Today, our country honors the birth, life, and dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take my mom to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. We observed social distancing and mask wearing. While the weather may have been chilly, the atmosphere was filled with warmth and with hope.
Mom and I walked through the Mountain of Despair to the Stone of Hope and read many of the phrases chosen by a special “Council of Historians” to reflect Dr. King’s life and teachings of justice, democracy, hope and love. I was grateful that someone who is such a giant to me and so many others all over the world held perch as a monolith overlooking the Tidal Basin, facing the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, with the Washington Monument in sight. I was most struck with the rendering of Dr. King’s gaze, which looked not out at the monuments to great leaders, but directly towards the people milling below the statue – looking at those left to continue his legacy.
This is a special place for contemplation and reflection. Dr. King’s words, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” seem particularly relevant today as we move through the global COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons to despair – economic problems, health challenges, and loss of loved ones. As Director of the National Library of Medicine, I often think about how we can keep our scientists and society strong by serving as a stone of hope. NLM provides high-quality information to help researchers advance their understanding of the SARS-COV2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19), and discover new vaccines and treatments. We provide relevant, evidence-based, and actionable information for the public to guide their everyday health behaviors.
As I read one of the inscriptions, I was struck by a parallel to contemporary expressions about how to overcome the consequences of the pandemic and the role we can play to advance change. Dr. King said in a 1968 speech that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While not specifically speaking of the moral universe, how many times during this pandemic have we heard about the importance of bending the curve of new coronavirus cases? I was struck both by the visual cue of a bending curve, and the idea that caring for the health of the public, through information and individual action, aligns well with the concept of the moral universe.
I take pride in the fact that NLM and its research and information services – at their core —are of service to the public. I hadn’t quite thought of our efforts as part of the moral universe. Thanks to an inspirational visit honoring a beacon of light, I have found new meaning in the work that we do for science and society.
What inspires you? What broader purpose have you found in your efforts?
I consider myself an upbeat person and am most upbeat during the winter holiday season. I’ve always been drawn to this time of year – it’s cold, often snowy, and brings many traditions I love, including spiritual customs, family gatherings, fabulous food, and gift-giving. It also brings about an annual pause in the lives of many people, and an opportunity to celebrate the many holiday observances that take place across various cultures in the world.
This year I’m struck by the importance of light as a symbol across many religions and cultures, such as the Festival of Lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs known as Diwali; the Jewish Festival of Lights known as Hanukkah, or Chanukah; the Christian tradition of Christmas; or the celebration of African and African American culture, known as Kwanzaa.
Light is almost a universal symbol.
Light represents hope, transcendence over darkness, and knowledge. We experience light through lamps, candles, in the flames of a fire, through the brilliance of the sun, and the twinkles of color that appear on holiday decorations. In some religious traditions, light represents spiritual power or guidance. In common parlance, light reflects joy and invites engagement. Light stands in a positive contrast to the short days and long nights of winter experienced in the Northern Hemisphere, where I’ve spent most of my life.
Light also serves as an indication of illumination – the increased clarity, insight and awareness about situations and ideas. NLM serves as an illuminating force in the world – bringing knowledge to bear to increase enlightenment and awareness about complex biomedical situations and ideas. I’ll bet you haven’t often connected the idea of holiday lights and NLM resources — bear with me — it really works!
Information alone – unread and unused – is not enough, just as the benefits of light are limited when the light is obstructed or not in view. This idea holds true for NLM resources too.
As a leader in biomedical and health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library, NLM’s research and information services are most valuable when they are readily available to those who need it. Thanks to our NLM team, we continue to be able to provide free and unencumbered access to information to people from around the world.
Individuals perceive light through a complex physiological and psychological process and their reaction to light builds on history and prior experiences. When NLM users discover new articles or preprints through our search process and read them, they do so against the backdrop of their own life experiences and knowledge – adding even more value to research, both new and old! Finally, one of the greatest things I love about light is that it can be experienced and perceived by many without being diminished. So too for our NLM resources that serve many without ever being exhausted!
This year, I am observing and celebrating the Christmas holiday and want to share the light of this holiday season with all of you, and particularly with my son, who is far away from me in Seattle. This season, many of us will be connecting with loved ones near and far through the light of a computer screen!
Certainly, the challenges of 2020 have made it ever so much more important to enjoy the spark that friends and family near and far provide. Please share your special views on light with each other and with the readers of this blog.
As I have said before, I take every opportunity to sing the praises of the 1,700 men and women who work at NLM and demonstrate their commitment to advance our important mission. Every day, NLM staff serve science and society by transforming information into knowledge, which enables researchers, clinicians, and people around the world use a wealth of biomedical data to improve health.
This month NLM honored our resilient and resourceful staff with an awards ceremony that looked a little different than previous years. Usually, we host an annual ceremony in the Natcher Auditorium on the NIH campus to allow staff to gather and celebrate the accomplishments of their peers.
While our awards celebration was different this year because we weren’t able to join together in person due to COVID-19, it still gave me great pleasure to recognize and honor the many individuals and teams at NLM who have shown outstanding commitment and accomplishment through special acts of service, exemplary performance, and crucial moments of leadership. This year, our awards were presented to honor a variety of achievements, but most notably, to honor the incredible resiliency and productivity of our workforce since most NLM staff entered an environment of maximum telework in March.
