10 Tips After 10 Months of Video Calls

Like most of the world, staff at NLM has been engaging with others through various technologies – video conferencing, virtual daily work huddles, and conference-inspired meetings that require screen sharing, virtual breakout rooms, chat features and instant messaging. I’ve gone from a 30-minute commute, including a short walk and a metro ride, to a 3-minute walk from my bedroom to my home office. Those lovely, long walks across the NIH campus that formed the bridges between meetings three or four times a day are now replaced by 60-second coffee refills between almost-non-stop video calls between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. And where before I only had to make sure that I looked professional and polished, I must now make sure that there’s no clutter or distracting pictures or items in the background – the camera sees everything!

Fortunately for me, I regard meetings as a high art. For the past 15 years, meetings have been one of the main mechanisms through which I work. Early on I learned two great tips from a great biomedical informatics guru, John Glaser

Never walk out of a meeting with more to do than you came in with, and never close a meeting without knowing who is taking the next steps on every item.

This comes in handy when your days are lived on camera! I can’t match the wisdom of John, but I can share some ideas that are proving helpful to me as I (virtually) meet with NIH colleagues, the NLM leadership team, individuals with whom I’m collaborating, and NLM staff through “brown bag” lunch sessions.

I’d like to share a few of my own tips garnered from my years of in-person and virtual meetings.

Call people by name, often.

This is particularly helpful if you are leading a meeting, for it acknowledges people and engages them in the moment. It is also important when you are a participant. Using names helps compensate for the lack of communication cues in video calls, such as eye contact and head nodding, and fosters engagement and stimulates participation.

Start on time and end on time.

I know I’m not the only one whose days are lived through conference calls and video chat. By starting and ending on time, you demonstrate respect for everyone on the call, as well as those in the prior and subsequent calls. In addition, it saves you from having to start every next call with the “sorry I was finishing up a previous call” apology.

Allow for pauses.

This is important for the leader of the meeting and is also equally relevant for participants. It can be difficult to pick up on visual and audio cues, gestures, and conversational threads, such as someone leaning back, leaning in, shifting their gaze, or changing their tone of voice. So, it becomes particularly important to let pauses stand an extra second or two to allow someone to come off mute or organize their thoughts.

Keep your camera on when possible.

Keeping your camera on provides visual evidence that you are present and attentive during the conversation and meeting discourse. It’s courteous to others, and yes, it does mean that you have to attend to the image being displayed, but it allows your colleagues to see that you’re not reading email or distracted by other issues. It also reinforces the connection between the speaker and the audience and enhances a sense of group engagement. Although some may worry about excessive bandwidth consumption, the social value is worth it!

Keep your microphone off unless speaking!

Visual cues are important; auditory cues are distracting. Until technology advances, microphones (mics) often create distortion, pick up background noise, contribute to audio feedback, and generally degrade the conversational experience. Remaining on mute signals respect for the speaker and gives them a non-competitive platform for discussion. It helps to learn the steps of muting and un-muting to keep up with the rhythm of the conversation.

Check your mic often and use a headset with a good mic.

Get to know your mic, how it works, and the indicators that it’s live. Poor audio quality can affect the experience of the video call for everyone. Many of us forget that the mic is on our laptop and the further away we are from the mic, the poorer the audio. I’ve found that using a headset helps because it puts the mic close to your mouth and will help minimize background noise. It is key to your personal happiness and professional survival that you make sure you know how to troubleshoot basic mic issues, particularly knowing when your mic is on, when it’s NOT on, and to stay alert so it’s never on when you don’t realize it! 

Use chat features judiciously.

Most video conferencing software has some type of text support, usually called “chat.” I find this feature to be very useful when I’m NOT the speaker and very annoying when I am. Sometimes, in a big and exciting meeting, sidebar conversations held through the chat feature can provide clarification and enhance the shared experience. However, every thought appears on the screen and it can be distracting to the speaker. If you really want to chat your way through a video call, consider setting up a parallel channel in a different platform for that purpose or consult with your speaker beforehand. Your speakers will thank you!

Watch your backgrounds!

Video conferences introduce us to the private lives of our colleagues in ways never before anticipated, often by having the opportunity to look over the shoulder of your colleague and into their background. Some video conferencing platforms allow you to customize the image projected on your screen – a blessing and a bane. Remember that some backgrounds may best be left for personal calls with friends or family, and professional engagements do best with a more subdued background where the interest can focus on the person, not the background.

Take notes.

Many of the mental mechanisms we use in human discourse add meaning and interpretation to the words that are exchanged. We remember how a colleague smiled when bringing up a new idea, or the worried look when your words weren’t well understood. Note taking (I use a fountain pen and write in long hand) helps keep me focused during video calls, aids me in organizing thoughts, and often provides a reminder for the next meeting or conversation.

Take a break!

