A Vacation’s Gifts Are More Than Souvenirs

Ahhh, summer! Life at NIH and NLM doesn’t really slow down this time of year—in fact, with all the interns and visiting scholars on campus, it can seem even busier, more frenetic than normal—but the long days and warm weather still bring with them a welcome ease. They also usher in vacation season for many, including me.

I’m on vacation right now, spending time with family (including, at different points, my 25-year-old son, my 89-year-old mom, eight of my nine siblings, and at least a handful of my 27 nieces and nephews), exploring Atlantic Coast beaches with friends, knitting, reading, and relaxing.

Sometimes a vacation’s most important gift is time away, breaking free of the everyday, dabbling in novel pursuits, opening up to unexpected opportunities and surprising vistas. In fact, I cherish my time off for that, for the chance to press the reset button. It helps me feel better, and it’s critical to finding fresh perspectives and uncovering new ideas once I return to the office.

My being away also allows those back at the ranch to experience work life without me. My absence gives them a chance to grow by tackling issues on their own or negotiating a temporary shift in duties. And once I’m back, I appreciate the skills they’ve learned and must sometimes develop a few myself as I adapt to changes that occurred over those two weeks.

But vacations are also about what we do during them, and this doing delivers its own gifts.

I’m going to use some of this vacation to catch up with one of my sisters. We usually see each other three or four times a year, with quick visits squeezed in between work events or hectic family gatherings. But this week we’re just going to hang out, enjoying the luxury of a few days of unstructured time together. I’ll watch her garden (I never help, but I love seeing her creativity), and she’ll try (once again!) to learn knitting from me.

Mostly though we’ll talk, and I’ll devour this wise woman’s insights. We’re similar in a lot of ways, including some career overlap. She has worked as a health policy expert, leaving government to join a university faculty, while I—long the die-hard academic—joined government after a career in the academy. So aside from the family chatter and sisterly banter, I look forward to learning from her again, whether that’s how to manage an issue or ways to move within the government labyrinth.

I’m also going to spend a few days with a high school classmate. We’ve been friends for 50 years—through career changes, relocations, and family milestones (for me, a child; for her, a dog). She’s a business woman who launched her own company about a decade ago. I’m continually amazed at how brave she is, how open to meeting the world head on as she grows her business. I look forward to our time together and the chance to continue to build our relationship, finding new ways to get to know someone I already know so well.

And even that helps me at work. After all, it occurred to me that, when you run an organization that is almost 200 years old, there’s tremendous value in understanding how to refresh what you do while holding true to first principles.

Which, come to think of it, could be considered the very purpose of vacation.

So as you enjoy your vacation or stay-cation, your long weekend or afternoon off, try to embrace both the respite it offers and the opportunities it brings. We’ll all be better for it.

Photo credit (beach, top): Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

Looking Back on 50 Years

Guest post by George Franklin, an information technology specialist in NLM’s Office of Computer and Communications Systems

I started my government career at the National Library of Medicine in July 1967. It was a time of paper, pens and pencils, typewriters—both manual and electric—and plenty of carbon paper. The card catalog that I used many times no longer exists.

A time came when you had to give up your typewriter and carbon paper for this invention called a computer, and that frightened many employees. Then came the world wide web, email, networking, and all this new technology that was supposed to make our life and work better and more efficient. (It keeps getting better or worse, depending on who you talk to.)

My career has been very enriching and exciting. My first job at NLM was in the mail room, where I started as a mail clerk. Currently I am an information technology specialist assigned to the Desktop Services Section of the Office of Computer and Communications Systems. In between, I held five other positions at NLM. Through all seven jobs, plus four years military, I have been fortunate to work with a lot of talented and special colleagues.

I have always had a passion for working with young people of all ages, but I think my greatest achievement has been going out into the community to do outreach, whether at health fairs, school functions (like career days or other special programs), Native American powwows, or professional conferences. I really enjoy talking with people about the important work we do at NLM and at NIH.

It’s that kind of engagement that keeps me going. As a result, fifty years later, I’m still here, enjoying the work I do at NLM and just maybe helping to make a difference.

headshot of George FranklinGeorge Franklin is an information technology specialist in NLM’s Office of Computer and Communications Systems. He will be among the honorees at the HHS Departmental Awards Ceremony Wednesday, May 9, for his years of service.

