From Our Community to Yours, Happy Healthful Halloween!

Guest post by Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

I have always associated Halloween with community and health.

My family and I appreciate the holiday for the way it brings together our neighborhood of individuals and families with diverse backgrounds, creativity, and interests, all celebrating the occasion safely and meaningfully. Some of our neighbors don’t observe the holiday, and we certainly respect their choice by interacting with them in other ways that bring us together as neighbors. But for me, Halloween is very much about community, family, and friends, and the benefits of gathering supportively.

When I was growing up in Rochester, New York, I participated in the trick-or-treat program for the United Nations Children’s Fund, learning how the coins I collected from my neighbors could help vulnerable children. After I arrived home, I tallied the money before placing it in a special mailing envelope. I also sorted my candy while my parents simultaneously—and paradoxically—reminded me not to eat too much and asked me to set aside some for them to enjoy.

In the weeks following Halloween, certain pieces of my saved candy would disappear; my memory of this fact is tied to understanding now that whoever helped themselves was still enjoying the holiday well into Thanksgiving. Candy is still a big part of Halloween, but now parents have better access to information about candy labels and food safety tips to consider before they and their children indulge. It should come as no surprise that I now simultaneously—and paradoxically—remind my daughters not to eat too much and ask them to save pieces of candy for me to enjoy, right up to and sometimes even beyond Thanksgiving.

Every Halloween, I also looked forward to the annual television broadcast of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, based on the Peanuts comics by Charles M. Schulz. With its humor, interesting cast of young characters, melodious music, and vibrant colors, the whole special gave meaning to the day. It also made me think about parts of the story involving Snoopy dressing himself in a World War I flying ace costume and imagining scenes behind the Western Front. Something bigger was going on here. That something—Schulz channeling his experiences as a combat soldier as well as his pride as a World War II veteran—partly inspired my interest to study and publish on wartime humanitarianism and experiences of soldiers wounded in World War I.  

I’ll confess that I still enjoy It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I watch it every year with my younger daughter who has come to enjoy it also. It makes the holiday special for both of us. I hope our time together today around the program will be transcendent and inform her future memories of the holiday, indeed time well spent laughing, appreciating the humor, wondering about Snoopy’s interest in dressing up like a World War I flying ace, and how precisely he sat comfortably atop his doghouse-turned-Sopwith Camel airplane.

Like Snoopy and the gang, and as my talented NLM colleagues have shared through their expertise of our collections, many people enjoy occasions like Halloween when they can don creative costumes and masks, think about the lore around black cats and skeletons, and regale each other with stories of ghosts and other frightful subjects. The timeless vulnerability and mystery of the human body form the basis for many of these observations and stories. Apropos, therefore, is the NLM’s newly redesigned online exhibition Dream Anatomy, which draws on collections of our library, along with work of 20th- and 21st-century artists, to explore how what lies beneath our skin has scared, amazed, entertained, fascinated, and inspired us.  Ultimately, Dream Anatomy demonstrates how art and the artistic imagination have always been an essential part of the science of anatomy and the fun of Halloween.

I join with my NLM colleagues to wish you and your family a truly healthful Halloween, one complete with experiences of togetherness in your community, treasured memories of past holidays and the creation of new memories to treasure in the future, and inspired learning through NLM’s globally appreciated collections, trusted health information resources, and the exciting and updated Dream Anatomy online exhibition.

Dr. Reznick leads all aspects of HMD and has over two decades of leadership experience in federal, nonprofit, and academic spaces. As a cultural historian, he also maintains a diverse, interdisciplinary, and highly collaborative historical research portfolio supported by the library and based on its diverse collections and associated programs. Dr. Reznick is the author of three books and numerous book chapters and journal articles, including as co-author with Ken Koyle of History matters: in the past, present & future of the NLM, published in 2021 by the Journal of the Medical Library Association

A New Frontier: The Impact of a 1959 Board Meeting

Guest blog by Ken Koyle, MA, Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at the NIH National Library of Medicine. This post celebrates the important work performed by our archival professionals and the archival collections held by the library, from which the source material was drawn, as NLM celebrates International Archives Week #IAW2022.

In November 1959, when construction of NLM’s current building at NIH was still underway and digital computing was in its infancy, the NLM Board of Regents convened on the third floor of the Old Red Brick building for a demonstration of the indexing process. When Board Chairman Michael E. DeBakey, MD, asked if computer technology could be used in indexing, NLM Director Col. Frank B. Rogers, MD, was ready with an answer. Dr. Rogers, clearly interested in the emerging technology of automated data processing (ADP), described an article by Robert S. Ledley, DDS, in that month’s issue of Science and noted that Dr. Ledley was already contracted with NLM to report on using computers in indexing.