This tip is for you; not about using the technology. Technology is unrelenting and always demanding. The immediacy of work, the pull of people waiting for a meeting to begin, and our tendency to overschedule can lead to very packed days. As an industrial engineer with human factors training, I know that performance degrades over time and short breaks help! Schedule breaks – at least every two hours – even if only for five minutes. Take a walk, hug your child or someone you love, or start a load of laundry. The goal is to refocus and refresh!

What have you learned from 10 months of video conferencing? Please share your tips and ideas here – we are all in this together.

Building Bridges Throughout My Career

Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting a fireside chat with Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at NIH and our nation’s top infectious disease expert. This event took place as part of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) 2020 Virtual Annual Symposium and was shared with almost 1,000 AMIA attendees.

I will share a few key points of wisdom that Tony provided a little later in this post, but first I want to share the experience of bridging my life-long affiliation with a dynamic professional society and my current responsibilities as NLM director.

Making Connections

As NLM director, I support the work of the 1,700 women and men who conduct research, enable access to the vast biomedical literature, and accelerate data-driven discovery. I understand the importance of professional societies, like AMIA, that advance the field by nurturing and supporting health information professionals, providing platforms for sharing research findings, and creating spaces that inspire discoveries and improve health through information technologies. Rarely has the critical importance of the field of biomedical informatics been more sharply focused than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moments of joy with Dr. Fauci during our fireside chat.
AMIA Fireside Chat
Top row (L to R): Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan
Bottom row: Dr. Eneida Mendonça, Chair of the AMIA 2020 Scientific Program Committee

During the hour spent with Tony, I was reminded that engaging with domain experts can elevate awareness of where biomedical informatics challenges exist and the potential solutions that could have a broad impact. Taking part in this event with a giant in the field, like Dr. Fauci, was like taking a tour through the fields of microbiology, immunology, chemistry, pharmaceutical development, public health, and science education, highlighting the many points of impact open to biomedical informatics interventions.

It was wonderful to be able to introduce AMIA to Dr. Fauci, and vice versa. Tony spoke passionately about the importance of data sharing — emphasizing that peer review brings trust to data, and that data should be shared in ways that people can easily access and use. In his closing remarks, Tony expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to talk with the biomedical informatics community and acknowledged the benefits of building bridges to learn from each other.

Sharing What We Learned Together

Shared with permission: evan.william.orenstein@emory.edu

Through this interaction with Tony, I developed a deeper sense of his passion for science as well as his confidence in science. In considering how to best understand the long-term effects of COVID-19, Tony advocated for the effective use of patient registries – an area where biomedical informatics could make considerable contributions. When asked about how to better infuse science into our educational system, he enthusiastically responded that introducing children to science and scientific concepts in early childhood can foster a lifelong love of science, adding that “science can be love at first sight!”

I learned that preparedness is more important than prevention when it comes to pandemics. I was inspired by many of his views, including that supporting local public health authorities is the best first step to strengthening the national public health infrastructure. Finally, I developed a new perspective on the importance of scientific communications during emergencies and the challenges that can emerge when mixed messages and differing perspectives create confusion and uncertainty. 

The AMIA audience also shared what they learned from this session. Dr. Fauci’s clear explanation of the current trend that 75 percent of emerging infections originate through zoonotic transmission (i.e., disease that is passed from animals to humans) put into perspective his advice to prepare for — not try to prevent future pandemics. As one AMIA attendee offered, “It takes everyone to beat back this pandemic, and informatics has a role to play.” Another attendee shared of learning about new opportunities for biomedical informatics in global health.

As two of the 27 Institute and Center Directors at NIH, Tony and I share many responsibilities and have many opportunities to collaborate. Certainly, our mutual regard provides a strong platform for a discussion. What I didn’t expect from this discussion was to walk away with new insights about the importance of NLM’s support for open data, data sharing, and outreach to the public through our highly trusted information resources. I am delighted that we may have inspired AMIA attendees to answer some of the many challenges Tony described in guiding science and society through this pandemic.

Bridges are built by the concerted efforts of many people.

For this event, the AMIA Board of Directors brainstormed to come up with a set of questions that allowed for a lively discussion. AMIA members posed additional questions through a crowdsourcing strategy. Staff from NLM, NIAID, and AMIA collaborated to coordinate logistics, technology, messaging, and outreach to support the success of this conversation between two colleagues.

Did you attend the fireside chat at AMIA with Dr. Fauci? If so, what new planks on the bridge of your life did you discover?

Four Years of Conversation with YOU!

Next month, it’ll be four years since I expanded my use of social media by delivering a weekly blog post. What a four years it has been!

During that time, Musings from the Mezzanine has posted every single week – sometimes twice a week – resulting in more than 200 blog posts with over 300,000 views! I owe the deepest of gratitude to staff in NLM’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison who work closely with me in the production of what appears to be effortless, but in fact, represents dozens of hours of staff time every week!

