Happy anniversary to me!

Tomorrow, August 15, marks my two-year anniversary as director of the National Library of Medicine. Last year I acknowledged the occasion by reflecting on Bob Dylan’s famous line (appropriately, for a library, from the tune “My Back Pages”), “Ah, but I was so much older then…I’m younger than that now.”  This year I’m inspired more by the tone poems of Erik Satie, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Jean Sibelius.

You don’t come here expecting a musicology lesson, but do permit a brief one.

A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in one movement, which evokes the content of a poem, novel, painting, or other work of art. In the case of these three composers, the weaving of their beautiful melodies evokes the Library’s many parts, all of which contribute to our amazing products and services. And they do this in perfect harmony.

These innovative compositions can also inspire me to tear up the rule book and move in unexpected directions. And one composition, Sibelius’ Finlandia, particularly resonates with my sense of patriotism, which helps sustain my commitment to this position and to the work we do.

What has also sustained me over the last two years is the amount of change I’ve seen and experienced.

As NLM Director, I’ve learned there is no need to go it alone. We are an ensemble, each of us bringing our talents and skills to the performance. As I’ve fully embraced that idea, I’ve recognized the most knowledgeable and skilled person for a job might be—and often is—someone other than me.

I’ve watched NLM’s leaders coalesce into a team, learning more about each other and what it’s going to take to prepare this institution and its people for its third century. Recognizing that the Library’s ongoing vitality requires harmonies and synergies between the various divisions, the leadership team and I meet twice a month to identify the themes or motifs that transcend our organizational boundaries. We look for ways to make more efficient use of our resources, to leverage human talent and ensure the robustness of our services.

We’re also tackling the strategic plan’s implementation, debating priorities, making trade-offs, and holding each other accountable. My colleagues have offered tremendous wisdom and guidance, and they’ve helped raise the bar, expecting more of me and of each other. I now do meetings as a high art, ensuring the time is used effectively and everyone leaves with a clear plan and action items. It’s work and it takes discipline, but it’s also encouraging and rewarding, and it leaves me hopeful for what lies ahead.

Along with the tempo I’ve set at NLM, I’ve found a rhythm for working across NIH. I meet every 1-2 weeks with NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and the other Institute and Center (IC) directors. I serve on several trans-NIH committees, including the NIH Scientific Data Council and Data Science Policy Council. And I’m building more informal connections with many of my peer IC directors, getting together occasionally for meals to share best practices, avoid serious pitfalls, and help NIH and our respective ICs grow in our missions.

We’re well on our way. NIH leadership supports the NLM strategic plan. The Board of Regents is engaged with and guiding the implementation of our new initiatives. And staff at every level are involved in identifying tasks and milestones that will lead us toward our goals to accelerate discovery, improve health, reach more people, and build a skilled workforce.

And speaking of our workforce, I hope that everyone here recognizes that, like an orchestra, we need to work together to deliver the best performance we can and effectively serve science and society.

I continue to be both proud and grateful to lead this amazing institution. I look forward to the next movement.

A Vacation’s Gifts Are More Than Souvenirs

Ahhh, summer! Life at NIH and NLM doesn’t really slow down this time of year—in fact, with all the interns and visiting scholars on campus, it can seem even busier, more frenetic than normal—but the long days and warm weather still bring with them a welcome ease. They also usher in vacation season for many, including me.

I’m on vacation right now, spending time with family (including, at different points, my 25-year-old son, my 89-year-old mom, eight of my nine siblings, and at least a handful of my 27 nieces and nephews), exploring Atlantic Coast beaches with friends, knitting, reading, and relaxing.

Sometimes a vacation’s most important gift is time away, breaking free of the everyday, dabbling in novel pursuits, opening up to unexpected opportunities and surprising vistas. In fact, I cherish my time off for that, for the chance to press the reset button. It helps me feel better, and it’s critical to finding fresh perspectives and uncovering new ideas once I return to the office.

My being away also allows those back at the ranch to experience work life without me. My absence gives them a chance to grow by tackling issues on their own or negotiating a temporary shift in duties. And once I’m back, I appreciate the skills they’ve learned and must sometimes develop a few myself as I adapt to changes that occurred over those two weeks.

But vacations are also about what we do during them, and this doing delivers its own gifts.

I’m going to use some of this vacation to catch up with one of my sisters. We usually see each other three or four times a year, with quick visits squeezed in between work events or hectic family gatherings. But this week we’re just going to hang out, enjoying the luxury of a few days of unstructured time together. I’ll watch her garden (I never help, but I love seeing her creativity), and she’ll try (once again!) to learn knitting from me.

Mostly though we’ll talk, and I’ll devour this wise woman’s insights. We’re similar in a lot of ways, including some career overlap. She has worked as a health policy expert, leaving government to join a university faculty, while I—long the die-hard academic—joined government after a career in the academy. So aside from the family chatter and sisterly banter, I look forward to learning from her again, whether that’s how to manage an issue or ways to move within the government labyrinth.

