New Deputy Director Jerry Sheehan’s Journey to NLM

How did a guy with an electrical engineering degree from MIT wind up at the National Library of Medicine?

♢ The question has two answers 

The short answer, said NLM’s new deputy director Jerry Sheehan, is that “NLM is the place to be if you’re interested in information technology and information dissemination, and want to put them to good use. What better use than health?”

For the long answer, read on.

At the time Sheehan was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Commodore computers were best sellers, and the Commodores were big on the radio.

The idea he would one day find the ultimate career at NLM never could have occurred to the young man.

♢ The early years 

After graduating from MIT, you could say that Sheehan took the road less traveled. Large corporations like Microsoft and Intel were actively recruiting at MIT, but he wasn’t interested.

headshot of Jerry Sheehan

NLM Deputy Director Jerry Sheehan

Instead, Sheehan moved to Washington, DC, to accept a position at a small consulting firm that he said worked “in the national interest,” meaning mostly the Department of Defense. He worked on computing and radar systems and became fascinated with how you can apply technology to large problems.

In addition to gaining experience in systems engineering, Sheehan learned about government contracting and saw firsthand how decisions about the creation and deployment of new technologies weren’t based solely on technical considerations. Cost and operational considerations, along with policy and politics, played into those decisions.

Sheehan enjoyed his job and living in Washington, but graduate school was always part of his plan. “My early work experiences taught me that I wanted an interdisciplinary program that had science, technology, and engineering at its core,” he said.

He returned to MIT.

“I always liked working on big issues and questions of importance,” he said. “At the time I returned to school, the former Soviet Union collapsed, and there was renewed interest in thinking about how to use science and technology in support of new national missions.”  Sheehan studied ways to maintain US technological preeminence and industrial competitiveness in an era of declining defense budgets and a growing “peace dividend.”

By the time he graduated with a master’s degree in technology and policy in 1991, he needed to go back to Washington. “For someone with my interests and skills set, DC was the place to be,” he explained.

♢ Mr. Sheehan goes (back) to Washington 

Sheehan landed a position at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). “We provided technical advice to Congress on a range of science and technology issues—the environment, health, and biotech,” he said. “I was part of the group that looked broadly at science, technology, and telecommunications issues and how they affected the overall economy and society.”

He spent a lot of time talking to experts in the field, or as Sheehan said, “There I was, a 20-something-year-old, and I could pick up the phone and call the presidents of companies or leading researchers. When you say you’re from the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, people took your call.”

Having phone calls returned turned out to be personally important to Sheehan in 1995, when funding for the OTA ended and he needed a new job.

When Sheehan called an old boss from a summer internship at the National Academy of Science, he was told, “Your timing is perfect.”

♢ Connecting to NLM 

“The National Academy of Sciences just got in a project on privacy and security of electronic health records, and they needed someone to manage it,” said Sheehan.

Saying yes was fortuitous.

“The project was sponsored by an organization I hadn’t interacted with before called the National Library of Medicine,” said Sheehan with a smile.

Another first for Sheehan was delving into the field of clinical health care computing. “I found it fascinating because of the challenges of information management and because of the fundamental question that we were addressing—how do you protect privacy and maintain security while ensuring clinicians have needed access to health information?”

Cover for the report For the Record: Protecting Electronic Health Information

Sheehan was study director and program officer for this 1997 report from the National Academy of Sciences.

To address this question, Sheehan assembled a panel of experts to provide independent advice. Sheehan’s liaison at NLM was Betsy Humphreys, former deputy director of the Library.

“We came up with a set of recommendations—requirements for everyone who touched clinical care information in an electronic way—to protect privacy and confidentiality,” Sheehan said. In 1997, when the panel was ready to release its report, For the Record: Protecting Electronic Health Information, Sheehan received some unsolicited advice.

He recalled, “Out of the blue, I got a call from Betsy Humphreys. It was very unusual for a sponsor to contact you about a press release, but as always with Betsy, what she said made a lot of sense.” Together, Sheehan and Humphreys put together a grand announcement about the report.

The next day when Sheehan arrived at the office, his boss greeted him enthusiastically. “Did you see The New York Times? We’re above the fold!”

The report was covered on the front page of The New York Times and other news outlets. The success of that report led to another collaboration between NLM and the Academy. This time, Sheehan said, “We looked more broadly at how the internet could advance health from research to medical practice to consumer health.”

Sheehan worked with a stellar team that included many professionals who would later have leadership positions at NLM, including current NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, Director of Extramural Programs Dr. Valerie Florance, and Dr. Daniel Masys, a member of the NLM Board of Regents and co-chair of the Library’s strategic planning initiative. The team’s final report, Networking Health: Prescriptions for the Internet, was released in 2000.

Collaborating with experts in health and technology was just one reason Sheehan felt energized. “As someone who hadn’t worked in the health care community much before, their commitment and passion to their work was palpable,” he said. “They wanted to use information technology to improve care and research to improve outcomes. This came through in everything they did.”

He might have stayed at the Academy, if it weren’t for Paris.

