Four Years of Conversation with YOU!

Next month, it’ll be four years since I expanded my use of social media by delivering a weekly blog post. What a four years it has been!

During that time, Musings from the Mezzanine has posted every single week – sometimes twice a week – resulting in more than 200 blog posts with over 300,000 views! I owe the deepest of gratitude to staff in NLM’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison who work closely with me in the production of what appears to be effortless, but in fact, represents dozens of hours of staff time every week!

At its inception, I saw the blog as a chance for NLM stakeholders to get to know me as the new NLM director. While my name is familiar in the informatics community, the medical library and data science/computational biology communities were less familiar with me. NLM views each of these communities as important stakeholders, so this blog served as an important calling card.

I saw (and still see) the blog as a way to have a conversation through comments on individual posts, Twitter messages highlighting a new post, or connections stimulated by ideas advanced in the posts. Over the years, guest-authored blog posts became an important part of our approach, and I invited colleagues to use this platform to share important and timely information related to the mission of NLM and NIH. Sometimes we collaborate with leadership across NIH to announce NIH-wide initiatives, such as this summer’s launch of NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative to advance innovative ideas for new COVID-19 testing approaches and strategies, or to comment on the importance of testing and other public health strategies to address the global pandemic.

Musings has shared how academic health sciences libraries are answering the call to provide uninterrupted access to resources and to valuable services and support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provided information about the role of open access and evidence-based information to improve health for all species.

Over the past 18 months, the blog has become a central channel to communicate the new directions that NLM is moving toward and raise awareness of plans to update and upgrade PubMed, the first major new release of this important NLM service in more than 20 years. We often use the blog to explain how NLM is advancing biomedical informatics research or creating a new, more efficient organizational structure. While not replacing archival manuscripts and official news announcements, the blog stimulates conversations about important NLM investments, priorities, and activities.

The blog also allows me to reflect periodically on the wide range of responsibilities I hold as director of one the 27 Institutes and Centers at NIH.

I have positioned NLM to accelerate data science at NIH, and we have done a great job! Colleagues such as Jon R. Lorsch, PhD, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and Susan Gregurick, PhD, associate director for data science and director of the Office of Data Science Strategy at NIH have contributed guests posts to reach even more readers.

I thank everyone who reads this blog, including my sisters and friends, and those of you who comment and provide particularly helpful or thought-provoking ideas; it means so much to me and my colleagues. Beginning in November, blogs will be published on Wednesday mornings, instead of Tuesday afternoons. If you’d like to get blog updates, sign up below!

Social media provides one opportunity for me, as a public servant, to demonstrate accountability. It helps me reveal what I am thinking, engage the public about the future NLM, and alert you to our accomplishments and initiatives.

Along the way, it also gives you an opportunity to share what’s on your mind, so please don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know if you would like to be a guest blog author. All voices and ideas are welcome!

Meet NLM’s Newest Investigator: Lauren Porter, PhD, Researches “Transformer-Like” Proteins

Recently, I introduced you to Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, one of NLM’s new tenure-track investigators, who is developing computational methods to advance our understanding of the human microbiome, which plays a very important role in our health.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lauren Porter, PhD, a Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator in the NLM’s Intramural Research Program.

Dr. Porter researches fold-switching proteins. Much like the fictional Transformers, robots that can change into different machines depending on the circumstances, these proteins can change their structures and functions in response to changes in their environment.

Proteins play many critical roles in the body. They carry oxygen in our blood, digest the food we eat, and help our eyes detect light.

A number of fold-switching proteins are associated with diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, and bacterial and viral infections. Right now, very little is known about how these proteins work.

At NLM, Dr. Porter is using data-driven approaches to identify fold-switching proteins and reveal their biological roles, which could lead to the development of new treatments for disease.  

Uniquely, Dr. Porter has a joint appointment at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where she directs an experimental laboratory. This allows her to participate in the entire process of scientific discovery: her data-driven calculations help her to generate hypotheses that she can then test in the lab.

Video Transcript (below)

I study proteins, and proteins have been thought to have one structure that has one function or fold.

I’m studying this group of proteins called fold-switching proteins. They can actually change their structures and their functions in response to changes in the cell.

