirable to some, research (including a recent paper by Allen and colleagues) has shown that presenteeism can cause serious problems both for the work place and for the people who work there. Employees impaired due to health issues show poor concentration and are less productive, which directly impacts the quantity and quality of their work. Those same employees might also find they don’t recover as quickly or that their illness is exacerbated by trying to push through. And the situation isn’t much better for their co-workers, who might still be called upon to pick up the slack while risking exposure to whatever contagious illness their sick colleagues have.  As a result those individual decisions to come in to the office despite illness might ripple through the team or organization for weeks, causing more absences and lost productivity.

Many factors contribute to presenteeism, including a sense that we are essential to our work place. (I can be guilty of that one.) We also often hold a high bar to what constitutes being “sick enough” to take a day off, a factor frequently impacted both by one’s personal sense of commitment and responsibility and by the work group’s norms and expectations. Others, particularly those who’ve experienced serious illness, know the value of banked sick leave and look to preserve hours whenever they can. And sometimes the leave policies themselves lead to a perverse use of sick time, such as when all personal time off is lumped into a single category, so that taking a sick day runs tantamount to shortening your next vacation. (The federal leave system does not work this way.)

Regardless of what is behind it though, presenteeism costs us all. In contrast, using sick leave appropriately helps us all, by ensuring that you’re tending your health, reducing the spread of contagious illnesses, and contributing fully to work once you’re back in the office.

So, the next time you feel under the weather, have a slight temperature, or are struggling with chronic pain, think more seriously about taking a sick day. Chances are you’ll make the workplace healthier and more productive, and even more importantly, you’ll make yourself feel better.

New Year, New Directions for NLM

Over the past two years I’ve been updating you on the NLM strategic plan and our progress toward making it real. Today, in this first blog post of 2019, I’ve got many exciting things to share with you!

As of January 1, 2019, NLM has a new organizational chart that anticipates the outcome of a first phase of reorganization that will be implemented over the coming year. This initial phase focuses on consolidating NLM staff and related programs into fewer divisions and offices to improve efficiency and our overall effectiveness. We’ll be working out the details of these changes during the year, and we’ll keep you informed of our progress and the implications for specific NLM programs and services as we go along.

First, missing from the new organizational chart is the Specialized Information Services (SIS) Division, the place within NLM that addressed the health information needs of specific communities, including Native Americans, minority-serving institutions, and urban teens. We have not wavered in our commitment to these and other populations traditionally underserved within health care, but we are working to ensure both the sustainability of this notable work and its integration into the fabric of the new NLM. Our new, streamlined organization will incorporate within other offerings the critical information resources and services SIS originally provided.

Second, the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications, situated within the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications since the early 1990s, has closed. This unit offered many innovations over the years, advancing health computing to the 21st century and launching one of our most incredible ventures, the Visible Human Project. NLM will continue to make the Visible Human data available, but staff from the Office will be incorporated into other branches of the Lister Hill Center.

The third arm of the reorganization integrates the creative design and development services of the Audiovisual Programs Development Branch, also from the Lister Hill Center, into NLM’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison. This realignment will help us incorporate advanced media and visualization techniques into our robust communication programs to better inform the public of our many information services and research advances.

Finally, NLM is renaming its Office of Health Information Programs Development the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI). OSI will play a key role in advancing NLM efforts in data and open science, program evaluation, and the strategic plan implementation.

Along with these changes we’ll be assessing staff skills and evaluating their interests to best align those skills and interests with NLM’s evolving needs. We are committed to retaining our federal staff as we realign functions, and we’ll do our best to ensure we have matched our talented staff with work they enjoy and the Library needs.

Reorganizing a successful and beloved institution like NLM requires ongoing communication, lots of listening, sufficient time to make sure we’re on the right track, and a strong dose of trust. We’re well on our way, but this is a journey, not a sprint. We’ll be taking the pulse of NLM, its 1,700 staff, and our global stakeholders along the way. Let us know how we’re doing and how you like the look of our future.

Holiday Greetings to All!

It’s the time of the year for celebrating many holidays, from the winter solstice to Kwanzaa. I’m in Seattle spending Christmas week with my son, Conor. We’re reveling in tradition, cooking some of our family’s favorite foods and re-telling the stories that never get old. We’ve got a small Christmas tree and a crèche in a place of honor and my 25-year-old son’s stocking hanging nearby, now emptied of the goodies he looked forward to for weeks. (The thrill of Christmas doesn’t discriminate based on age, after all.)

