On Becoming

At what point can one say, “I am a librarian”?

No, I’m not asking about myself. Instead, after reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, I’ve been thinking about how our lives, including our careers, unfold, and whether or not we ever truly become what we aspire to be.

So, at what point can one say, “I am a librarian”? Is it on entry to a graduate program in library science? When assuming that first professional position? As one grows in skill and sophistication or achieves some recognition for the unique expertise of the profession?

You might argue for any of these, but from where I sit, a librarian is always becoming. Curiosity and intellectual drive lead to acquiring the academic degree, but opportunities, shifting trends, and emerging technologies stimulate continuing education and life-long learning. As Mrs. Obama observed, “Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim…[it’s] forward motion, a means of evolving.” (p. 419)

So it is with librarians, I think. With each change, librarians are challenged to continue becoming—in new ways—the professionals responsible for selecting, acquiring, and managing important collections. In this sense, becoming calls for recognizing the opportunities and choices available and reconciling them to one’s life goals. This type of becoming might lead to acquiring new skills, abandoning old patterns, or stepping into unfamiliar territory, whether by moving across the country or into a different role.

The National Library of Medicine wants to be a part of that becoming for medical librarians, public librarians responsible for health information in a community, and academic librarians who support researchers, students, and academic clinicians. Through our National Network of Libraries of Medicine, we provide webinars and training courses to help librarians solve practical problems and prepare for a future of data-powered health, and we partner with the Medical Library Association to offer programs on access, digital rights management, and open science—all trends that promise to nudge libraries in new directions and librarians toward expanding roles.

Along the way this Library is becoming, too. As NLM prepares to enter its third century, we are tackling emerging challenges and moving in new directions. Where once hundreds of people researched here in our reading room in Bethesda, now millions of people access our electronic resources daily.  Hundreds of subject matter experts and computer scientists now complement our outstanding library science workforce. And we’re moving beyond library science and computer science to improve everyone’s facility and fluency with data science, so we can be ready for what’s coming.

So, embrace the becoming. Continue to learn, to grow, to evolve. And let’s do it together.

Working—and Walking—Together for Healthier Hearts

You’ve heard the statistics: One out of every four deaths in the United States is due to heart disease.

Heart disease remains the number one killer across most ethnic groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. (Heart disease is second only to cancer as cause of death for American Indians or Alaska Natives and Asians or Pacific Islanders.)

But have you heard these more encouraging numbers? At least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week can help protect your heart health. And the great news is that you don’t have to do that 30 minutes of activity all at once. If you can’t find time to take a 30-minute walk, taking three 10-minute walks will get your heart going, too.

With that in mind, NLM is participating in the #OurHearts campaign this month by encouraging staff to get out and get moving. We launched our own Heart Healthy Challenge on February 8 with an outdoor walk that brought about 70 folks out into a brisk Friday morning to get the blood pumping. Dr. Gary Gibbons, Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, joined us and offered a few remarks, noting particularly the power of working together for heart health within our families and communities. And he’s right, of course. Research shows that having social support makes it easier to be heart healthy.

So get out there and celebrate the power and strength of acting together to be heart healthy. Walk, run, dance, cycle—move! And then let us know what you’re doing for heart health.

NLM is doing its part, but your heart depends on you!

Celebrating the Contributions of African American Scientists at NIH

The National Library of Medicine is proud once again to partner with the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to celebrate Black History Month.  This year, we’re marking the occasion by hosting a photographic display celebrating African American scientists at NIH.  The exhibition will be on display through the end of February.

I was delighted to welcome the honorees and their families and friends to the exhibition’s opening ceremony on February 4. Christopher Williams, STEM education director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, acknowledged in his opening remarks the power of being in a room with over 200 people celebrating African American scientists. The event, he noted, “provides an opportunity for those who have been blazing the trails to connect with those who are just starting along the way.”

For Roland Owens, PhD, NIH Director of Research Workforce Development, those just starting out include black youth, hungry for role models. “The purpose of this poster project is to make it easier for everyone to see that there are black scientists doing great things for the world,” he said.

Who are those doers of great things?