So you can kind of imagine fold-switching proteins are like a Transformer, where, in one case, the protein is like a robot that does one thing, and then in another case, in response to changes in our bodies, it becomes a car and can do something else. An advantage to this is it can respond really quickly to changes in our bodies.

Back in high school, I did not imagine myself being a scientist at all. Before going to college, I did kind of fall in love with math, like when I took calculus. I was like, “Wow, this is so cool!” It was the first time I realized that math could be useful for something beyond balancing my checkbook.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. He went through multiple rounds of chemo, and it was just a really hard process — just watching that happen and thinking, “I wonder if there’s a better way?”

Some of the proteins that I’m working on that actually do this phenomenon called fold switching are actually associated with diseases — cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, bacterial and viral infections.

If, by the end of my life, even one successful treatment was made based on this, that would be amazing.

NLM has a really strong track record in computation. There are a lot of excellent scientists here, and I thought it would be great to be able to work with them. I’m also really grateful to have the freedom to pursue what I want to do, and I’m really happy to be here and be able to take chances that I probably couldn’t do in most other environments.

The Wonder of Everyday Things

As I write this, the National Institutes of Health campus is blanketed with a light dusting of snow. The roads and paths are clear, but the grass is covered everywhere. As I walked past the day care building, I spied a dad watching his toddler girl crunch through the snow-covered grass. She slid one way and stomped another, in all ways just delighting in it. Her whole face, especially her eyes, conveyed joy and amazement. Watching her was so enjoyable that I had a hard time moving on, toward Building 38 and the work that awaited me.

This little scene reminded me of a sentiment that’s been shared with me by many NLM patrons and stakeholders around the world: A library is a place to experience the wonder of everyday things.

Indeed, a library provides a window to the wonders of the world, from scientific discoveries to historical artifacts to new ideas about the universe. But it’s also a repository, of sorts, of many everyday things. People approach a library with questions big and small, and they leave with greater understanding and new ideas. Perhaps a library can be described as a platform to experience wonder.

For many people, the idea of a library is filled with the experiences of youth. Maybe you were taken to the library by a parent, teacher, or sibling. Or maybe you visited a bookmobile, like I did, that traveled around bringing all sorts of books to your community. Did you, like Maria, a woman I worked with once in homeless shelter, bring your family to the downtown library each Saturday, so your children had a warm, safe place to read and explore? Perhaps you were brought to the NLM reading room when your mother perused our holdings in the course of her studies. Did your school have a library, or learning resource center, for further exploration outside the classroom? Did you feel like a grown-up when your youth library card was replaced with a regular one, giving you access to everything in the “adult room”?

I hope you still experience some of that childhood excitement when you approach and use the resources of the National Library of Medicine. While only a few people physically enter our library building now, every day over 3 million people connect with us online — to find articles, review what’s new in their field, explore the relationship between genes, find potential targets for new cancer chemotherapies, and so much more.

As a 21st-century library, NLM faces the challenge of how to create the special environment of the physical libraries that many of us experienced when we were young. To me, it truly is a bit less satisfying to tap on a keyboard than to walk through the stacks and pull down a book with an interesting title. We’ve yet to create the electronic equivalent of the hum of library patrons talking to each other or the reference librarian. And we haven’t captured that unique smell of old books and periodicals, which strengthened our sense of connection with the people who had opened and read those same pages before us.

The world has become more complicated, and the need for libraries and their services has only continued to grow.

To serve our users’ changing needs, NLM is constantly looking for new ways to construct searches or present results or display images of our holdings. And while the practical concerns surrounding the transmission of knowledge seem to be our focus, I’m always thinking about how we can deliver that knowledge in a way that sparks wonder in everyday things. Please share how we can do this for you!

When the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

NLM is about two and a half years into its new strategic plan, and already I’m proud of our many successes!

We’ve used this blog to highlight key activities, from enriching data science skills across the NLM workforce to appending data sets and other materials in support of articles deposited in PubMed Central. We’ve increased our extramural research investment by almost 20% and recruited new investigators to our Intramural Research Program (IRP). A $20 million investment will improve the integrity of our 60-year-old buildings, creating a workplace of the future for this 184-year-old institution.  

Today, I want to take the discussion in a different direction.

