Reflect, Reimagine, Reenergize TOGETHER

Guest post by Patricia Flatley Brennan, Director, NLM; Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations, NLM; and Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of the Office of Engagement and Training, NLM.

Welcome to NLM @ MLA ’21 vConference! This year, for the Medical Library Association (MLA) virtual meeting, we organized NLM’s activities around three themes:

  1. Reflect on the impact of the past year,
  2. Reimagine our work to make what we do better, and
  3. Reenergize by reconnecting with NLM colleagues and embracing the new normal! 

This year offered many opportunities to pause and reflect. We were struck by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global response of lockdowns, personal adoption of public health measures, and more than 1.7 billion vaccine doses already administered worldwide. Our reflections led us to a reaffirmation of the importance of medical libraries as a source of trusted health information and the critical need for work-life balance in everyone’s lives. Like others around the world, we looked on in horror and dismay at repeated episodes of violence and injustice inflicted upon communities of color. We hope that our partners around the country will join the momentum surrounding the NIH UNITE initiative to end structural racism and racial inequalities in the health research enterprise.

The maximum telework posture of NLM and many other industries prompted reimagining our work life now and in the future. We structured many of our NLM @ MLA ’21 presentations to share our experiences of working at a distance, video conferencing, and providing library services during a time when the physical doors of libraries are closed.

We hope that the opportunity to gather in spirit, rather than in person, brings the reenergizing atmosphere that often comes with greeting old friends and meeting new colleagues. We hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunities to gather around professional conversations and social engagement.

NLM at the Medical Library Association 2021 vConference

NLM’s participation at the MLA ’21 vConference began on May 17th and will continue through May 27th. One of the advantages of a virtual symposium is that you’re not restricted to viewing a session once – all NLM sessions will be available online after May 27th.

NLM began this year’s conference with a full day symposium introducing the 2021-2026 Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM). The day started with a celebration of NNLM accomplishments to date, particularly over the last 5 years. This session attracted more than 250 attendees who reflected on where NLM has been. For example, do you know the highest number of regions that the NNLM ever had? Was it 9, 11, or 50? Or, how much outreach funding NNLM awarded to communities in the last year? Over or under $1 million? This session also provided an overview of how the Network has been reimagined for the 2021-2026 cooperative agreement, and is being reenergized though exciting and innovative programming and projects. Find these answers and what else is in store for the Network on the NNLM @ MLA day page!

During last week’s dedicated exhibit time, we hosted 33 one-hour Meet the Experts sessions, involving over 50 speakers covering a wide range of topics including data science practice, PubMed and PubMed Central, tools for scholarly publishing, the 2020-2021 Associate Fellows cohort and projects, intramural training at NLM, consumer health resources, health data standards, and many more – whew! The “NNLM Reading Club: A Vehicle for Starting Health Conversations” took top marks for being the most popular session.

We also provided special highlights of NLM’s response to COVID-19 in the Exhibitor Solution Showcase. NLM’s Dina Demner-Fushman, MD, PhD, Valerie Florance, PhD, Yanli Wang, MD, PhD, Amanda Wilson, MSLS, and Robin Taylor, MLIS, presented on topics such as TREC-COVID, a competition applying national language processing to resolve challenges related to COVID-19; the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics projects designed to speed COVID-19 testing, and to identify new ways of detecting COVID-19 in people and in the environment (think of an electronic nose or waste water sampling); the Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection Initiative, now known as ReCOVer; and how common data elements are making the data acquired through COVID-19 studies harmonized and available for researchers in the future. 

Teresa Zayas Cabán, PhD, NLM’s Assistant Director for Policy Development, presented updates and priorities from NLM and NIH at the Legislative Update session, and, not-for-profit Stop Foodborne Illness executive, Mitzi D. Baum, MS, delivered remarks on the topic of public health and food safety as the keynote speaker for this year’s Joseph Leiter NLM/MLA Lectureship. You can take a deep dive into the NLM@MLA’21 website where you can find links to the 2021 Leiter Lecture recording; NLM and NNLM On-Demand Presentations, Lightning Talks; Immersion Sessions; biographies for NLM and NNLM staff participating in the Meet the Experts sessions; and more!

As we close out our participation in the MLA ’21 vConference, our last don’t miss events are:

  • Take a Break with Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan on May 26 at 6 pm (CT). Join Dr. Brennan for a signature trivia evening break. Join Us!
  • The ever-popular, annual NLM Update, May 27 at 10:15 am (CT), this year featuring NLM Director Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD; Associate Director for Library Operations Dianne Babski; and Acting Director, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, Olivier Bodenreider, MD, PhD.

