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.

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!

“What 2019 NLM Accomplishment Makes You Most Proud?”

I was asked this question during a recent “brown bag” conversation with NLM staff. While it’s tempting to launch into my list of accomplishments, I turned the question back to those present. I was surprised, proud and intrigued by what they had to say.

First, let me tell you a little bit about our lunchtime brown bag conversations. We have a large staff (almost 1,700 women and men) and use a variety of formal and informal approaches to foster discussion: Town Hall meetings held twice a year; regular email messages to share timely information; our NLM In Focus blog, which provides a look inside NLM; and supervisor-led meetings. I host brown bag conversations about once a month and am usually joined by 2-3 members of the NLM leadership team. Almost always, staff from various parts of the Library attend – mingling together our scientists, librarians, administrators and communications staff. Conversations are lively, and I get to learn a lot about what is on the minds of our staff.

So, it was instructive, and enjoyable, to hear different views about NLM accomplishments. Some people talked about greater engagement with and accountability by NLM leadership, while others focused on specific scientific advances. Still, others noted our many advances with data science, particularly in upskilling our workforce.

I want to point out a few of these accomplishments.

Teresa Przytcka, PhD, senior investigator in NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, shared her team’s accomplishment with the creation of a new algorithm called scPopCorn (acronym for single-cell sub-Populations Comparison) to understand the differences between populations of cells from single-cell experiments. This approach helps researchers identify different cell types and helps to differentiate between sexes, disease status, animal type, and more.

Olivier Bodenreider, MD, PhD, senior scientist and chief of the Cognitive Science Branch of NLM’s Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHNCBC) described how he is leading the re-envisioning of the research and research and development efforts within his center. One LHNCBC staff scientist, Vojtech Huser, MD, PhD, described the success his team has had in generating new publications this year.

Several people talked about the journey to prepare NLM and its staff for data science. Our Data Science @NLM Training Program team set up a year-long process of preparing our workforce for the future. Over 750 people completed a data science skills assessment and developed individual learning plans. Over the summer, NLM staff participated in an intensive 120-hour data science fundamentals course, culminating in a wide variety of projects that were showcased during our Data Science Open House. Over 300 people attend this exciting and energizing showcase of our talents!

Several people talked about accomplishments that made our entire NLM operations work better, such as greater engagement with staff, better use of project management strategies to improve efficiencies, and smooth integration of staff into new work teams.

Taking the writer’s privilege of identifying more accomplishments, I am exceptionally proud of the efforts of staff across the NLM who designed or participated in the Data Science initiatives. I am honored to work with a great leadership team who are making bold and sometimes difficult decisions to prepare the NLM for its future. We made a huge advancement in open science by moving our entire Sequence Read Archive public data to the cloud, completing the first phase of an ongoing effort to better position these data for large-scale computing. This work represents both a technological feat as well as a major contribution to biological discovery.

As I reflect on our discussion about 2019 accomplishments, I learned that every person across the NLM has something that he or she is proud of. I also learned that some of us experience NLM as a tight-knit research team, while others take a more-broad-brush view of activities and events. Most importantly, I learned that there are many things to celebrate in this wonderful institution we call the National Library of Medicine! 

Meet Our Newest Investigator: Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, Seeks a Greater Understanding of the Human Microbiome To Improve Health

In this week’s installment of Musings, I’d like to introduce you to Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, who recently joined NLM’s Intramural Research Program as a tenure-track investigator.

Dr. Jiang’s research focuses on the development of computational methods to advance our understanding of the human microbiome, which plays a very important role in our health. Her lab is using bioinformatic methods to predict what the trillions of microbes living in and on the human body do, how they spread between people, and which kinds of genes the microbiome community shares.

Turning data on the human microbiome into usable insights is a challenge that demands both knowledge of the biological literature and skill in bioinformatics. Dr. Jiang’s lab is developing approaches intended to do just that — bridge the gap between information and action.

We are fortunate to have added another strong and curious investigator to our team. I know Dr. Jiang will play an important role in accelerating data-driven discovery here at NLM!


Video Transcript (below)

I’ve had a long interest in physics and math ever since I was in middle school. But, I was discouraged to choose math or physics as major when I went to college. That’s because my family and friends thought that I would have a hard time finding a good job as a female based on what they saw, at that time, in China.

In the end, I chose Biology as my major, which opened a new door for me. It provides the foundation for my current research and led me to a beautiful world of evolution and life science.

For my Ph.D., I chose computational biology as my major because it is a major that combines my passion in computer science as well as biology.

