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!

Code-Breaking Librarians

Did you know that librarians helped crack enemy codes in support of the US war effort during World War II?

Until I read Liza Mundy’s book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, I was unaware, but when I found out, I was certainly not surprised.

Codes and ciphers are the tools of spies and subterfuge. Coded messages systematically replace a word, phrase, or sentence with specific alternates. In ciphers, each letter is replaced according to some formula or algorithm, making ciphers much harder to break.

The US military, caught by surprise at Pearl Harbor, realized they needed to quickly ramp up a code-breaking unit. They turned to thousands of women with classical liberal arts educations and built on those skills to assemble teams of expert code breakers. Like their counterparts working at England’s Bletchley Park, the American women’s collegiate experience reading and interpreting complex texts or wrestling with advanced mathematics prepared them well for untangling the shifting, arcane world of crypotanalysis.

Librarians brought their own skills to the teams. In addition to breaking codes, these professionals, mostly women, set the stage for their teams’ successes. They kept records. They organized vast amounts of disordered and unrelated information into logical categories. And by applying the principles of indexing and cataloging, they connected previously disjointed information and made it discoverable.

Librarians played important wartime roles outside the US as well.

Early in the war, Richard Hayes, director of the National Library of Ireland, was tapped by Irish army intelligence to help decode a cipher found on a German agent captured in Ireland. His success prompted Irish prime minister Éamon de Valera to set up a small office in Dublin for Hayes where Hayes and a small team could decode Axis messages being transmitted out of Ireland—all while Hayes continued to serve as library director. Hayes’ involvement had a significant impact on the war. His ingenuity and tenacity enabled him to unlock a notoriously difficult Nazi code, one that stumped Britain’s MI5 and the intelligence experts at Bletchley Park.

Most librarians today aren’t deciphering secret codes, but the skills behind that work—order, reason, connection, and interpretation—remain essential. We still need skilled professionals to create and maintain enduring systems to organize data, information, and knowledge and make them accessible. Unlocking the secrets of medicine and science depend upon it.

And yet, like the code-breaking librarians of World War II, today’s librarians often go unrecognized and their contributions unacknowledged. What can we do to change that?

Building Data Science Expertise at NLM

Guest post by the Data Science @NLM Training Program team.

Regular readers of this blog probably know that NLM staff are expanding their expertise beyond library science and computer science to embrace data science. As a result, NLM—in alignment with strategic plan Goal 3 to “build a workforce for data-driven research and health”—is taking steps to improve the entire staff’s facility and fluency with this field so critical to our future.

The Library is rolling out a new Data Science @NLM Training Program that will provide targeted training to all of NLM’s 1,700 staff members. We are also inviting staff from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) to participate so that everyone in the expanded NLM workforce has the opportunity badge reading "Data Science @NLM Training Kickoff" to become more aware of data science and how it is woven in to so many NLM products and services.

For some of our staff, data science is already a part of their day-to-day activities; for others, data science may be only a concept, a phrase in the strategic plan—and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to be a data scientist, but we can all become more data savvy, learning from one another along the way and preparing to play our part in NLM’s data-driven future. (See NLM in Focus for a glimpse into how seven staff members already see themselves supporting data science.)

Over the course of this year, the data science training program will help strengthen and empower our diverse and data-centric workforce. The program will provide opportunities for all staff to participate in a variety of data science training events targeted to their specific interests and needs. These events range from the all-hands session we had in late January that helped establish a common data science vocabulary among staff to an intensive, 120-hour data science fundamentals course designed to give select NLM staff the skills and tools needed to use data to answer critical research questions. a badge reading "Data Science Readiness Survey Completed" and showing a thumbs up We’re also assessing staff members’ data science skill levels and creating skill development profiles that will guide staff in taking the steps necessary to build their capacity and readiness for working with data.

At the end of this process, we’ll better understand the range of data science expertise across the Library. We’ll also have a much clearer idea of what more we can do to develop staff’s facility and fluency with data science and how to better recruit new employees with the knowledge and skills needed to advance our mission.

In August, the training program will culminate with a data science open house where staff can share their data science journey, highlight group projects from the fundamentals course, and find partners with whom they can collaborate on emerging projects throughout the Library.

But that final phase of the training initiative doesn’t mean NLM’s commitment to data science is over. In fact, it will be just the beginning.

In the coming years, staff will apply their new and evolving skills and knowledge to help NLM achieve its vision of serving as a platform for biomedical discovery and data-powered health.

How you are supporting the data science development of your staff? Let’s share ideas to keep the momentum going!


Co-authored by the Data Science @NLM Training Program team (left to right):

    • Dianne Babski, Deputy Associate Director, Library Operations
    • Peter Cooper, Strategic Communications Team Lead, National Center for Biotechnology Information
    • Lisa Federer, Data Science and Open Science Librarian, Office of Strategic Initiatives
    • Anna Ripple, Information Research Specialist, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications

Working—and Walking—Together for Healthier Hearts

You’ve heard the statistics: One out of every four deaths in the United States is due to heart disease.

Heart disease remains the number one killer across most ethnic groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. (Heart disease is second only to cancer as cause of death for American Indians or Alaska Natives and Asians or Pacific Islanders.)

But have you heard these more encouraging numbers? At least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week can help protect your heart health. And the great news is that you don’t have to do that 30 minutes of activity all at once. If you can’t find time to take a 30-minute walk, taking three 10-minute walks will get your heart going, too.

With that in mind, NLM is participating in the #OurHearts campaign this month by encouraging staff to get out and get moving. We launched our own Heart Healthy Challenge on February 8 with an outdoor walk that brought about 70 folks out into a brisk Friday morning to get the blood pumping. Dr. Gary Gibbons, Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, joined us and offered a few remarks, noting particularly the power of working together for heart health within our families and communities. And he’s right, of course. Research shows that having social support makes it easier to be heart healthy.

So get out there and celebrate the power and strength of acting together to be heart healthy. Walk, run, dance, cycle—move! And then let us know what you’re doing for heart health.

NLM is doing its part, but your heart depends on you!