Focus on NLM Scientists: Kim Pruitt Has Built a Career on Passion and Persistence

In this new column, we’ll introduce you to some of the scientists at the National Library of Medicine.

We’ll start with Kim Pruitt, PhD, staff scientist at NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) since 1998. Her program, the Reference Sequence Database, better known as RefSeq, has grown from an initial public release of 3,439 sequence records to more than 100 million since it launched 17 years ago.

Dr. Pruitt shares how a subscription to Science magazine paid off, why she learned to interrupt people, and how she feels about working at NIH.

Turning the page at the right time

The fact that Pruitt works at NCBI still startles her sometimes.

After all, if she had followed her earliest childhood dreams, she would have become a librarian or a physician.

If she had stayed on an academic path, she would be a professor of genetics and running a lab.

If business and programming had been her forte, the software company she co-founded might still be in business.

Instead, when she was in her mid-thirties, an article in Science magazine changed her life.

“There was an interview with Jim Ostell at NCBI about this new field called bioinformatics,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do and that’s who I wanted to work for.”

Informal headshot of Dr. Kim Pruitt

Kim Pruitt, PhD

It didn’t happen right away. Pruitt had to be persistent.

She applied at NLM for a post-doc and said she “was excited to get one, but I really wanted to work for Jim.” She approached Ostell and asked, “Can I work on something for you part-time while I’m here?”

The following year and half from spring 1997 until mid-1998 was “really intense. I basically had two postdocs.” She also had two young daughters. “My husband’s flexible job made it possible,” she explained.

Pruitt proved herself. She was asked to stay on.

“There was this new project to keep track of curated sequences for the human genome. They were working on sequencing the human genome and people were starting to look into annotating it. What’s all this sequence data going to do for us if we don’t know what the genes are? We needed a database of the genes,” she explained. “Jim Ostell hired me to start that project, and I’m still here working on it.”

“Kim has built up RefSeq as the acknowledged top tier genome sequence collection for human, mouse, and many other eukaryotic organisms, including genes annotated directly on the genome as well as curated mRNA collections,” said Ostell, NIH distinguished investigator and chief of the information engineering branch at NCBI.

“Kim’s work is used every day by thousands of genome scientists all over the world.”

The project has come a long way since the initial public release of human transcript records in the spring of 1999. “We developed all of the programmatic support, databases, and analysis tools, but a lot of the sequence analysis was just manual labor,” she said. “As of June 29, we had over 100 million sequence records, which includes over 65 million protein records, over 15 million transcript records, and over 19 million DNA records.”

To get the job done, Pruitt manages a team of 22 scientists and works closely with computer programmers and other teams who support specific portions of the RefSeq data set. Pruitt’s group curates data and creates sequence records for humans, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. “My curation team expanded significantly in the last four years and now supports everything except the viruses,” she says with a smile.

Lesson learned: It’s okay to interrupt

“When I started my PhD program in 1983, women were making great traction, but the road was still hard,” said Pruitt. “I was fortunate in having a female mentor in graduate school. She expected that we would be able to work very independently. I was perhaps naively expecting someone a little more nurturing and mentoring, but I learned how to operate well in what at that time was a man’s world in science.”

Pruitt’s Pearls of Wisdom for Young Scientists

As a manager and a parent, Kim Pruitt mentors scientists.

“My daughters used to say, ‘We don’t want a job like our parents.’ They thought I worked too hard.”

Now one daughter has a biochemistry degree and is working in a genetic testing lab while working on a master’s degree. “My younger daughter wanted to be a conservation biologist. Now she’s trying programming.”

As a parent, Pruitt knows the importance of nurturing children to pursue their own paths. When she was in high school and thought she might like to be a physician, her parents had other ideas. “My family was old school. When I wanted to be a physician, my parents said, ‘No you should be a nurse,’” she explained. “I didn’t accept that.”

Pruitt offers advice for young women—and men—pursuing a career in science.

• Follow your passion and interests. Find an avenue to take advantage of where your interests lie.
• Believe in yourself. Have the default assumption that you can do it. Don’t second-guess your abilities.
• Be persistent.
• Ask for advice. If you reach a sticky point, ask for help. Don’t get stuck. Don’t waste too much of your time on a project because you are stubbornly thinking “I can do it all by myself.”
• Yes, you need to know the science very well to succeed as a scientist, but you also need to know how to network and collaborate, how to stay organized, how to prioritize, and how to communicate effectively—both in writing and verbally. If you need to improve on one of those things, then treat that as a work goal, too. It’s just as important as completing that series of experiments.

Sometimes working in a traditionally male field has required some adjustments.

“I think men have an easier time interjecting into the conversational flow than women do,” she said. “I noticed that when I had something to say, I couldn’t quite get it into the conversation. I started thinking I wasn’t as successful as I could be because I’m not being heard. That issue that women have a harder time being heard is still very real. I had to identify this as an issue and actively work on my ability to interrupt people.”

She also consciously tries to help others. “If I’m in a meeting with other women—or men, too— and it looks like they’d like to say something, I’ll stop and say, ‘Let’s hear what so and so wanted to say.’ I want to give others an opportunity to speak.”

But sometimes opportunities for women are still limited.

“I’ve certainly gone to large conferences and meetings where there are no female plenary speakers, or there’s a really biased number of male speakers,” she said. “I still see gender imbalance in the biological sciences and that bothers me.”

When she first joined NCBI, she said that “all of the PIs [principal investigators] were men. But as NCBI grew, women were put in supervisory positions. There are still more men than women, but overall the gender balance has improved quite a lot.”

When Pruitt looks back at her career, she gives a lot of credit to her early mentor, Dr. Maureen Hanson.

“In hindsight I really learned a lot from my time in her lab—how to work hard, how to solve my own research problems, how to persevere—and that experience was an influence even years later, as I decided I didn’t like some aspect of who I was professionally and so decided it was simply up to me to change that,” said Pruitt. “NCBI gave me the support and the opportunity to do that.”

At NCBI, Pruitt provides support and opportunities to the scientists who work for her.

What if?

“I feel really proud of what I’ve built. I came here excited to be at NIH, like, wow, I’m working at NIH. It’s so cool. I still feel that,” says Pruitt. “It was a fortunate path that brought me here. I think about stuff like that. What if I hadn’t read that issue of Science?”