In anticipation of her 100th day in office since her swearing in September 12th, Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan answered questions from NLM in Focus.
Here she shares her passion for the Library and its future and provides a little insight into her personal interests.
As the first nurse to lead the National Library of Medicine, what have you been hearing from the nursing community?
People are excited that nurses have large and varied career trajectories and opportunities for senior leadership within HHS. I’m thinking of Marilyn Tavenner who led CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] and Mary Wakefield, acting deputy secretary of HHS.
I don’t think it’s surprising that a nurse would head a multi-disciplinary enterprise and be mindful of all the disciplines.
Two examples matter for us that the Library is led by a nurse:
First is more emphasis on medicine as a lifespan attitude rather than as a single point in time.
Second, often there is a narrowing of focus to specific health precursors rather than lifestyle, so interventions tend to be more narrowly focused, and therefore the literature and what’s viewed as relevant are much narrower. It’s my hope that, through my presence here, we will expand the definition of what is considered health-related literature, especially as it comes to phenotyping, and move into considering the health and illnesses of individuals and the people who live around them, their lifestyle, and their environment.
Another woman, Carla D. Hayden, was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on September 14, just two days after you were sworn in. Have you been in touch?
Yes. I recently saw her at a tribute to Smokey Robinson at the Library of Congress, and we worked together at the American Library Association Policy Planning Sessions.
Dr. Hayden and I agree that public libraries will continue playing a key role in delivering health information directly to citizens in the coming years. This is particularly important as we launch the Precision Medicine Initiative, with its requirement that information specific to a participant will be returned directly to that person. This could raise questions, and the Library, through its National Network of Libraries of Medicine (as well as other outlets such as MedlinePlus), will play an important role in helping people get their questions answered.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since taking this job?
It’s awesome and very humbling all at once.
I have found the depth of knowledge of some of the people here just phenomenal. It is important to the work of the Library to have the scientists, librarians, and subject matter experts working together.
We know you’re working with the Board of Regents to develop a strategic plan to move the Library into its third century. How’s it going?
It’s very exciting.
We’re interested in the role of the Library in basic biomedical, open science, and data science initiatives, as a platform for supporting biomedical discovery, supporting the health of the public, and how it should build 21st century collections. We’ll also be getting input on research needs, the infrastructure necessary to support our future, standards, and workforce development, along with what partnerships are necessary to address health disparities and promote outreach.
We’ve identified four themes for organizing the input from our stakeholders. We will have four panels that will meet this spring, each addressing one of these themes. We anticipate that our final strategic plan will include crosscutting ideas arising from this process.
We also have a strong contingent asking us to make the Library’s international efforts more visible. I expect we will be exploring this. Because our resources are free and on the web, we have a large international footprint. I think there’s hope we’ll go a little more deeply with some countries.
Every job comes with an unspoken category called “other duties as assigned.” What are some of the more unexpected things you’ve found yourself doing since you arrived?
I don’t want to sound snarky, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how many times I have to sign my name. I recently signed my name on 437 honor award certificates. I have a big signature and a long name so the process of signing my name so many times was astounding.
What part of your job as director really gets you excited?
I’m so excited about what we’re going to be able to contribute to data science initiatives because we are a library. A lot of what is needed to make data findable and accessible draws directly from our strengths in creating indices and understanding labeling. We’ll just be doing them for a different set of information—raw data instead of published articles.
We’re going to move very quickly into that new environment.
In the words of the musical “Hamilton,” you’re in the room where it happens. The heads of NIH’s other institutes and centers meet about once a week. What’s that been like for you?
I’ve developed a great appreciation for the diversity of the leadership here.
Dr. Collins has a view of senior leadership that suggests we should all be part of the NIH solution. We deliberate as a body about things that cross the whole organization, like workforce issues, policy, and major new initiatives. NLM is very deeply involved in one of them—the data science initiative of the future—but I’m also getting up to speed on the Brain Initiative and promoting women scientists.
I probably work most closely with Gary Gibbons [director of the National Institute of Heart, Lung and Blood Institute], who is also my mentor. Gary has a deep interest in the data sciences and the solutions that will help with the TOPMed Project. I also meet pretty regularly with Jon Lorsch and Eric Green for the same reason, and, of course, Philip Bourne, associate director for data science.
My emphasis is on finding a pathway to expand the idea of data science beyond the repositories of known data sets. I’d also like to include in our discussions of data science things such as new analytics or types of data besides biological data, like environmental signals.