Let me introduce you to the 14 black scientists from 10 different institutes and centers across NIH who continue to drive the science and our organization forward.

headshot of Marie Bernard, MDMarie Bernard, MD
Deputy Director, National Institute on Aging


posed photo of Darlene Dixon, DVM, PhDDarlene Dixon, DVM, PhD
Group Lead, Molecular Pathogenesis Group, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences


headshot of Emmeline Edwards, PhDEmmeline Edwards, PhD
Director, Division of Extramural Research, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health


headshot of Courtney Fitzhugh, MDCourtney Fitzhugh, MD
Lasker Clinical Research Scholar, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


headshot of Shawn Gaillard, PhDShawn Gaillard, PhD
Research Training Officer, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


posed photo of Gary Gibbons, MDGary Gibbons, MD
Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Carl V. Hill, PhD, MPH, speaks from behind a podiumCarl V. Hill, PhD, MPH
Director, Office of Special Populations, National Institute on Aging


headshot of Alfred Johnson, PhDAlfred Johnson, PhD
Deputy Director for Management, Office of the Director


headshot of Zayd M. Khaliq, PhDZayd M. Khaliq, PhD
Stadtman Investigator, Cellular Neurophysiology Unit, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


posed photo of Worta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MSWorta McCaskill-Stevens, MD, MS
Chief of the Community Oncology and Prevention Trials Research Group, National Cancer Institute


headshot of Roland Owens, PhDRoland Owens, PhD
Assistant Director, Office of Intramural Research, Office of the Director


headshot of Anna Ramsey-Ewing, PhDAnna Ramsey-Ewing, PhD
Director, Office of Grants Management and Scientific Review, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


posed photo of Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACPGriffin Rodgers, MD, MACP
Director, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


posed photo of Fasil Tekola-Ayele PhDFasil Tekola Ayele PhD
Earl Stadtman Investigator, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


The exhibition honoring these scientists is currently on display in the Library’s Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A). The panels recognize each scientist with his or her photograph, current position, and a quote about his or her career path.

I was touched and challenged by these scientists’ insights as I learned about their particular motivations, significant mentors, and notable experiences that shaped their research and their lives. I also marveled at their range of interests and accomplishments, though I couldn’t help but notice the common threads of tenacity, drive, and commitment to excellence that bound them all together.

I was also struck by the connection across generations as I toured the exhibit in the company of Gary Gibbons, MD, and Paule Joseph, RN, PhD. These two scientists represented different points on the career trajectory: Gibbons an accomplished cardiologist who has been the Director of NHLBI since 2012 (and my personal mentor since I arrived at NIH); and Joseph, a young scholar from the National Institutes of Nursing Research. As we strolled together among the panels and discussed the honorees, I felt grateful for the tremendous accomplishments of my colleagues featured in the exhibition, and I also felt excited and hopeful for the advancements yet to come from so many young, innovative researchers just starting out—and by those coming behind them, inspired by their stories. It leaves me optimistic and eager to see the bright future they will help usher in and makes me wonder what marks they will make on biomedical research and discovery.

Whatever they are, I expect NLM will be there to tell their story. The Library remains committed to showcasing the contributions of African Americans in health care and biomedical science. In fact, four of our History of Medicine’s recent exhibitions highlight those contributions:

  • Binding Wounds, an exhibition about African Americans in Civil War medicine
  • Opening Doors, stories of contemporary African American surgeons
  • Fire & Freedom, a look at power imbalance, food, and enslavement in the early days of the United States
  • The Politics of Yellow Fever, which includes the essential role Philadelphia’s free African American residents played during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793

You can see three of those exhibitions on display now at NLM. Two, Binding Wounds and Opening Doors, are set up in the Lister Hill Center (Bldg 38A) around the corner from the panels featuring our 14 scientist honorees. The third, The Politics of Yellow Fever, which just opened January 11, occupies the entryway to our History of Medicine Division.

If you can’t visit in person, check out the companion websites for each of these exhibitions. You’ll be glad you did—and grateful, like me, for the  contributions of African American healers, clinicians, and scientists.

Promoting Trust in Trustable Information

NLM is and always has been committed to providing access to trustworthy information. We pride ourselves on being an authoritative source of reliable biomedical and health information for scientists, clinicians, the public, and policy makers—a role that begins by building a collection of quality materials, carefully selected.

Our collection development policy, coupled with long-standing library principles, scientific expertise, and years of collective experience, helps ensure the quality, accuracy, and currency of our resources, whether that’s our literature repositories, our consumer health information, or our biomedical data banks. And that excellence is reflected in the trust we’ve earned, trust validated by the millions of users who visit our website each day.

But for all the authoritative information we and others share online, the internet serves up false or misleading information almost as frequently. How can we—and the citizens we serve—function effectively in such an environment?

A recent article in The New York Times helps highlight one possible path.