Culture is largely local, and in a big organization it’s common to experience the whole through the microcosm of one’s own work group or division. In fact, some of the successes I’ve highlighted reflect the efforts of a single division or the needs of specific stakeholder groups.

Progress assessed at this microcosmic level can indeed look good. However, to quote another old aphorism, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” So, measuring NLM’s progress toward achieving the vision outlined in our strategic plan requires a different approach.

When I arrived at NLM, I discovered that referring to “One NLM” helped focus everyone’s work on the concerted effort of the whole organization. The term defined a pathway linking the contributions of individuals and divisions that are connected to form one entity. Sometimes my colleagues use this phrase ironically or in jest, which reminds me that attending to the whole may not be as natural or intuitive as one might hope. 

Taking a holistic view of progress is not always easy. It can require abandoning efforts that benefit only a single division for ones that will likely have a greater impact on the overall organization. Or reshuffling division-specific priorities to advance trans-NLM priorities. And sometimes it requires coming to broad agreement on prioritizing varied and diverse goals.

This makes me think of NLM’s vibrant and aggressive IRP, which brings together researchers from the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications. Leveraging the synergies of these divisions as a whole makes the most of available IRP resources, research opportunities, and training efforts.

Fortunately, NLM leadership is strong and has developed excellent ways of working together. Our explorations of priorities take place in an atmosphere of curiosity, openness, and mutual respect. While the needs of one division may sometimes supersede the needs of others, our leadership team works hard to remember that as we advance one, we are advancing all.

Progress in the small and progress in the all — that’s one sign of the growth of a great institution. Please let me know what you think of our progress toward One NLM!

The Engineering Marvel of the Panama Canal — and of NLM

As you read this post, I’ll be on an adventure that’s been on my bucket list for 50 years: sailing through the Panama Canal! I’ve wanted to make this journey ever since I learned that my dad, who was a transportation engineer during World War II, passed through the Panama Canal. I’m looking forward to a more relaxing experience, on a voyage that I’ll be sharing with friends. 

As I prepared for this trip, I considered the Panama Canal’s interesting geography and geopolitical history. This 51-mile-long, lock-type canal cuts through the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Originally begun by the French in 1881, the canal was completed by the United States and opened to shipping traffic in 1914. Now controlled by Panama, the canal has three lanes, through which over 15,000 ships pass each year.

The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world because of the amazing engineering effort it required. A recent book by Marixa Lasso, Erased, adds perspective to the story by describing the history and culture of the communities in that region prior to, and after, the canal’s construction. Although many techniques were developed to manage the massive excavation projects, the flow of water, and the raising and lowering of ships through the system of locks, most of them — as well as the people of the area — are invisible to travelers enjoying the sights from the shipboard viewing areas.

In a way, the National Library of Medicine is also an engineering wonder whose underlying framework remains mostly hidden from view. To produce the Library’s suite of offerings, which reach millions of people each day, we rely on modern information engineering methods and techniques. Our software engineers devise programs to shorten the turnaround time for responses to queries and deposits of new genomic sequences. Effective engineering approaches are also needed to track the number of PubMed searches and deliver the results as quickly as possible. And to be certain that the advances we make in one area of the Library’s operations don’t disrupt activities in others, we have a team of project managers and program coordinators who monitor all those efforts.

In addition to relying on the staff who maintain and improve NLM’s information technology, we depend on a building engineer and engineering staff to keep our physical plant operating. NLM is one of only three Institutes and Centers at the National Institutes of Health that are responsible for their own buildings. Our two on-campus buildings, known as Building 38 and Building 38A, provide space for almost 1,000 people. Building 38 has three above-ground floors, with two additional below-ground floors to hold our stacks of journals, serials, and books, and Building 38A has 13 floors in total. So it takes a dedicated staff to make sure that the elevators and HVAC systems function and that work spaces and lighting are conducive to efficient and effective performance.

People around the world benefit from the vision and hard work of all types of engineers, just as people around the world benefit from NLM’s offerings. So the next time you search ClinicalTrials.gov, find an important citation in PubMed, read a full-text article through PubMed Central, or submit a proposal for review by our grants program, give a nod of thanks to our engineers. NLM wouldn’t be the same without them!