Policy evolves slowly. It isn’t just a matter of being in the room. It’s being available and getting an appreciation for how people speak and what they’re concerned about as we develop new plans and new resolutions.
Anything else you want to add?
I am not the newest [IC] director anymore. And let me tell you, it’s like being the oldest child when a sibling is born. All of a sudden the attention shifts. [Laughter]
I also have to say there’s been a resurrection of a group that has met before, Women in Leadership. It’s a pretty impressive group!
What do you want for NLM staff?
From a broad perspective, I want the quality of work life to match the depth of the commitment and the effort that individuals bring to our great operation. I would like to see members of our staff have a career trajectory that is meaningful and interesting, and that they feel appreciated for their work. I want people to take the chances they need to take without fear and to be respected for the risk it takes to innovate.
I want people to complement their creativity with an assessment of impact so we can really demonstrate where we are influencing the lives of people as well as science.
President Obama said that he shouldn’t be judged by his first 100 days in his office. He stated, “The first hundred days is going to be important, but it’s probably going to be the first thousand days that makes the difference.” Do you have any expectations for the next 900 days?
Wow, I expect that we will increase our extramural and intramural research efforts, broaden the footprint for data science, and provide a nexus for the campus and the country for both methodological and basic repository storage of advanced and complex data. I expect we will continue to grow our outreach to individuals and communities and the public at large, which may include a stronger interaction with industry than we have right now. We have also begun working with commercial solutions for cloud storage. I think that will continue to grow.
What else would you like to add?
The previous leader left a while before I got here, so we’ve had a long transition. Before that, there was stable leadership for more than a generation, so I think the first 100 days in my particular case have been critical. I’m listening a lot, as I’d like to take forward the guidance of colleagues and stakeholders of the National Library of Medicine. I think if I had missed that window, I would have been in big trouble.
A part that was really significant for me was having the senior leadership come along with me. That was really very gratifying, and I’m sure it took effort on their part to rethink a new person coming in and how things change.
I think the next 900 days will be important, and they will be informed by our first 100 days.
You’ve had a Twitter account since 2008 and are active in Twitter via the @NLMdirector handle. You also have a new blog called NLM Musings from the Mezzanine. What do you value most about communicating via social media?
The opportunity to stay in conversation with people.
My son put into words something I felt about Twitter. He said, “Twitter is a like a burp. You’re sort of burping into people’s lives unexpectedly.” And yet you can use this effectively to engage with others and to watch who is responding to you or watching you. There’s a public nature to the conversation.
Twitter is a way for us to get the conversation out about our science and the fact that we’re interested in a lot of different things.
I occasionally make a comment about something personal, but I am more often showcasing the Library or linking the Library to something else going on.
I like the combination of Twitter and public speaking because the Twitter feed that comes out when I’m presenting helps me understand what people are hearing, and I learn about the issues I’d better address with greater clarity.
In some parts of campus our reputation is not what I want it to be. To some, we are a building with some “dusty books and NCBI.” I see the blog as a deliberate attempt to gradually but systematically expose people to what we do and why what we do is important, and where it comes out of a science and its principles.
You have a history of charitable works and giving. You support safe housing, food security, and the health and wellbeing of LGBT youth. For 10 years in Wisconsin, you were a bell ringer for the Salvation Army and served as an overnight host in a shelter. Any plans for volunteering in Washington, DC?
I’ve already connected with a program called Loaves and Fishes in Washington, DC, that feeds the poor and the homeless.
I will continue to work in the area of safe housing and secure food resources for people. My work with shelters will probably not continue in the same way, because I don’t have a car or the time flexibilities I used to have, so I’ll find new opportunities.
Sometimes you listen to music while you work. What’s on your playlist?
I tend to listen to a lot of early 20th century European music—Erik Satie, Ralph Vaughan Williams. I also listen to Mark Knopfler, particularly his non-Dire Straits music.
I’m a big fan of Broadway music, and it’s my favorite time of year because now there’s Christmas music. I probably have four different Christmas lists on Pandora.
Favorite outside activities or hobbies?
I play the piano. I knit. I have found several yarn stores in town already, but I have not found a piano coach. We have several pianists throughout the Library, and I’ve been encouraged to think about certain coaches, but they’re at a higher level. I’m not particularly good at playing the piano, but I enjoy it. And, of course, I love to travel.