Pointedly titled “Why do people fall for fake news?” the article offers insights applicable beyond the political arena on which it focuses. The article’s authors, Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, ran studies to test participants’ ability to distinguish true statements from false claims. Their results highlighted the power of reflective reasoning to help people interpret information’s veracity. That is, the more people could think critically and be conscious of the steps in their own thinking, the more accurate their understanding of the information and the less likely they were to be swayed by their own rationalizations or weighted down by intellectual laziness.

What does this mean for NLM?

That beyond providing trustable health and biomedical information, we can also help our customers by building their reflective reasoning  and critical thinking skills and giving them the confidence and practice to use them. By integrating training, tools, and tutorials into our outreach programs we can boost people’s ability to distinguish good health information from the bad, which will help them make better decisions for their own health and the health of their loved ones.

After all, providing accurate information gets us only part of the way. We also need to be sure that people are recognizing and using quality, trustworthy health information and shunning the inaccurate, the biased, and the just-plain-dangerous. Our health depends on it.

Data Discovery at NLM

Guest post by David Hale, Information Technology Specialist at NLM.

Did you know that each day more than four million people use NLM resources and that every hour a petabyte of data moves in or out of our computing systems?

Those mammoth numbers indicate to me how essential NLM’s array of information products and services are to scientific progress. But as we gain more experience with providing information, particularly clinical, biologic, and genetic datasets, we’re finding that how we share data is as critical as the data itself.

To fuel the insights and solutions needed to improve public health, we must ensure data flow freely to the researchers, industry innovators, patient communities, and citizen scientists who can bring new lenses to these rich repositories of knowledge.

One way we’re opening doors to our data is through an open data portal called Data Discovery. While agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are already utilizing the same platform with success, NLM is the first of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to adopt the platform. Our first datasets are already available, including content from such diverse resources as the Dietary Supplement Label Database, Pillbox, ToxMap, Disaster Lit, and HealthReach.

Why did NLM take this step? While many of our data resources have long been publicly available online, housing them within Data Discovery offers unconstrained access and delivers key benefits:

  • Powerful data exploration tools—By showing the dataset as a spreadsheet, the Data Discovery platform offers freedom to filter and interact with the data in novel ways.
  • Intuitive data visualizations—A picture is worth a thousand words, and nowhere is that truer than leveraging data visualizations to bring new perspectives on scientific questions.
  • Open data APIs—Open data alone isn’t enough to fuel a new generation of insights. Open APIs are critical to making the data understandable, accessible, and actionable, based on the unique needs of the user or audience.

What does this mean in practice?

Let’s look at the Office of Dietary Supplements’ (ODS) Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD) to illustrate the potential of leveraging Data Discovery.

More than half of all Americans take at least one dietary supplement a day. Reliable information about those supplements is critical to their appropriate use, making DSLD a timely and important dataset to make available in an open data platform. Through Data Discovery, researchers, academics, health care providers, and the public will be able to explore and derive insights from the labels of more than 85,000 dietary supplement products currently or formerly sold in the US.

Developers and technologists who support research, health, and medical organizations require APIs that are modern, interoperable, and standards-compliant. Data Discovery provides a powerful solution to these needs, supporting NLM’s role as a platform for biomedical discovery and data-powered health.

Beyond fueling scientific discovery, open access to data holds another benefit for advancing public health: contributing to the professional development of data and informatics specialists. An increasingly important part of the health care workforce, informaticists help researchers extract the most meaningful insights from data, driving new developments in the lab and better management of patients and populations.

I invite you to explore the new Data Discovery portal. It’s an exciting step forward in achieving key aspects of the NLM Strategic Plan—to advocate for open science, further democratize access to data, and support the training and development of the data science workforce.

headshot of David Hale
Credit: Jacie Lee Almira Photography

David Hale is an Information Technology Specialist at the National Library of Medicine. In addition to leading Data Discovery, David is also project lead for NLM’s Pillbox, a drug identification, reference, and image resource. He received his Bachelor of Science in Physical Science from the University of Maryland.

Revving Up NLM Research

Last week NLM took another big step in revving up its intramural research operation. On Tuesday, January 15, we launched a national search for a scientific director to oversee all intramural research, a move that elevates the position and reflects its broad-based, trans-NLM scope of responsibilities.

The new position arises in response to the Blue Ribbon Panel that recently reviewed NLM’s intramural research programs and recommended, among other forward-looking ideas, unifying the programs under a single scientific director. That shift also aligns the Library with NIH’s other Institutes and Centers, most of which are guided by one scientific director.

