NLM Staff: Supporting Biomedical Discovery and Advancing Public Health

I am very pleased and proud of the hard work, dedication, and accomplishments of the 1,700 NLM staff members who have gone above and beyond in 2021 by demonstrating their commitment to advancing our critical mission. Every day, NLM staff transform information into knowledge, which enables researchers, clinicians, and the public to use biomedical data to improve health and save lives.

This month, we celebrate the many accomplishments of our staff across NLM. While our celebration will not be in person this year, it still gives me great pleasure to recognize the individuals and teams at NLM who have demonstrated their hard work and dedication through special acts of service, exemplary performance, and decisive moments of leadership.

I want to take a moment to express my deep appreciation for the technical staff at NLM who have worked tirelessly to ensure that people around the world continue to have access to NLM’s vast research and information services including, GenBank, PubMed, and PubMed Central. They can also take credit for making it possible for NLM staff to continue to work under maximum telework conditions, ensuring that each and every quibble with technology is fixed, and our employees are able to be online wherever their home office may be.

We recognize 565 staff this year for an impressive list of accomplishments. I’m happy to report that NLM staff continue to make incredible achievements that advance our mission despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are pleased to recognize more than 200 Special Act or Service awards made by our colleagues encompassing both individual and group awards. These awards recognize short-term accomplishments, meritorious acts, public service, and scientific or other achievements accomplished within or outside one’s designated responsibilities. Achievements include continued efforts to support a variety of COVID-19 initiatives, ensuring contracts and grants are awarded, and upgrading to modern and more efficient systems – all accomplished while working remotely!

We also honor individuals’ milestone years of service, including three staff members with 40 or more years of service and 12 people who have worked in the federal government for 30 years or more. They were joined by 28 staffers with 20 years of service and another 20 with 10 years — representing years upon years of experience and dedication to public service. The efforts of these people have made a lasting difference to NLM and to the public.

In addition to honoring the recipients themselves, these awards also bring important recognition to the talents and contributions of NLM staff across the biomedical research enterprise.

As 2021 ends, I want to recognize all NLM staff for their commitment and service to make scientific literature and genomic, clinical, and other types of biomedical data readily available to those who need it — 24/7. Our success is driven in large part by our ability to adapt to changing technologies that support biomedical discovery and enhance individual and public health. I remain impressed by and grateful for our NLM team!

Guest NLM contributors: Sarah Ashley Jolly and Christine Winderlin.

Please Join Me in Thanking our NLM Veterans

Every year at this time, I take advantage of Musings from the Mezzanine to share with you some of the things for which I am thankful. In my 2020 blog, I reflected on how far we’ve come together since I joined the NLM in 2016. In my 2019 blog, I mused about the people, professionals, and personnel for whom I give thanks. This year, I want to give thanks for all veterans in the United States, but particularly for those NLM staff members who are also veterans.

There’s an official legal definition of a veteran – according to Title 38 United States Code, a veteran is a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable. Also included as veterans under certain circumstances are National Guard members and members of the uniformed services such as the Public Health Service.

Left to right: My grandfather, Michael Flatley, and my father, Thomas Michael Flatley.

I come from a strong veteran family – my dad, my uncles Bill and Ed (who were military chaplains in WWII and Vietnam, respectively), my cousin Joey, and my nephew Chris.

At NLM, we are fortunate to count many veterans among our numbers. Some of our staff are not only veterans of active-duty service, but they also continue to serve through the reserves or through membership in the National Guard.

It’s good for NLM to have veterans among our workforce. Veterans bring well-developed skills that can effectively be applied to our operations and research enterprise. While each veteran is unique, and entered uniformed service for very personal reasons, veterans bring a commitment to the country refined through their assignments. And veterans strengthen NLM’s commitment to serve the public through government service.

I think that working at NLM is also good for our veterans. NLM allows them to continue in public service and provides them with a world class enterprise environment that makes effective use of their talents and skills honed through previous service. And working at NLM enjoins the efforts of these veterans with the remaining 1,600 plus people who work every day to bring information to the public, make genomic information safely and securely available for science and public health, and help reach communities across the country with trusted health information.

I am pleased and proud to honor these select members of our outstanding workforce. Thank you for your military service and thank you for your continued service at NLM!

Clockwise from top left:  Dianna Adams (U.S. Army), Alvin Stockdale (U.S. Army), Velvet Abercrumbie (U.S. Navy), Ken Koyle (U.S. Army)
Clockwise from top left: Dianne Babski (U.S. Army), Kevin Gates (U.S. Air Force), Bryant Pegram (U.S. Army)
Left to right: Todd Danielson (U.S. Army) and Peter Seibert (U.S. Army)

Turning Talent into Treasure

One of NLM’s greatest assets is its talented, creative workforce. Last year, NIH called on its 27 Institutes and Centers to step up to mount an effective response to COVID-19. Supported by Congress, NIH invested more than $2 billion to ensure rapid access to COVID-19 testing for everyone in the United States — funding research to accelerate access to vaccines and therapeutics and leveraging existing clinical trials and electronic health record data to characterize, monitor, and treat the long-term sequalae of COVID-19 infections.