Photo credit (typewriter, top): Carl Ha [Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)]

Help NLM and NIH Shape a Data-Driven Future

It’s a busy and exciting time for the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

This week we released NLM’s strategic plan, A Platform for Biomedical Discovery and Data-Powered Health.  Concurrently the National Institutes of Health announced a draft Strategic Plan for Data Science. The intersection of these two important documents demonstrates the alignment of the NLM vision within the overall thrust at NIH to transform discovery into health.

Positioning NLM for the Future

Representing the work of hundreds of NLM staff, national experts, and commenters from around the world, the NLM strategic plan lays out our current challenges and positions us to address these and emerging issues in biomedical research and public health.

From the need to be present in all environments where health and health care occur—and not just in structured, clinical settings—to the changing nature of libraries and how people pursue information, NLM is ready to embrace the spirit of open science and deliver on the promise of data-driven discovery.

As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, we’re going to get there by building on three pillars:

  • Establishing NLM as a platform for data-driven discovery and health
  • Reaching new users in new ways
  • Enhancing workforce excellence from citizens to scientists

So, what does that mean we will be doing?

We’ve already begun making data more accessible by allowing researchers to deposit data files as supplements to manuscripts they submit to PubMed Central. We’re helping to build the NIH Data Commons and working across NIH to improve identity and access management.

We’ve launched a new research program to devise ways to bring the power of data science into the hands of patients, and we’ll be investing further in data science training for librarians, biomedical researchers, and the bioinformatics community.

We’re also envisioning new research horizons.

We will be investing in novel approaches to curating data and literature, so we can make both more accessible more quickly and efficiently. We’re working with investigators to build needed analytical and visualization tools that can be applied to many different data types. We will be stimulating research in how health information can be presented to the public in fresh and innovative ways. And we will be devising new methods for exploring the literature and linking the key research elements: proposals, data, literature, models, and pipelines.

But that’s just the beginning.

As you read the NLM Strategic Plan, let us know if you see yourself in it.

Are your needs around health information and data represented? Does our vision of a data-driven future sound like something that will energize your research or simplify your work?  Will we be delivering something you need and can use—whether that’s genomic databases and the tools to interrogate them; open resources for citizen-scientists; clear, interactive interfaces for librarians and their patrons; or insights into health care’s tech future for students? What more might we do?

Your comments are welcome and encouraged. Please submit them via the NLM Strategic Plan page.

NIH Strategic Plan for Data Science

NLM does not venture into a data-focused future alone. NIH also works in and advocates for a research world that is increasingly data-driven, and NIH leadership clearly sees and appreciates the scientific opportunities presented by advances in data science.

To capitalize on those opportunities, NIH is developing a Strategic Plan for Data Science. As Dr. Jon Lorsch explained recently to NLM’s Board of Regents, this plan addresses NIH’s overarching goals, strategic objectives, and implementation tactics to modernize what he termed the “NIH-funded biomedical data science ecosystem.”

NIH just published a draft of the strategic plan, along with a Request for Information, to seek input from stakeholders, including members of the scientific and academic communities, health professionals, patient, professional,and advocacy groups, the private sector, and interested members of the public.

I encourage your comments and suggestions on the NIH draft plan. Submit your responses online by March 30, 2018.


The Sport that Made Me a Better Leader

Late last month, I dined with the NLM/Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) Leadership Fellows on the final day of their program and got more than just lunch. I ended up with an interesting realization about how a sport I enjoy has helped shape how I lead.

The curriculum for the year-long NLM/AAHSL fellowship program includes such topics as power and influence, managing a workforce, and diversity and inclusion. The program inevitably sparks self-reflection for both fellows and their mentors, and though I spent only a short time with the group, it got me thinking, too, about issues related to leadership, personal awareness, and growth. Since then, I’ve been musing over what has helped me be an effective leader at NLM.

Certainly, having a terrific staff and the support of NIH leadership makes the whole process easier. I’m fortunate to have both.

I’ve also received words of wisdom from experienced colleagues, gleaned key insights from books, and recalled valuable lessons from management courses I’ve attended over the years.

But, believe it or not, nothing has prepared me more for senior leadership than squash—the sport, not the food.