Black-and-white photo of Dr. Rogers leaning on a stack of books with bookshelves in background.
Dr. Frank Rogers at NLM, 1962.

Dr. Rogers was instrumental in NLM’s first explorations of automated processes and had a clear vision of the potential of electronic computing, including how it could improve efficiency at NLM, but his optimism was tempered by prescient realism. Dr. Rogers recognized—and conveyed to the Board—that the potential benefits of ADP would require a commensurate investment of staff time and labor. “We should not forget that ‘automatically’ means ‘because we told it to do so beforehand,’ and this in itself may turn out to be quite a trick.” Dr. Rogers made it clear that the computer age would bring a change in work, but not necessarily a reduction in work. “Remarkable as the capacity of the computer may be for sustaining a long sequence of operations, it is nevertheless ultimately only the end-phase of that still longer sequence which must include as a first phase the human labor of input.”

Acknowledging the upfront labor investment in ADP was only part of Dr. Rogers’ insight. He also explained that the human work was not only substantial and necessary, but also incredibly complex: “The instructions [for a computer] are a thousand times more detailed, for the simplest task, than those required to be given to the . . . clerk.” Unleashing computers’ potential would require staff to think in new ways, conceive new methods of organizing data, and embark on a new journey of continuous learning and professional development.

Black-and-white photo of members of the NLM Board of Regents posing for a photo. Four members sit behind a table stacked with papers. 13 members stand in the background. Dr. Rogers is featured on the far right.
Dr. Frank Rogers (far right) with the NLM Board of Regents meeting in the “Old Red Brick,” 1957.

Along with the challenges of training staff to work with ADP equipment came the interminable problem of cost. Much as today’s public institutions are grappling with the costs of cloud computing, digitization, and increasing storage requirements, Dr. Rogers had to balance the potential benefits with the considerable costs of computer equipment. The type of computer necessary to realize Dr. Rogers’ vision would cost about $1.5 million in 1960—98% of NLM’s total budget of $1,566,000.

Undeterred, Dr. Rogers found an answer to the funding problem by collaborating with another agency that would benefit from the increased processing speed of scientific literature that the envisioned system could provide: the National Heart Institute. They provided the initial funding, NLM did the legwork, and in 1963, the new MEDLARS computer went into service. Dr. Rogers had realized his vision of bringing automated indexing to NLM. As Surgeon General Luther Terry said at the Board meeting in April 1961, “If any institution ever stood on the borderland of a new frontier it is the National Library of Medicine.”

Computer operators working with the Honeywell 800 mainframe computer, originally acquired by NLM in the 1960s.

Dr. Rogers was very clear about the issues of cost, labor, and expectations in his 1960 presentation to the Board, including his overarching concern about balancing NLM’s core mission with these potential new directions:

[The] purpose of the Library is not to operate a particular machine system, however great an acrobatic achievement that might be in itself. It is not to publish and distribute a particular index in a particular way, however ingenious and successful that operation may be deemed to be. It is not even just to be a good library, however great and distinguished that library may be. It is rather, by virtue of being a library, to use every available bibliothecal means to promote awareness of and access to the subject content of recorded medical knowledge, to the end that the science of medicine will advance and prosper.

More than 60 years later, NLM still holds fast to that purpose. As stated in our statutory mission and reiterated in our current strategic plan, we are here “to assist the advancement of medical and related sciences and to aid in the dissemination and exchange of scientific and other information important to the progress of medicine and to the public health.” Our continued pioneering work in data science is just one way we accomplish that mission.

Mr. Koyle joined HMD in the NLM Division of Library Operations in 2012. Before joining NLM, Ken served as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot and a historian in the U.S. Army. He is the co-editor with Jeffrey Reznick of Images of America: U.S. National Library of Medicine, a collaborative work with HMD staff.

Midnight in the Library

Right now, I am reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It’s a fanciful story of a woman in limbo between life and death who finds herself in a magical library, and each book represents one of the lives she could have lived had she made even one tiny different decision. She then finds herself in many of these lives, experiencing what could have been.

This book got me thinking about how NLM helps people experience lives that could be. I see this on two levels:

The first is the scientific pathway: What if . . . ? What if we knew more about the interactions between evolutionary forces and molecular constraints (like the work of Aravind Iyer, PhD), or fully appreciated the potential of proteins for genome engineering (like the discoveries made by Eugene Koonin, PhD), or could envision how and why proteins fold or switch their folds (as explored by Lauren Porter, PhD), or had the power to enable machines to understand human thought (like the research from Dina Demner-Fushman, MD, PhD). In addition to the discoveries by our NLM intramural researchers, our vast literature and data repositories hold answers that could change lives: why some genetic structures lead to human characteristics, or why a certain biochemical compound helps prevent infection. We help scientists discover these pathways and connections by providing them with the tools to uncover what could be.