I’m also going to spend a few days with a high school classmate. We’ve been friends for 50 years—through career changes, relocations, and family milestones (for me, a child; for her, a dog). She’s a business woman who launched her own company about a decade ago. I’m continually amazed at how brave she is, how open to meeting the world head on as she grows her business. I look forward to our time together and the chance to continue to build our relationship, finding new ways to get to know someone I already know so well.

And even that helps me at work. After all, it occurred to me that, when you run an organization that is almost 200 years old, there’s tremendous value in understanding how to refresh what you do while holding true to first principles.

Which, come to think of it, could be considered the very purpose of vacation.

So as you enjoy your vacation or stay-cation, your long weekend or afternoon off, try to embrace both the respite it offers and the opportunities it brings. We’ll all be better for it.

Photo credit (beach, top): Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

Pearls of Wisdom

Building a career as a woman in biomedicine

Women scientists and researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are accomplishing amazing things.

NLM in Focus has featured a number of stories about such wise and wondrous women here at the Library, and at the NIH level, the Women in Biomedical Careers program works to promote women’s entry to and  sustained advancement within the biomedical sciences.

That program includes short videos titled “Pearls of Wisdom,” which present brief excerpts from interviews with women scientists. These clips, all running about one minute, offer messages from women scientists on how to build a career in the field of biomedicine.

This year, as the program turns its attention to leadership as a career path for women within biomedicine, I was asked to participate, along with several other NIH Institute and Center directors. The interview included questions about leadership, my career, and the mentors who helped me along the way.

The edited video won’t be ready for a while, but I was so jazzed by the process that I want to give you a sneak peek—both of what I said and of what I learned along the way.

Tops among those lessons: you can’t simply declare yourself a leader. Leadership is demonstrated and earned. One becomes a leader by taking on roles that call for leadership and by contributing within those roles, whether that’s in the trenches or out front, at the head of an initiative.

In addition, I’ve come to understand more fully that leadership is not the same as management. As trite as that might be, it’s also true. Leadership can exist in any position and at any level in the hierarchy, whether a manager or not. I see leadership as an authority granted by others—administrators, peers, or subordinates—that reflects one’s ability to inspire others and to knit together their ambitions and efforts to accomplish something. Stated another way: leadership is the ability to motivate, inspire, cajole, and engage talented people to contribute to a common vision and achieve a common goal.

As the interviewer’s questions moved on to my career, we spoke of how my career developed, its highlights and key challenges, and how I came to be at NIH. She also asked what career advice I would give my daughter (if I had one) or another young woman I cared about.

My answer: Find your passion and your career will follow.

I’m not sure where that insight came from, but it has stood me in good stead all these years. Passion has driven me to work until 3 AM polishing off a proposal and what has comforted me when that proposal wasn’t received as I had hoped. Passion has pushed me to learn more, to collaborate outside my field, and to engage with others when I might otherwise have worked alone. Passion has energized and stimulated my lifelong career, pointing the way toward new work opportunities, including some—like my current gig—that I could never have imagined years before.

The interviewer also asked about my mentors and mentees. I am blessed with many of both, and I hope I have told each of you what you’ve meant to me and thanked you for what I have learned from you. But her question reminded me that, while we may seek out mentors (or mentees), sometimes we’re gifted with them even when we aren’t looking or don’t realize we need them. Sometimes fate, luck, and timing take a hand, and it’s our job to seize the opportunity.

Take this interview, for example.

What started as a meeting on the calendar, an obligation to check off, morphed into an opportunity and a gift. This interview gave me the occasion to stop and look back on a career that has brought me tremendous satisfaction, even joy, and that look back has renewed my commitment to the road ahead.

I also hope it will help other women navigate their own road, because biomedicine needs women’s intellect, talent, ideas, and drive if we are to solve our leading health problems. While women have long influenced and enhanced the practice of medicine, we need to inspire a new generation of groundbreaking scientists and medical pioneers.

So what about you? How have women inspired you in your career? And what career advice might you give young women who want to work in biomedicine?


Public-Private Partnerships Will Accelerate Data-Driven Discovery

Big news today from NIH announcing their new initiative to develop and test new ways to best implement cloud services in support of biomedical research. Called STRIDES for “Science and Technology Research Infrastructure for Discovery, Experimentation and Sustainability,” the initiative will allow NIH to explore the use of cloud environments to streamline NIH data use. By partnering with commercial cloud service providers, NIH expects to improve access to biomedical data and provide cost-effective cloud infrastructure, data storage, computation, and machine learning services for NIH and NIH-supported investigators.

I thank the many NLM staff members who contributed key knowledge to help shape this initiative, and I’m confident that NLM will have many opportunities to impact STRIDES’ success, whether by devising discovery mechanisms, developing tools for investigators, assigning metadata to incoming data sets, or developing effective ways to link those data sets to related publications.

The full NIH press release follows.

NIH makes STRIDES to accelerate discoveries in the cloud
Google Cloud first to join effort.