♢ The perfect baguette and more 

Through previous contacts, Sheehan was enticed to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. The OECD provides a forum for governments to work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems. “I ran a unit that did work on science and innovation policy,” explained Sheehan.

What started out as a two-year assignment turned into a six-year position. He just wasn’t sure when he would return to the US until got a call from a former colleague at NLM.

Jane Bortnick Griffith, the assistant director for policy development at NLM, let Sheehan know that she would be retiring. Her job would be open.

“It was clear to me on the other side of the ocean that a lot was happening in the US around electronic health records, and IT was finally going to start hitting health care across the spectrum from research to provision of health care,” said Sheehan. “I had this impression that NLM was on the cutting edge of thinking about how to apply computing in health and health care.”

Sheehan desired to be positioned on that cutting edge. He applied for the position and started at NLM in September of 2006. He was responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and advising on science, technology, and policy issues.

It was a wise and wonderful choice for Sheehan, but he does admit, “I miss the good [Parisian] baguette.”

♢ The place to be 

“I knew some of NLM from my work, but I didn’t know all of NLM,” confessed Sheehan. “I continued to be impressed with all of the things that NLM did and the diversity of professions and skill sets of the people.

“We’re all unified by an interest in disseminating and generating information in ways that can improve health and health care. It also seemed like a collaborative and dynamic place. We can have great, high-level policy discussions about the way things should work, but at the end of day we’re building systems that make policies practical and deliver real services.”

When the White House calls

Late in 2015, Sheehan was approached by the White House about doing a detail or short-term assignment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Sheehan smile broadly from behind a podium

Sheehan presents at the NLM Board of Regents meeting February 8, 2017.

Of course, he said yes.

For 16 months, Sheehan commuted to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing of the White House.

“My main role was working on public access policies—increasing accessibility of scientific publications and journal articles like we do at NIH, and improving data management across federal agencies,” explained Sheehan. “It was sort of like taking the good practices we have at NIH and extending them to other agencies, keeping in mind different agencies’ communities and cultures and how that influences what they can do and how they can go about it.”

At OSTP, Sheehan helped agencies develop plans for public access data and chaired an interagency working group on open science.

Working at the White House was cool from both a professional and personal point of view. “Interspersed with interagency meetings were ceremonial events in the White House or on the South Lawn,” he said. And then there was that time he nearly bumped into Joe Biden as the vice president was on his way to a Cancer Moonshot meeting.

Yet as invigorating as the White House work was, Sheehan was eager to return to NLM.

♢ An exciting time 

In 2016, three things were happening at NLM that were particularly appealing to Sheehan. There was the NIH push for NLM to become hub of data science, Dr. Brennan was coming on board as director, and the Library’s strategic planning process was underway.

“For someone who wants to do more to advance information and information access, what a great time to come back,” said Sheehan. “to build on all the success we’ve had as a Library and take on the additional role of data science and data access.”

♢ A new position 

Even though Sheehan had worked closely with Betsy Humphreys and interviewed for the job of deputy director, it was hard for him to imagine stepping into the position. “It would be a different role for me, being involved in more operational aspects of the Library as opposed to policy ones,” he said.

During a break at the last Board of Regents meeting in May, Dr. Brennan pulled Sheehan aside and told him that he was selected to become the deputy director. Caught momentarily off guard, Sheehan’s initial first reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding,” swiftly followed by, “This is great news!”

♢ Great news! 

Great news, indeed, to many who’ve seen Jerry Sheehan in action.

“I was excited when I heard the news,” said M.J. Tooey, MLS, associate vice president of academic affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, executive director of the Health Sciences and Human Services Library, and director of the Southeastern/Atlantic Regional Medical Library. “We’re in a new era of big data and precision medicine. I think Jerry is uniquely equipped. He is one of those even-tempered people who really listens. He knows how to make things happen.”

A seated Sheehan smiles broadly

Jerry Sheehan clowns for the camera as he waits to facilitate the NLM Town Hall in February 2017.

Lori Harris was equally pleased. Although she’s now the assistant director of the Donald C. Harrison Health Sciences Library at the University of Cincinnati, three years ago she was an NLM Associate Fellow.

Like several of her fellow associates in 2014, she chose to work with Sheehan on a special project. “It was sort of a joke that we were under the Jerry Sheehan umbrella,” said Harris. “We went to Capitol Hill and advocated for policies and legislation as it relates to the National Library of Medicine, NIH, and the Medical Library Association.” She recalled, “Jerry was flexible and transparent. He can look at multiple perspectives of an issue, whether it’s an issue, legislation, or policy. He gave you confidence. I loved working with him.”

When Brennan announced Sheehan’s promotion, she said, “I have personally known Jerry for over 15 years and find in him creativity, wise counsel, and clear thinking. Upon my arrival to NLM, I was delighted to reconnect with him and to work together on integrating data science and open science into the NLM portfolio.”

With his diverse portfolio stretching from academe to the National Academy of Sciences, from the White House to Paris and beyond, including groundbreaking policy work at NLM, Sheehan has engineered a career that will benefit NLM’s mission and people.

By Kathryn McKay, NLM in Focus writer