The second is how NLM helps people see their what if using the amazing richness of the resources that we make available through our collections. Our resources—which encompass clinical insights, medical information, care guidelines, and self-management—help clinicians determine how to care for people with complex diseases or diagnose an illness in a timely manner. Our repository of clinical information available through PubMed ensures that those in need can access well-reasoned, recognized guiding principles for their care, and our MedlinePlus web resource provides patients and their families and friends with reliable, up-to-date health information to support and encourage healthy behavioral changes.

As in The Midnight Library, books alone do not inspire discovery, guide clinical care, or inform self-management. In Haig’s novel, a fictional librarian who knows the collection shows the main character how to select books by carefully listening to her goals and needs. It is the main character’s engagement with the books that helps her explore the lives she could have lived. At NLM, we too have librarians—located in Bethesda, Maryland, and around the country through NLM’s Network of the National Library of Medicine—who organize the library’s collections and guide patrons toward the best choice of resources. Our resources must be findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable, and actionable! And then, the person—scientist, clinician, patient—must actively engage with the material.

As we approach the future of data-powered health, guided by the NLM Strategic Plan (2017-2027), we will fulfill our mission to collect biomedical literature, organize it, preserve it, and make it accessible to the world. As the knowledge of health and biomedicine continues to grow faster than we can process, we will turn our attention to applying emerging tools, including machine learning and artificial intelligence, to make it easier to find our materials and more efficient to examine them. Through our Extramural Programs, we will continue to stimulate new ways of presenting information to scientists, clinicians, patients, and the public so they can explore possible lives to be lived and test out their promise of better health for society. What lives can we help you explore?

MLA ’22: NLM as an Engine for Innovation and Discovery

Guest post by Amanda J. Wilson, Chief of the NLM Office of Engagement and Training (OET), and Dianne Babski, Associate Director for Library Operations.

NLM is excited to participate in the annual Medical Library Association (MLA) conference MLA ’22: Reconnect, Renew, Reflect, held virtually from April 27 to May 2 and on-site in New Orleans from May 3 to 6.

Information on how NLM products, services, and programs support innovation and discovery is available at NLM @ MLA’22. We encourage to you visit the NLM Technical Showcases on May 5 for a PubMed update with Amanda Sawyer, an introduction to NIH Data Management and Sharing Policy from Dr. Lisa Federer, and a PubMed Central update and information about NIH preprints with Katie Funk. The NLM Update on May 6 with Dianne Babski, Amanda Wilson, and Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) Project Director Martha Meacham will include the latest activities and be followed by an interactive Q&A.

If you missed the April 28 session, check out the NNLM Day @ MLA: National Update page to hear about NNLM members’ work and accomplishments over the past year and to learn how the regions took advantage of their new configuration, partnerships, upcoming activities, and available opportunities. For example, the NNLM Center for Data Services hosted a session to help professionals implement the NIH Data Management and Sharing Policy, with concurrent sessions from the NNLM Training Office and NNLM Public Health Coordination Office. NNLM Day will reconvene in November 2022, so be sure to let us know your topics of interest.

MLA, which comprises more than 400 institutions and 3,000 professionals, is one of NLM’s key stakeholder groups that inform our products, initiatives, and services. MLA’s annual meeting offers NLM the opportunity to introduce new products and initiatives, get feedback on our services, and explore ways to better support the medical library community. As an NIH institute and a national library, NLM continually adapts to changes in the research ecosystem, including data standards, scientific developments, technological advancements, and the evolving norms of how we operate together.

As a catalyst for innovation and discovery, NLM is committed to equipping health science information professionals and the public at large with tools, platforms, and the ability to conduct today’s data-intensive research and community outreach. Please visit NLM @ MLA’22 to learn how you can become part of this partnership as we develop health information solutions and joint programs to support the future of health information.

Ms. Wilson coordinates engagement, training, and outreach staff from across NLM to elevate NLM’s presence across the United States and internationally. OET is also home to the Environmental Health Information Partnership for NLM and coordinates the Network of the National Library of Medicine.

Ms. Babski is responsible for the management of one of NLM’s largest divisions, with more than 450 staff, who provide health information services to a global audience of health care professionals, researchers, administrators, students, historians, patients, and the public.

Meet the NLM Investigators: L. Aravind Iyer, PhD, Uncovers the Language of Our DNA

NLM is home to a robust research enterprise. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I introduced you to two researchers from our Intramural Research Program (IRP), Dr. Lauren Porter and Dr. Xiaofang Jiang.