Reflect. Reimagine. Reenergize.

As we reflect on our experience at the MLA ’21 vConference, our interactions with colleagues has provided even more insight to reimagine our work to make what we do better, and reenergize as we embrace the new normal!

Which element of this year’s theme do you relate to most? Why?

(left to right)
Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations at NLM
Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, NLM Director
Amanda J. Wilson, Chief, Office of Engagement and Training at NLM

Diversity Catalysts: Attracting Talent to NLM and NIH

Guest post by David Landsman, PhD, Senior Investigator, Computational Biology Branch in NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information and Kathel Dunn, PhD, Associate Fellowship Coordinator, NLM

NLM is committed to attracting, developing, and retaining diverse library and scientific talent. Professional development at NLM yields completed research, publications, and entrée to a network that extends to NIH, the academic community, and industry at large. In the collective management of NLM training programs, we are aware of the ability of an NLM fellowship or residency to advance a person’s career. Our challenge is recruiting diverse talent to NLM and ensuring that our training environments contribute to their success. We’re also keenly aware of the power of being selected by NLM, and we take our role in exercising that power seriously by developing recruitment strategies that extend beyond our own networks, tapping into the networks of our trainees, and in pipeline programs.

In 2014, NLM joined an NIH-wide initiative within the Office of Scientific Workforce Diversity (SWD) to enhance the scientific workforce. One of its programs, Diversity Catalysts, engages NIH Institutes and Centers to develop and pilot new, evidence-based approaches to enhancing diversity throughout NIH.

Through the Diversity Catalysts program, NLM has participated in shaping an implicit-bias education module that has been rolled out to all staff across NIH. We’ve integrated portions of the SWD-developed recruitment search protocol into our own recruitment strategies. We’ve put this training to good use in the hiring mechanisms and practices within the training programs at NLM, as well as mechanisms to hire highly qualified principal investigators and training staff.

Recruiting for the future is now.

The trainees, who will join us in 2036 for the 200th anniversary of the founding of NLM, are currently 10 years old. They were born on the cusp of the United States becoming a majority-minority country. They spent their tenth year at home, living through a pandemic. Furthermore, our future trainees will come to us stamped by the technology of online education and a freedom gained through science and technology development. We’re engaging in discussions about how to welcome them at NLM. We’re looking for ways to capture and engage around the unique and differing experiences of the pandemic: some of our future trainees may have been at home participating in online learning; others may have lost a year of education completely.

What we’re doing now is keeping track of our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by reviewing our recruiting and interview practices to ensure that they are free of bias, promoting trainee attendance at diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings offered by NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education, and continuing our practice of conducting regular individual and cohort debriefs to learn how we can improve our programs.   

NLM stands with NIH to end structural racism in biomedical research.

Through the NIH’s UNITE initiative, we are working together to establish new ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, and identify and dismantle any policies that may harm our workforce and our science. We actively support trainees’ participation in the UNITE initiative and have noticed genuine interest among our trainees in wanting to engage and be a part of the institutional change.

NLM offers scientific training programs for high school students, bachelor’s students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and fellowships for librarians, historians, and history-minded researchers from a range of disciplines, from the fields of medicine, anthropology, and literature, to philosophy, law, and the arts, and many more. We promote the opportunity to study at NLM, as well as share the successes of our trainees. We use the visibility afforded to NLM to highlight trainees and believe that the power of attraction plays an undeniable role in bringing talent to NLM. However, that’s not enough. We know we must do the intentional work of making connections, extending invitations, and following up with potential candidates. We must let them know what we see in them: future scientists, librarians, historical thinkers, and leaders.

Throughout the next 15 years, as 2036 grows near, we will continue to build on our ability to attract and retain diverse candidates.

Our challenge remains to advance a strong institutional commitment to attract a diverse workforce to the NLM administrative, librarian, and scientific programs with increased outreach and, by example, extending our experience to the education of NLM staff in making best practice hiring decisions.

David Landsman, PhD serves as one of NLM’s representative to the NIH Diversity Catalysts. He is also a senior investigator at NLM with a special interest in the merging of results obtained in computational biology analyses with those derived from experiments in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, and genetics

Kathel Dunn, PhD serves as one of NLM’s representative to the NIH Diversity Catalysts. She is also NLM’s Associate Fellowship Coordinator where she is responsible for oversight of the Associate Fellowship Program curriculum, recruiting for the Program, and providing mentorship and guidance for the Associate Fellows.

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!