At its inception, I saw the blog as a chance for NLM stakeholders to get to know me as the new NLM director. While my name is familiar in the informatics community, the medical library and data science/computational biology communities were less familiar with me. NLM views each of these communities as important stakeholders, so this blog served as an important calling card.

I saw (and still see) the blog as a way to have a conversation through comments on individual posts, Twitter messages highlighting a new post, or connections stimulated by ideas advanced in the posts. Over the years, guest-authored blog posts became an important part of our approach, and I invited colleagues to use this platform to share important and timely information related to the mission of NLM and NIH. Sometimes we collaborate with leadership across NIH to announce NIH-wide initiatives, such as this summer’s launch of NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative to advance innovative ideas for new COVID-19 testing approaches and strategies, or to comment on the importance of testing and other public health strategies to address the global pandemic.

Musings has shared how academic health sciences libraries are answering the call to provide uninterrupted access to resources and to valuable services and support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provided information about the role of open access and evidence-based information to improve health for all species.

Over the past 18 months, the blog has become a central channel to communicate the new directions that NLM is moving toward and raise awareness of plans to update and upgrade PubMed, the first major new release of this important NLM service in more than 20 years. We often use the blog to explain how NLM is advancing biomedical informatics research or creating a new, more efficient organizational structure. While not replacing archival manuscripts and official news announcements, the blog stimulates conversations about important NLM investments, priorities, and activities.

The blog also allows me to reflect periodically on the wide range of responsibilities I hold as director of one the 27 Institutes and Centers at NIH.

I have positioned NLM to accelerate data science at NIH, and we have done a great job! Colleagues such as Jon R. Lorsch, PhD, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and Susan Gregurick, PhD, associate director for data science and director of the Office of Data Science Strategy at NIH have contributed guests posts to reach even more readers.

I thank everyone who reads this blog, including my sisters and friends, and those of you who comment and provide particularly helpful or thought-provoking ideas; it means so much to me and my colleagues. Beginning in November, blogs will be published on Wednesday mornings, instead of Tuesday afternoons. If you’d like to get blog updates, sign up below!

Social media provides one opportunity for me, as a public servant, to demonstrate accountability. It helps me reveal what I am thinking, engage the public about the future NLM, and alert you to our accomplishments and initiatives.

Along the way, it also gives you an opportunity to share what’s on your mind, so please don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know if you would like to be a guest blog author. All voices and ideas are welcome!

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.

The Wonder of Everyday Things

As I write this, the National Institutes of Health campus is blanketed with a light dusting of snow. The roads and paths are clear, but the grass is covered everywhere. As I walked past the day care building, I spied a dad watching his toddler girl crunch through the snow-covered grass. She slid one way and stomped another, in all ways just delighting in it. Her whole face, especially her eyes, conveyed joy and amazement. Watching her was so enjoyable that I had a hard time moving on, toward Building 38 and the work that awaited me.

This little scene reminded me of a sentiment that’s been shared with me by many NLM patrons and stakeholders around the world: A library is a place to experience the wonder of everyday things.

Indeed, a library provides a window to the wonders of the world, from scientific discoveries to historical artifacts to new ideas about the universe. But it’s also a repository, of sorts, of many everyday things. People approach a library with questions big and small, and they leave with greater understanding and new ideas. Perhaps a library can be described as a platform to experience wonder.

For many people, the idea of a library is filled with the experiences of youth. Maybe you were taken to the library by a parent, teacher, or sibling. Or maybe you visited a bookmobile, like I did, that traveled around bringing all sorts of books to your community. Did you, like Maria, a woman I worked with once in homeless shelter, bring your family to the downtown library each Saturday, so your children had a warm, safe place to read and explore? Perhaps you were brought to the NLM reading room when your mother perused our holdings in the course of her studies. Did your school have a library, or learning resource center, for further exploration outside the classroom? Did you feel like a grown-up when your youth library card was replaced with a regular one, giving you access to everything in the “adult room”?

I hope you still experience some of that childhood excitement when you approach and use the resources of the National Library of Medicine. While only a few people physically enter our library building now, every day over 3 million people connect with us online — to find articles, review what’s new in their field, explore the relationship between genes, find potential targets for new cancer chemotherapies, and so much more.

As a 21st-century library, NLM faces the challenge of how to create the special environment of the physical libraries that many of us experienced when we were young. To me, it truly is a bit less satisfying to tap on a keyboard than to walk through the stacks and pull down a book with an interesting title. We’ve yet to create the electronic equivalent of the hum of library patrons talking to each other or the reference librarian. And we haven’t captured that unique smell of old books and periodicals, which strengthened our sense of connection with the people who had opened and read those same pages before us.

The world has become more complicated, and the need for libraries and their services has only continued to grow.

To serve our users’ changing needs, NLM is constantly looking for new ways to construct searches or present results or display images of our holdings. And while the practical concerns surrounding the transmission of knowledge seem to be our focus, I’m always thinking about how we can deliver that knowledge in a way that sparks wonder in everyday things. Please share how we can do this for you!