Before I left on vacation, I took part in a few of NLM’s holiday celebrations. I love the many smells and tastes and textures these gatherings bring thanks to our multi-national workforce, so many of whom share their food traditions with us. These get-togethers also give me an opportunity to talk with staff and to learn more about them, about their work, their families, their lives, and about how they celebrate this time of year. These moments give us the chance to build and nurture the relationships and social structure that help this complex organization run smoothly.

December also brings an opportunity to reflect on what has been an exciting and busy year. The Board of Regents completed its strategic planning process, and NIH leadership reviewed and accepted the plan. We’ve launched a Strategic Plan Implementation Council, with representatives from every key division and office, to support conversations and communications across NLM. The Blue Ribbon Panel completed its assessment of our intramural research program, deeming it strong and essential and providing recommendations for expansion. And we’ve engaged staff and the NIH Office of Research Facilities in planning how best to use the space on the first floor of our beautiful building (Building 38).

Our outstanding staff have also stepped up to support new initiatives at NIH, including improving advanced data management and storage and assuring the security and integrity of computer services. This work reflects our commitment to maintaining the public trust we hold so dear, ensuring the resources we maintain are of the highest quality and delivered effectively.

I am particularly excited about some of the new research and training NLM is funding through our extramural program. In addition to investigator-initiated projects, we funded several proposals under our Personal Health Libraries program. This program is designed to develop new tools to help patients and lay people share in the advances afforded by data-driven discoveries and data powered health. We also launched a new program on computational approaches to curation, which will accelerate NLM’s use of automated approaches to indexing and labeling research products such as articles and data sets.

We’ve made significant progress in building the capacity of scientists and clinicians to use data for research and care. Our pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training programs collaborated to build educational resources, curricula, and courses on data science within biomedical informatics programs. A new initiative challenged these same training programs to partner with schools of library and information science to better engage librarians in data science initiatives, and to ensure those initiatives benefit from the knowledge and skills of librarians.

It has been quite a year.

Recounting these accomplishments reminds me that, like the holidays themselves, people are the most important part of what we do. So, as you continue to celebrate, keep in mind the people, the connections, that lift and sustain us throughout the year, and remember, too, those we serve. We can’t do any of this alone, so thank you for being a part of our reason for being.

Best wishes of the season to all of you!

Recognizing Outstanding Work and an Outstanding Staff

It’s no secret I think the women and men who work at the National Library of Medicine are world-class, and I take every opportunity to sing their praises. At this time of year though, we also take time to acknowledge formally their commitment and their excellence.

Last week we held a ceremony to recognize the contributions of staff—whether as individuals or as teams—who’ve gone over the top, beyond the usual effort, to accomplish work important to NLM. This year we honored almost 500 people for an array of accomplishments.

We honored many individuals and teams for their special acts of service and exemplary performance for the Library, including exhibiting outstanding leadership, providing expert support, taking on additional responsibilities during times of transition, or toiling behind the scenes to make NLM resources more accessible, secure, and stable. We applauded the group that organized and hosted the NIH Science Day and the team responsible for conducting the security audit of NLM’s mission-critical systems. We recognized the strategic partnership established with a local university to host a conference on digital scholarship, touted the Library Carpentry workshops offered to build staff skills with data science tools, and celebrated the redesign of several important public-facing websites. We recognized our scientists who used large data sets to discover clinical patterns and detect infectious diseases, and we trumpeted women leaders who use their time and talents to foster the careers of other women across NIH.

We also acknowledged staff who received NIH Merit Awards. Besides honoring the recipients themselves, these awards bring important recognition to the talents and contributions of NLM across the biomedical research enterprise. This notable work included developing automated approaches to managing literature and data, strengthening the human chain of information formed through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, and providing quality health information in Spanish.

We honored those individuals with landmark years of service, including 16 people who have worked in the federal government for 30 years or more.  They were joined by 22 staffers with 20 years of service and another 49 with 10 years. Their collective march across the stage represented years upon years of experience and dedication to public service, and their work has made a lasting difference to NLM and to those who use our resources.

And speaking of making a lasting difference to NLM, I was delighted to present Betsy Humphreys with a plaque commemorating her Presidential Rank Award as a 2017 Distinguished Government Executive. I was thrilled to have her back with us, even for a day, and to watch the standing ovation that welcomed her home as a valued and much-missed colleague!

All 1,700 of my colleagues here at NLM make me proud. The Honor Awards simply give us the opportunity to express that publicly, to celebrate their talents and acknowledge their efforts, which, together, make this a world-class enterprise.