For those of you who don’t know the game, Wikipedia explains it this way:

A ball sport played by two or four players in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball. The players must alternate in striking the ball with their racket and hit the ball onto the playable surfaces of the four walls of the court.

The game’s high speed calls for quick movements and even faster thinking. You have to predict the ball’s angle of return based on the point of contact with the racket and the velocity of the hit. You have to plan your shot based on your opponent’s position and your own. And you have to do all this while avoiding the other player as you both navigate your way around a very small space. (The entire court is about 7 feet by 10 feet.)

The situational awareness and mental agility needed to pull all this off build important skills for management and those high-pressure, think-on-your-feet moments, but I think no skill is more important than timing.

Precision timing—striking the ball at just the right moment—is key to success in squash. Precision timing is also important for leadership.

One must determine how long to let a conversation proceed before weighing in, or how many emails in a chain should pass before making a statement. One must decide if one has entered an argument on its first round or if it is an old engagement rehashed many times. And importantly, one must be prompt with feedback, good and bad, both to reveal one’s values to the organization and to expose one’s preferences and pleasures.

But squash has taught me more than getting the timing right.

Power shots in squash send a 2” ball rocketing through the air. And when that ball hits you unexpectedly, on the arm, leg, or even face, you quickly realize that, even though it is very, very small and you are very, very big, it can really hurt. A lot.

Translating this to management, I’ve seen how a small, seemingly inconsequential statement can serve as the prelude to a major problem, or, on the flip side, how well-timed praise, delivered when the recipient is ready to hear it, can have profound positive impact.

Squash has also taught me to play nice with my partners and observe the rules of engagement on the court. Management situations bring their own rules of engagement, sometimes defined, sometimes not. The unwritten rules can be the trickiest, with rules sometimes changing based on where the engagement occurs. Understanding and respecting protocol, positions at the table, and the tenor of discourse as it varies from office to hall way to conference room are skills worth developing.

I’ve learned through squash that I can tussle with an opponent over controlling the T-zone (the prime spot from which it is easiest to reach most shots) and still enjoy a cool drink and camaraderie afterward. Managerially, this means that conflict is part of the game, and going toe-to-toe over important issues doesn’t—and shouldn’t—stand in the way of collegiality. (Another key take-away: It always helps to share a cool drink afterward!)

And ultimately, in squash as in management, there are always opportunities to improve.

What has influenced your leadership? What makes you a good manager? What makes your manager a good manager?

On the Importance of Getting Away

Work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization.

You can’t tell, but I am actually on vacation. I’ve taken off on a two-week road trip with a good friend. We’re traveling through the South and Southeast, enjoying friends in Asheville and Birmingham, checking out the music scenes in Memphis and Nashville, and visiting the monument to the Little Rock Nine honoring the high school students who, in 1957, braved physical and verbal abuse to desegregate Little Rock Central High School.

Two weeks of relaxing, reading, learning, visiting, and spa-ing are definitely good things.

I’ve been fortunate to have had many memorable vacations throughout my life, from camping trips in Maine with my parents and nine siblings to quick get-aways to the Jersey shore to some delightful work trips that let my son, Conor, and I add on time to explore parts of Asia, Europe, and South America. I have been lucky to have had the resources to fund vacations and the support of colleagues who made sure the work at home continued while I was away.

Through it all, I have come to realize it is just as important to have spaces between work as it is to have meaningful work.

As a nurse and an industrial engineer, I know that human performance is at its best when one takes breaks to relax and refresh. Inspiration gleaned during a hike through the woods can fuel the next research idea. Appreciating a centuries-old temple can open the mind and put into perspective a particularly knotty work challenge. And cleaning out closets or attending to family matters during a staycation can ease worry and bring a sense of peace that leaves you feeling rejuvenated.

At NLM I encourage staff to take time away. I believe that a high-quality work-life balance is essential for a high-performing organization. It’s important to me as a leader to accept, even support, time away from the office and away from work.

So I urge you—to the extent possible—take time and get away: a week, a weekend, even a day. You’ll return to your work with fresh perspectives and a well-rested countenance.

Remember, too, to help colleagues get away, both through your encouragement and by picking up a bit of extra work, if needed. You’ll learn something, your coworkers will benefit, and your operation will be well on its way to greatness.