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.

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated across the globe to recognize women’s rights and gender equality. This year’s observance encouraged all people to #BreakTheBias and envision a world that values and celebrates diversity.

Bias results from the complex interplay of experience, cognition, learning, and stigmatization. It shapes the way people make decisions and influences one’s appraisal of what constitutes good and bad. Bias can sometimes be helpful as it provides a quick way to motivate social discourse. However, bias often leads to unfair or discriminatory treatment. The most insidious aspect of bias is that it frequently happens outside of one’s conscious awareness. The only effective way to disrupt the dangerous influence of bias is to persistently raise awareness, challenge assumptions, and enrich the visual cues around the world that highlight the unique and powerful differences between people. Placing oneself in groups and teams with others who are different from ourselves is one starting point.

I’ve been inspired by a phrase I’ve heard several times recently: You can’t be what you can’t see. This phrase is often used to identify the multiplicative impact of creating a diverse workforce. This is pretty inspirational to me! I have often experienced efforts to bring women into leadership positions or to open scientific opportunities to people of color as a strategy that served the individual person — which in itself has many benefits. For the individual, expanded career opportunities provide meaningful work and the opportunity, not only to use one’s talents to advance an enterprise mission, but also gain financial rewards. The teams surrounding these individuals benefits too. Making sure that leadership teams are comprised of people of different genders and who have different life experiences improves our collective thought and creativity. It is important to recognize that these benefits do not arise solely because teams are made up of people who look different or sound different from each other but requires the intentional application of managerial actions that celebrate differences and help individuals build bridges between ways of knowing.

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie G. Bunch III, attributed this quote to Sally Ride in an article he wrote about the opening of the Sally Ride exhibit for a Smithsonian Magazine article titled How the Smithsonian Is Honoring Remarkable American Women. In his words, the presence of women in the space force not only benefited Dr. Ride and her crew but also served as a visible symbol to everyone, particularly girls and young women, that there were people who looked like them enjoying fulfilling careers in space.

True appreciation of the diversity of people requires that we look beyond their physical characteristics to see their real uniqueness. One’s culture, family customs, language, and upbringing imbue individuals with mannerisms, mental models, and motivations, few of which have any physical manifestation. So, if we want to enrich our work groups with colleagues with differences in the cadence of speech or adherence to traditions, we will have to find a way to make those aspects visible, and in turn, engaging for all.

Jeff Reznick and Ken Koyle, respectively the Chief and Deputy Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division, published a free visual history of NLM and its beautiful buildings. In a brief video featuring some of the pictures from their book, you can take a tour of NLM’s nearly 200-year history. What’s important to pay attention to as you view these amazing images is the early and persistent commitment to creating a diverse workforce evidenced though the pictures of people present throughout the modern history of NLM.

As NLM prepares its plan to join with the rest of the NIH to dismantle structural racism and make the NIH a welcoming workplace for people of all racial identities and ethnic heritages, looking back helps us understand that what we could see in our history allowed us to be in our future — may we continue to grow as a welcoming workplace serving scientists and society.

Translating Research into Health Information You Can Trust

Guest post by Griffin P. Rodgers, MD, MACP, Director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at NIH. Dr. Rodgers hosts the weekly Healthy Moments Radio Broadcast, that offers tips to audiences on how to prevent and manage the various diseases within NIDDK’s mission.

If a loved one tells you that you’re perfect, you can probably spot the potential bias quickly, right? Identifying a trusted source isn’t as easy when you’re trying to find information on the internet.

Having access to a wide variety of health information online has changed the way people seek information and make decisions about their well-being. With so many websites and apps providing health content, how can you determine what source of information and content is trustworthy and accurate? This can be difficult.

As the largest funder of investigator-initiated and peer-reviewed medical research, NIH is a good place to start your search for reliable health information. Communicating what we learn from our extensive medical research is at the heart of the health information you will find on the NIDDK website. Our research areas include:

  • Diabetes and other endocrine and metabolic diseases
  • Liver and other digestive diseases
  • Nutrition disorders
  • Obesity
  • Kidney, urologic, and hematologic diseases

Diabetes, obesity, and chronic kidney disease (CKD) are chronic diseases that are connected and affect many people. Our free health information is informed by the research we fund and conduct to find better ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases.

A landmark NIDDK-supported study called the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) and Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study (DPPOS) has helped us provide tips about how to delay or prevent type 2 diabetes, use diabetes medicines including metformin, and how to avoid or manage the array of health problems related to diabetes.

Our type 1 diabetes health information includes findings from the NIDDK-funded Diabetes Control and Complications Trial and a follow-up study, that together showed keeping blood glucose levels as close to normal as possible slows the onset and progression of kidney, eye, and nerve damage caused by type 1 diabetes.