The NLM intramural research program includes activities housed in both the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications (LHC) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The researchers in these two centers develop and apply computational approaches to a broad range of problems in biomedicine, molecular biology, and health, but they do so via different channels—LHC focusing on medical and clinical data, NCBI on biological and genomic data.

But as the Blue Ribbon Panel noted, the boundaries are dissolving between clinical and biological data, and the analytical and computational strategies for each are increasingly shared. As a result, the current research environment calls for a more holistic view of biomedical data, one best served by shared approaches and ongoing collaborations while preserving the two centers’ unique identities.

A single scientific director will help make that happen.

Such unified leadership is expected to yield a number of benefits for NLM’s intramural research, including a sharper focus on research priorities; collective alignment with NLM and NIH strategies; fewer barriers to collaboration; the cross-fertilization of ideas; and the optimization of scarce resources. Essentially, we expect to spark synergies and garner efficiencies, with accelerated research the result.

As one of the first orders of business, the new scientific director will be asked to craft a long-range plan that identifies research areas where we can best leverage our unique position and resources. We’ll also look for ways to allocate more resources to fundamental research while streamlining operational support. Down the road, we’ll expand our research agenda to include high-risk, high-reward endeavors, the kinds of things that raise profound questions and have the potential to yield tremendous impact.

It’s a bold and significant undertaking.

Fortunately, the new scientific director will be supported by the experienced intramural investigators already onboard and by a seasoned NLM leadership team. In addition, three new investigators currently being recruited will complement our strengths in machine learning and natural language processing.

It promises to be a fabulous and exciting journey.

Do you know someone who’d make a great scientific director? Or maybe you’re ready to step up to this opportunity yourself. If so, please let us know by contacting the search committee at NLMSD@nih.gov.

Or, if you’d like to talk about the direction we’re heading, add a note below. I look forward to hearing from you.

More information
NLM Scientific Director Job Announcement

In Support of Sick Leave

Last week I took a sick day. It’s a rare thing for me, but I was just too ill to come to work. A nasty bout of food poisoning coupled with a fever had me lying low for 48 hours, most of which I slept through.

Because I took the time though, I came back to the office rested, refreshed, and feeling much better. I also returned with renewed gratitude and appreciation for sick leave as part of my benefits package. I know many are not so fortunate.

When it’s provided as a workplace benefit, sick leave assures those who are ill that they can take time to recover or to care for an ailing family member. It also protects those at the office from being exposed to infectious diseases and may in fact lessen the spread of contagious illnesses like the flu. Knowing that any one of us might end up out on sick leave also encourages us to be prepared not to be at work—to make sure that, even in our absence, the communication lines remain open, the information necessary to keep the work place humming is available, and back-ups are in place and ready to step in.

But aside from those basic and important ways that sick leave serves us all,  it also influences a practice called “presenteeism.” While the definition of presenteeism can vary, it generally means coming to work when ill or in pain. While that might sound admirable to some, research (including a recent paper by Allen and colleagues) has shown that presenteeism can cause serious problems both for the work place and for the people who work there. Employees impaired due to health issues show poor concentration and are less productive, which directly impacts the quantity and quality of their work. Those same employees might also find they don’t recover as quickly or that their illness is exacerbated by trying to push through. And the situation isn’t much better for their co-workers, who might still be called upon to pick up the slack while risking exposure to whatever contagious illness their sick colleagues have.  As a result those individual decisions to come in to the office despite illness might ripple through the team or organization for weeks, causing more absences and lost productivity.

Many factors contribute to presenteeism, including a sense that we are essential to our work place. (I can be guilty of that one.) We also often hold a high bar to what constitutes being “sick enough” to take a day off, a factor frequently impacted both by one’s personal sense of commitment and responsibility and by the work group’s norms and expectations. Others, particularly those who’ve experienced serious illness, know the value of banked sick leave and look to preserve hours whenever they can. And sometimes the leave policies themselves lead to a perverse use of sick time, such as when all personal time off is lumped into a single category, so that taking a sick day runs tantamount to shortening your next vacation. (The federal leave system does not work this way.)

Regardless of what is behind it though, presenteeism costs us all. In contrast, using sick leave appropriately helps us all, by ensuring that you’re tending your health, reducing the spread of contagious illnesses, and contributing fully to work once you’re back in the office.

So, the next time you feel under the weather, have a slight temperature, or are struggling with chronic pain, think more seriously about taking a sick day. Chances are you’ll make the workplace healthier and more productive, and even more importantly, you’ll make yourself feel better.