How is NLM supporting NIH’s COVID-19 response? Well, not surprisingly, our literature and genomic repositories are key to inspiring new research and providing the reference annotated genomes used to evaluate the SARS-CoV-2 virus and help discern its variants. Our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) gives NLM a face in communities across the United States, providing trustable, community-specific health information and increasing community engagement in NIH research programs. Our researchers are developing new analytic tools to more efficiently interpret medical images and refine the taxonomy of viruses so the properties of related viruses can be better understood. All of these activities draw on the talents of our almost 1,700 staff and the extensive partnerships we have with collaborators within the government and across the country. But it’s our special knowledge of data science, library science, and informatics that is making it possible for NIH to set up many new research programs with systematic attention to data coordination, data reuse, and data integration.

I want to highlight the talents of people working diligently across NIH. When NIH receives congressional funding for new programs or innovative research, a lot of work happens behind the scenes before these funds are awarded to investigators. Program announcements are written, solicitations offered, proposals received and reviewed, and awards made. Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of human effort. NIH has staff engaged in all of these activities for our typical programs and standard research mechanisms. To date, NIH received almost $4.9 billion to fight COVID, which is about 8.8% of the NIH’s total budget of nearly $43 billion for fiscal year 2021. NIH efforts to address COVID required a legion of staff members to refocus their regular priorities to participate in this emergency response. The contributions of NLM staff in this effort were amazing, with nearly 50 people from NLM stepping up to help write funding announcements, participate in reviews, and/or managing the awards process.

In particular, I want to elevate the work of three of our NLM staff who have made significant contributions to this effort. Yanli Wang, PhD, is a program officer in our Division of Extramural Programs. Because of her expertise in data science and training in chemistry, Dr. Wang was detailed to the RADx Radical (RADx-rad) program. RADx-rad is supporting innovative approaches, including rapid detection devices and home-based testing technologies, that will address current gaps in COVID-19 testing and extend existing approaches to make them more usable, accessible, or accurate. Dr. Wang serves as the program officer for the Discoveries and Data Coordinating Center and is working to provide programmatic stewardship and make sure that data across all studies is collected in a systematic manner that fosters data integration and data reuse. A critical aspect of Dr. Wang’s work is fostering the uses of common data elements across the projects and over time.

Two NLM staff members support NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery or RECOVER Initiative. RECOVER is studying the post-acute experiences of the estimated 10% to 30% of people who contract COVID-19 and continue to experience a range of symptoms. Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of NLM’s Office of Engagement and Training, is our representative to the RECOVER Initiative executive and coordinating committee. In this role she helps prepare the many funding announcements that stimulate research or reuse of clinical data to best understand this complex problem. Ms. Wilson leverages the extensive resource of the NNLM in support of community-based education and support of the COVID-19 crisis.

Another NLM staffer supporting the RECOVER Initiative is Paul Fontelo. In addition to his roles in training and research in NLM’s Intramural Research Program, Dr. Fontelo is a pathologist by training. He provides specialized expertise to the Autopsy Cohort Studies to identify tissue injury due to SARS-COV-2 infection, delivers technical direction to awardees, and approves certain deliverables and reports as required. He also participates in the application reviews of the Autopsy Cohort and the Mobile/Digital Health platform and is a member of the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Executive Coordination Committee.

I’m grateful to these colleagues, and many more across NLM, who are going above and beyond their usual job responsibilities to help NIH step up to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic! Join me in thanking them for their efforts and using the talents of the NLM to create invaluable treasures for NIH!

Promoting Accountability to the Public

One of the most important commitments of NIH leadership is to uphold the public’s trust. Funding for NIH comes through tax dollars appropriated by Congress, and it is expected that NIH will spend these funds in a way that best serves the needs of the public. Within NLM, this means that we allocate our more than $460 million in annual appropriations in a manner that helps us achieve our mission and the vision of our stakeholders. I’ll bet you are wondering how we actually do this!

I am sure that if you asked any one of my 26 peer directors at other NIH Institutes and Centers, you’d get 26 different perspectives. Here’s what guides me and here’s how I live out this commitment.

Demonstrate Responsible Stewardship
Building accountability photo 1

Each and every day, I work to ensure that decisions about investments and support provided by NLM funds are based on data, analysis, and expert review. We devised a portfolio analysis approach to account for the 100+ public-facing products and services that exist across NLM — ranging from PubMed to GenBank to our research programs. This approach has enhanced NLM’s planning and decision-making processes. We document the basis for our decisions using performance data, funding projections, and feedback to assess responsiveness to our stakeholders’ needs. I meet weekly with our budget officer to review trends and directions in expenses and funds. I work closely with NIH leadership to align new initiatives with NIH priorities and to provide accountability in use of funds for our efforts.

Engaging Stakeholders

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The work of NLM is guided by public law and our NLM Strategic Plan 2017-2027. We engaged with more than 100 individuals representing scientists, clinicians, public health specialists, patients, and patient advocates in the development of our strategic plan. Our congressional authorization charges NLM to acquire, organize, preserve, publish, and make available information related to biology and the health sciences, including medicine, nursing, public health, psychology, and other related sciences, to support research and public health.