The National Institutes of Health has launched a new initiative to harness the power of commercial cloud computing and provide NIH biomedical researchers access to the most advanced, cost-effective computational infrastructure, tools and services available. The STRIDES (Science and Technology Research Infrastructure for Discovery, Experimentation, and Sustainability) Initiative launches with Google Cloud as its first industry partner and aims to reduce economic and technological barriers to accessing and computing on large biomedical data sets to accelerate biomedical advances.

“NIH is in a unique position to bring together academic and innovation industry partners to create a biomedical data ecosystem that maximizes the use of NIH-supported biomedical research data for the greatest benefit to human health,” said NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD, who also serves as NIH’s interim Associate Director for Data Science. “The STRIDES Initiative aims to maximize the number of researchers working to provide the greatest number of solutions to advancing health and reducing the burden of disease.”

In line with NIH’s first-ever Data Science Strategic Plan released in June, STRIDES will establish additional innovative partnerships to broaden access to services and tools, including training for researchers to learn about the latest cloud tools and technologies. Services are expected to become available to the NIH-supported community after a series of pilot activities to refine policies and test and assess implementation approaches.

The initial agreement with Google Cloud creates a cost-efficient framework for NIH researchers, as well as researchers at more than 2,500 academic institutions across the nation receiving NIH support, to make use of Google Cloud’s storage, computing, and machine learning technologies. In addition, the partnership will involve collaborations with NIH’s Data Commons Pilot—a group of innovative projects testing new tools and methods for working with and sharing data in the cloud—and enable the establishment of training programs for researchers at NIH-funded institutions on how to use Google Cloud Platform.

“The volume of data generated in biomedical research labs across the world is growing exponentially,” said Gregory Moore, MD, PhD, Vice President, Healthcare, Google Cloud. “Through our partnership with NIH, we are bringing the power of data and the cloud to the biomedical research community globally. Together, we are making it easier for scientists and physicians to access and garner insights from NIH-funded data sets with appropriate privacy protections, which will ultimately accelerate biomedical research progress toward finding treatments and cures for the most devastating diseases of our time.”

A central tenet of STRIDES is that data made available through these partnerships will incorporate standards endorsed by the biomedical research community to make data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR). NIH’s initial efforts will focus on making NIH high-value data sets more accessible through the cloud, leveraging partnerships to take advantage of data-related innovations such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, and experimenting with new ways to optimize technology-intensive research.

“By launching STRIDES, we clearly show our strong commitment to putting the most advanced cloud computing tools in the hands of scientists,” said Andrea T. Norris, NIH Chief Information Officer and director of NIH’s Center for Information Technology. “Beyond our partnership with Google Cloud, we will seek to add more industry partners to assure that NIH continues to be well poised to support the future of biomedical research.”

Moving Forward—Together

What does it take to implement a strategic plan?

Answer: A lot of teamwork. Plus a willingness to look at what we do with fresh eyes.

We’re doing all that right now.

To start, we’re taking a good look at all of our public-facing services, from dbGaP to PubMed to MedlinePlus, from TOXNET to PubChem to ClinicalTrials.gov. We want to be sure the user experience for each of these services is the best it can possibly be. We also want to ensure the infrastructure is robust and sustainable, and that we haven’t ended up with an awkward patchwork on the back end through a series of well-intentioned but disparate fixes and user-driven improvements. We need to launch the next decade on solid technological footing.

We’re also tackling the human side of implementation.

We recently completed the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which provides us with valuable insights into how people view their jobs, the agency, and our leadership. Initial numbers indicate nearly 68% of NLM’s federal workforce responded to the survey, which exceeded both last year’s response rate and our goal for this year and places us 10th among the 27 Institutes and Centers at NIH. We’ll have the survey results in hand early fall or so, and I’m eager to see the feedback we’ve gotten.

We’re also bringing in consultants to conduct interviews with staff members in various positions across the Library to evaluate processes and workflows and to identify opportunities for greater efficiencies.

And we’re recruiting—for scientists, subject matter experts, programmers, and technical support—so if you’d like to be a part of our future, keep an eye on our job openings page to see what’s coming down the pike.

While Mike Huerta, Associate Director for Program Development, is overseeing our implementation activities, we’ll all be working together to turn the vision of the strategic plan into reality. NLM leadership, in particular, will be responsible for bringing the plan to fruition, and an Implementation Council comprised of staff from all divisions will help guide the work.

We’re using sophisticated project management tools to track our progress both to ensure we stay on pace and to avoid overtaxing our staff with too much exciting innovation. We expect to have a public-facing dashboard up soon so you’ll be able to monitor what’s happening as well.

And I’m guessing you will.

Given the amount of interest in and passion for the Library’s work, along with the reach and impact of that work, I know a lot of you are keeping a close eye on what we’re doing. I’m glad.

And, given the level of expertise and the diversity of experiences among our customers and stakeholders, I’m sure many of you have lessons to share from your own adventures in bringing strategic plans to life. Won’t you share those with me?

After all, it takes a whole library to get our work done, and a whole community to make sure it’s done well.

Photo credit (rowing, top): Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash (modified)