For a long time, I observed that, for computer scientists, if they wanted to understand biomedical data they needed to have a good understanding of biology. For biologists, if they wanted to speed discovery, they required the help of computer scientists. And my background sort of bridges this gap.

I think we’re at a great stage where we can actually have the ability to turn data into actionable items that can be directly applied to medical decision-making. Data science and the microbiome combined to improve our heath. 

NLM is one of the few places where I can start my research program in data science. There is a critical mass of truly exceptional and top-notch scientists here. And I also find people in NLM are approachable. From the Director to the top scientist, you can just knock on their door and talk with them, and they are always willing to help.

NLM is the place where I can do the research that I love and enjoy, and also make a difference at the same time.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! NLM’s Summer Town Hall

Twice a year, leadership at NLM invites the 1,700 women and men who work for the Library to a Town Hall meeting. These meetings provide an opportunity for leadership to announce new initiatives and demonstrate accountability to our team, and for staff to ask questions and share ideas, concerns, and even words of appreciation.

I use a lot of channels to connect with my colleagues here, ranging from email updates to informal brown bag lunches with groups across the Library, casual conversations in the hallways, and Musings from the Mezzanine. But the NLM Town Hall structure is unique because it allows NLM leaders to receive valuable feedback from staff about how things are going and how changes are perceived, while we’re all in one place. I was happy to host one just last week.

First, we paused to remember Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D., who served as the director of NLM for more than 30 years. As I noted in last week’s blog post, he was a visionary giant who lives on in the activities and legacy of NLM. We have lost a great treasure, but he would want us to keep investing in the future.

Our Town Hall meeting highlighted progress on many fronts. We reported on implementing NLM’s 2017-2027 Strategic Plan, discussed plans to stimulate innovation across NLM, and talked about employee engagement and the quality of work life.

As we put our strategic plan into effect, it’s important to me that every individual working at NLM knows that he or she plays an important role in the present and future of this great organization.

One of the pillars of our strategic plan is to accelerate data-driven discovery. I was pleased to announce that Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, will be joining NLM’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) as a tenure-track investigator who will be accelerating data-driven discovery. Her research plans involve developing methods for computational microbiome studies, including refining the resolution of metagenomic sequencing to the strain level. She also proposes to design a tool to track the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes using metagenomic data. In other staffing news, the search for a new scientific director for the IRP is underway.

A key component of implementing our strategic plan is communication. Our new director of the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Jody Nurik, delivered a compelling vision for harmonizing NLM’s public presence to build a stronger, more consistent central identity that will create and enhance engagement with our stakeholders. This effort includes better showcasing the depth and breadth of our work and the resources we make available to the many audiences we serve.

Our discussion of innovation included an announcement of the launch of NLM Labs, a think tank to stimulate new ideas, prototypes, and research that support the goals of the strategic plan. Valerie Florance, PhD, director of NLM Extramural Programs, is heading a committee comprising staff from across NLM that will issue calls for proposals. Any NLM staff member can apply for an NLM Labs award.

The third theme of our Town Hall meeting was ensuring that NLM is a great place to work, and we addressed this in several ways.

The leadership team at NLM has reviewed the responses to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, or FEVS, which measures federal employees’ perceptions of their agencies and job satisfaction. Overall, most NLM employees reported positive feelings about the work they do and the quality of their work life, so this year we’re focusing on employee engagement and our commitment to diversity, excellence, and safety.

Like other Institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), NLM is developing a formal anti-harassment plan. Central to this plan is engagement with the NIH Civil Program, whose mission is to foster civility throughout the NIH workplace. The program provides a way for staff to report concerns about uncivil behavior, such as harassment, inappropriate conduct, bullying, and other disruptive actions.

We announced next steps for creating an NLM anti-harassment plan, as well as an upcoming presentation by the NIH Civil Program to Library staff planned for the fall.

After the Town Hall presentations, we opened the floor to comments and questions from staff, whether they were attending in person or online.

Several questions addressed challenges and opportunities facing NLM as a 21st century research institute, ranging from workforce planning, best practices for data center security management, and what it means to have perpetual access to the biomedical literature. Staff also discussed how NLM shares its story with stakeholders across the globe, which served as a reminder of NLM’s responsibility as a custodian of centuries-old historical treasures and our leadership role in the acquisition and analysis of biomedical data and information.

I welcome your questions, thoughts, and ideas about NLM and where we’re going. Whether you’re a Library employee, stakeholder, or member of the public, I want you to see yourself as a part of NLM—now and in the future!