We also shared what we learned studying weight-loss (bariatric) surgery in adults and youth in content about weight-loss surgery. The Longitudinal Assessment of Bariatric Surgery (LABS) and Teen-LABS studies advanced our understanding of the risks and benefits of weight-loss surgery in adults and adolescents who have obesity. We are still studying the long-term health outcomes after surgery.

Kidney research supported through our Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort (CRIC) study has guided the development of health information about factors that cause CKD to worsen in adults or increase a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. NIDDK, along with other NIH Institutes, also supports the Chronic Kidney Disease in Children (CKiD) study, which has helped us understand the causes of CKD in children and how it affects a child’s health and development. NIDDK’s health information about kidney disease in children offers parents, caregivers, and youth an overview of kidney disease and how to treat it.

Another example of how we translate research discoveries into health information for the public is NIDDK’s research on viral hepatitis, which led to the development of many of the liver topics in our health information pages. NIDDK funded and conducted liver studies have led to the discovery of the hepatitis B virus, a vaccine for hepatitis B, improved treatments for hepatitis B and C. You can also find information about many diseases and disorders that are less common, but can have a profound impact on the people affected, such as Zollinger-Ellison Syndrome.

We offer health information in English and Spanish. To help ensure that our audiences can easily find, read, and use our information, we review the content for scientific and clinical accuracy and plain language. To reach people where they are, we also make our health information available through MedlinePlus Connect, a free service of NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NLM), which links electronic health record systems and patient portals to NIH information.

NIDDK continues its mission to combat disease and disseminate health information anchored in our research to improve public health. I invite you to visit the NIDDK website to learn more about our research and to read and share our health information.

Dr. Rodgers has served as NIDDK Director since 2007. As a research investigator, he is widely recognized for his contributions to the development of the first effective therapy for sickle cell anemia. Dr. Rodgers serves as a chair, co-chair, and member of numerous high-level trans-NIH and Department of Health and Human Services scientific and administrative committees, including the NIH Common Fund program, “Nutrition for Precision Health,” powered by the All of Us Research Program, the NIH Obesity Research Task Force, and the Accelerating Medicines Partnership.

Funding Announcement: NLM Encourages Diversity by Expanding Educational Opportunities

Guest post by Meryl Sufian, PhD, Chief Program Officer, NIH National Library of Medicine (NLM) Division of Extramural Programs.

Biomedical informatics and data science are exciting fields with careers that are in great demand and will continue to grow. As these areas of research have expanded, it is clear that individuals from racial and ethnic minorities and women are underrepresented. A diverse and inclusive workforce provides many benefits to advance science and discovery, such as robust learning environments, public trust in research, and incentives for encouraging underserved populations to participate in and benefit from health research.

The NIH Research Education Program (R25) supports research educational activities that complement other formal training programs in the mission areas of the NIH Institutes and Centers. NLM recently announced RFA-LM-22-001 (Short-Term Research Education Experiences to Attract Talented Students to Biomedical Informatics/Data Science Careers and Enhance Diversity [R25 Clinical Trial Not Allowed]). This funding opportunity seeks proposals from institutions interested in creating educational programs and research experiences that will recruit talented students from diverse backgrounds to pursue degrees in biomedical informatics and data science.

Please join us on April 13 at 11 am ET for a technical assistance webinar. Applications are due by May 31, and full details about the R25 funding opportunity are available at RFA-LM-22-001.

Encouraging diversity remains an ongoing challenge that must be examined at every level of the educational pipeline. NLM’s new R25 program addresses this issue, in particular the transition from undergraduate to graduate education where science and engineering students from underrepresented groups tend to leave the research enterprise. At the postsecondary level, students need exposure to opportunities and role models in fields that require computational ability. The R25 program will provide students with experience in cutting edge biomedical informatics and data science research, offer enriching mentorship experiences, and prepare students to enter doctoral programs in these fields.

Increasing diversity in the biomedical and data science workforce is complex and requires expanding opportunities in primary and secondary education, awareness, and access to mentorships. NLM is optimistic that the R25 initiative is a good first step to address the diversity and pipeline issues, and more importantly, that you will join us in this endeavor. NLM welcomes applications from institutions and organizations who will provide a supportive environment and are committed to increasing the diversity of the biomedical informatics and data science workforce.

Dr. Sufian joined the NLM in 2021 and most recently served as a Senior Science Advisor to the Director at the NIH Office of AIDS Research. Prior to this position, Dr. Sufian held various programmatic positions across NIH including as a Senior Program Director for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and Program Director at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Her first position at NIH was as a Program Director for the National Cancer Institute where she managed and provided oversight for the evaluation of research initiatives

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