We are committed to serving scientists and society. NLM uses a variety of mechanisms to engage with our stakeholders through workshops and materials such as those available through NLM’s, requests for information, and public meetings with our NLM Board of Regents. We report to Congress by detailing how we have spent the previous year’s funds and provide a vision of the bright future anticipated in the upcoming year through the annual process to develop our Congressional Budget Justification as part of the development of the President’s Budget request.  

Soliciting Guidance

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I have written several times about the leadership model I use to guide our actions at NLM. My leadership team includes the Deputy Director, Executive Officer, and Scientific Director, and the directors of our four key divisions (the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Library Operations, Extramural Programs, and the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications) and four operating offices (Office of Computer and Communications Systems, Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Office of Administration).

We meet biweekly as a team and in smaller groups as needed. We review budget planning principles, discuss major initiatives (such as the renovation of our buildings), and management of expenditures. I rely on this group’s experience to bring forward new initiatives and to inform the direction of NLM through the lens of their divisions, offices, and responsibilities. I’ve learned that it is critical to be clear with our leadership team whether my intent is to seek consultation or delegate decisions to the larger group.

NLM prides itself on being a trusted source of health information for the nation and the world. One component of trust is promoting accountability for the funds entrusted to NLM in support of our mission. Let me know how we can continue to merit your trust!


Imagination: A Process. Not a Moment

Part 3 of a three-part series discussing the importance of imagination. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Over the past two months, I’ve been sharing my ideas about the importance of cultivating imagination to stimulate innovation. Most of this is great fun, and I hope I’ve enticed you to do some of your own daydreaming, and maybe you’ve begun to see some of the impact in your own efforts. Imagination – the ability to envision that which has never been seen, heard, or experienced – is pleasurable, and adds collateral benefits, such as a reduced tendency to interpret unfamiliar stimuli as a threat, and an improved ability to generate novel solutions on the fly. Imagination doesn’t have to end with an inspirational idea. In this post, I’m encouraging you to consider imagination as a partner to help you implement those inspirational ideas and sustain their impact.

Take a look with me through the lens of imagination to see the impact that your imagination can have on the future of technology. Learn how NLM fosters this creative process and how we continue to support health care innovation with our tools and services.

As I reflect on my five years as the NLM Director, I realize that the most important contribution I can make to NLM extends beyond the generation of new ideas. It’s about building in the financial and human resources, as well as the processes to sustain the change envisioned through those new ideas. I need to share my vision with my leadership team and listen to the ideas of our NLM staff. To do this, I need to stimulate imagination in those around me. Novel ideas must also be evaluated for their fit with NLM’s mission. From there, we can create an implementation pathway, identify responsible parties, and develop a plan of action. Along the way, anticipated and unanticipated glitches may occur, and may require that we take a step back, revise, or recommit to the plan. Eventually, streams of ideas become programs that we sustain or sunset; new opportunities abound, and the process starts over again.

Imagination is my companion.  Cultivating my own imagination improves my ability to learn from others whose world views differ from my own, recognizing the difference not as a threat, but as an alternative. Imagination helps me envision a range of future states, conducting the mental ‘what if we did . . . .’ exercise and engaging others to join me in that exercise. Imagination-fueled innovation helps me determine whether a lack of ‘fit for the mission’ heralds a need to re-think the innovative idea or a recognition that we must re-examine our mission. And building the skill of imagination augments my practical problem-solving skills so that anticipated and unanticipated glitches can be addressed with creative strategies. Finally, imagination contributes to my (and others) abilities to foresee a future without a familiar and much beloved program, as well as one in which a fledgling program becomes a sustainable core of our enterprise.

One of the practical ways we built the capacity for sustaining innovation into the fabric of NLM was through the creation of the NLM Strategic Plan Implementation Council, led by Mike Huerta, PhD, Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives and Associate Director of the National Library of Medicine. Mike led the development of the NLM Strategic Plan 2017-2027 and leads our ongoing evaluation of the plan and its implementation. But he doesn’t do this alone – he convened a group of 18 staff from across all divisions and all levels within NLM. Once a month this council meets and gathers information from all areas of NLM regarding how the Strategic Plan is guiding our work. The council systematically examines new projects, raises considerations about modifications that may make the plan more useful to us, and provides a forum for ensuring that the cool ideas envisioned in the Strategic Plan realize their full potential for NLM.

When I began this exploration of imagination and innovation, I found myself focused on the spark, the new idea, the act of innovation. As I have reflected over the weeks, highly engaged with my leadership team in a wide range of efforts addressing our core mission and positioning us towards the future, I realized that imagination unaccompanied by strategies of sustainability was foolhardy for the director of a large organization. Yet still, the move from fostering innovation to sustaining innovation does not require one to abandon the effort to imagine; it requires a continuous refreshing of imagination. This leads not only to the initial innovation but to the myriad steps needed to guide the innovation towards its full contribution.  

So – don’t fear that the value of cultivating imagination ends once the inaugural innovation is envisioned – you’ll need that skill all along the journey!

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