Now I would like you to meet another one of our researchers, L. Aravind Iyer, PhD. A member of the NLM IRP, Dr. Iyer is a Senior Investigator in the Computational Biology Branch of the National Center for Biotechnology Information. His research revolves around uncovering the stories and patterns held within DNA and RNA and is aimed at unraveling the evolutionary forces that shape biochemical functioning and biological form.

Just like any other biological structure, DNA and RNA evolve over time, which can tell a complex story of an organism’s past and illustrate relationships between organisms that aren’t obvious.

See the infographic below to learn more about the exciting research happening in Dr. Iyer’s lab.

Infographic titled: Language of Our DNA and RNA. Listing the featured researcher, L. Aravind Iyer, PhD and his title, Senior Investigator in Computational Biology. 

The first column of the infographic reads: What I'm Working On. The text in the first column lists Dr. Iyer's short term goals to: (1) Decipher evolutionary relationships of organisms (vertical and lateral) and proteins; and (2) Computationally discover biochemical activities of proteins. Next, long term goals are listed as: (1) Create a unified evolutionary theory for biological conflicts; and (2) Understand the contributions of rapid evolution in conflict on other systems.

The second column is titled: How It Works and lists the following text: (1) Reading an evolving story written in DNA/RNA and protein sequences.

(2) Closing gaps in our understanding by applying computational and statistical methods on databases to compare protein sequences and structures.

(3) Determine vertical (ancestral with a picture of an arrow pointing to  descendant) and lateral (one organism with a picture of an arrow pointing to another organism) flow of genetic information.

The third and final column of the infographic is titled: What It Looks Like and has a book in an indecipherable language with a caption that says: Deciphering the language of life written in DNA/RNA and protein sequences.


Now, in his own words, learn more about the man behind the research!

What do you enjoy about working at NLM?
NLM is one of the world’s leading centers (such can be counted on one’s fingers) for deciphering the biochemistry and biology of proteins through computational analysis of sequences and structures. As a national lab, it has an organizational structure and funding framework best suited for the kind of research that I do, which involves an extensive explorative component.

What makes your team unique?
My team embodies a considerable mass of special knowledge regarding protein evolution and function that we accumulated and systematized over a period of several decades. Given that we look at this using various computational methods, my team melds the expertise of people well versed in biology, computer programming, biochemistry, protein structure, and graph-theoretic analysis.

What is your advice for young scientists or people interested in pursuing a career in research?
I think the most interesting discoveries are those that bring together and illuminate disparate areas of inquiry. Hence, spend your early youth acquiring a very diverse knowledge base and technical capacity. Then organize this knowledge into an interconnected network that you can train your intuition on and draw from when confronted with new problems.

When you’re not in the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
Amateur astronomy, reading and writing about history and ancient texts in the original or translations, recreational mathematics, storytelling.

What inspires you?
Lives of past scientists, philosophers, and leaders from around the world. The profound insights found in the works of the ancients.

You’ve read his words, but now you can hear them for yourself. Follow along on the NLM YouTube page for more exciting content from the NLM staff that makes it all possible. If you’d like to learn more about our IRP program, view job opportunities, and explore research highlights, I invite you to explore the newly redesigned NLM IRP webpage.

YouTube: Dr. Aravind Iyer and the Protein Universe

Video transcript

[Iyer] Early in my life, I wanted to be a paleontologist. And that’s what actually led me to molecular biology. At one level, I could say that I wish to understand the whole protein universe. Proteins can be divided into evolutionary units. There’s a part of a protein that’s preserved over evolution because natural selection is maintaining that part for some reason. And one realization, which dawned on us starting around the early nineties—and this was a very profound realization for all of biology—is that there is a relatively small number of these evolutionary units of proteins, which we term domains, which constitutes the entire protein universe of all organisms across the tree of life.

If we can understand the functions of these units, then that goes a long way towards understanding what organisms do. And given there are many gaps in our understanding of what organisms do, one way to get at it is to first, find all these domains. The second aspect of it is predicting functions for them. The first phase of my research, we captured most of the low-hanging fruit, which were the big families conserved across all organisms.

Now we are moving on to the more difficult terrain, but the difficult terrain also holds a lot of promise because many un-understood functions are hiding within that difficult terrain, and it gives these offshoots in the form of biotechnological reagents. There are things like restriction enzymes, the CRISPR systems, and DNA modification systems. All of these have become very popular reagents.

NLM is a world leader in the analysis of protein sequences, protein structures, and inferring evolution from these bits of information. And this has been a very long-standing interest of mine so, this is the place to be.

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