Before I share more about the awards, I want to take a moment to extend my deep appreciation for all the technical staff at NLM who have ensured that NLM continues to meet its mission of serving scientists and society across the globe. Our staff has worked tirelessly to make certain that NLM continues to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic seamlessly. They’ve done it all – from making sure that all NLM staff can continue to work from home during these challenging times, to guaranteeing that people around the world continue to have access to NLM’s suite of offerings such as ClinicalTrials.gov,GenBank, PubMed, and PubMed Central.
We also honored individuals with landmark years of service, including 16 people who have worked in the federal government for 30 years or more. They were joined by 29 staffers with 20 years of service and another 20 with 10 years — representing years upon years of experience and dedication to public service. Their work has made a lasting difference to NLM and to those who use our resources.
In addition to honoring the recipients themselves, these awards also bring important recognition to the talents and contributions of NLM across the biomedical research enterprise.
As the year comes to a close, I want to recognize every member of our team at NLM for their momentous efforts that have kept NLM at the top of our game by demonstrating our ability to be resilient, relevant, and reinvent the way we do our work, particularly in response to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Our team at NLM has truly gone above and beyond!
Guest NLM contributors: Sarah Ashley Jolly, Amy Powers, and Diane Tuncer.
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.
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.
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
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?
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am excited to share what I am grateful for this year. In years past, I’ve used this space to reflect with gratitude on the efforts of the 1,700 men and women who work at NLM. Other times, I’ve reflected on the impact of individuals who have contributed to my life in a meaningful way over the previous year. This year, I want to use this opportunity to reflect with gratitude on the progress we’ve made as an organization in our journey towards “One NLM.”
On January 3, 2017, only four months into my new role as NLM director, I introduced the concept of One NLM through this blog. At the time, I proposed …
One NLMemphasizes the integration of all our valuable divisions and services under a single mantle, and acknowledges the interdependency and engagement across our programs. Certainly, each of our stellar divisions – for example, the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications, Library Operations, or Specialized Information Services – have important, well-refined missions that will continue to serve science and society into the future. The moniker of One NLM weaves the work of each division into a common whole. Our strategic plan will set forth the direction for allof the National Library of Medicine, building on and augmenting the particular contributions of each division.
So why do we need One NLM?
Achieving excellence as a resource for discovery and science demands that we efficiently leverage the work of each division toward common goals. Additionally, One NLM encourages sharing the expertise found in any one division across all our efforts. Finally, the idea of One NLM entreats us to bring together all the Library’s resources to meet the key challenges of the future across biomedical knowledge collection, curation, and dissemination – ensuring a talented workforce, enabling every staff member to work at the top of his or her skill set, creating collections that accelerate discovery and address global health needs, and anticipating (and resolving!) the health information challenges of the future.
Now, 4 YEARS into this role, I look back on these words with gratitude and recognition of the awesome naivety that led me to make the bold statement: One NLM – many parts, many people – but One NLM!
Major opportunities or challenges that have emerged over the last five years and have implications for the future of NLM in the areas of:
Public health, consumer health, and outreach
Modes of scholarly communication
Perspectives, practices, and policies
Major opportunities or challenges that have emerged in the last five years and have implications for the future of NLM in other areas or areas not well captured above.
Opportunities or challenges on the horizon over the next five years that fall within the purview of the NLM’s mission.
Not surprisingly, in many cases we received guidance that would be best addressed by one of our many stellar divisions – to increase investments here or to expand efforts there.
The NLM of 2020 shares many features with the NLM of 2017, and yet it is a whole new operation. Our budget has grown by over $50 million and we’ve put it to good use! We released a new version of PubMed, and moved some of our critical molecular resources into commercial cloud services. We expanded both our extramural and our intramural research programs — adding two new investigators, developing new artificial intelligence and machine learning analytics — and pivoted some of our research efforts to the computational biology challenges of COVID-19. We’ve aligned our consumer education efforts into a single platform, streamlined our outreach, education and training initiatives, and this year alone approved 50 new journals for MEDLINE indexing. We’ve also launched major updates to our physical and technical operations. Whew!
We are also recognizing that NLM is more than the sum of its parts – it’s a highly interdependent enterprise, one that now emphasizes mutual learning and cross-division engagement as a key strategy for the future. The NLM leadership team meets twice a month to devise strategies and evaluate alternatives that bring solutions to challenges faced across the entire NLM, including cybersecurity, creating an affirming and welcoming workplace where our team can perform to their maximum potential, and doing our part to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we face rapidly growing data science challenges, we hear the question from across NIH – “What can NLM do?” And the answer is, “A lot!”
One NLM means that we harmonize the expertise from each of our divisions in a way that lets us characterize problems and identify sustainable solutions. We bring together the very best that each of us has to offer – computational skills, large scale data management, indexing and cataloging strategies, application and use of health data standards – and unite them into a cohesive approach. We share the responsibility and the resources to extend the reach of NLM with innovative strategies to meet new challenges. We create pathways for growth and encourage staff to populate those pathways.
Becoming One NLM requires that we identify new ways of engagement to our well-established ways of doing business. Becoming One NLM means that we don’t simply fill jobs, we search for talented people with an eye to how they might contribute to the total enterprise – not just fulfill a set of tasks. Leading One NLM means that each member of our leadership team understands and integrates our goals into the activities of their divisions as they create plans to lead NLM into the future. Being One NLM means that we bring to science and society the talents and offerings of this great, nearly 200-year-old organization.
So, this year, I am thankful for the progress that we’ve made towards One NLM. I know it happened with the support of family and friends, through the efforts of everyone who works at NLM, and it is worthy of our many thanks!