Real Talk with NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan


Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan

NLM in Focus sat down with National Library of Medicine Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan to talk about a variety of topics like the future defined by data, her lab on campus, and, of course, the strategic plan. Along the way, we learned what keeps her up at night, how she maintains her energy, and what’s more important now than ever.

On the day of your swearing in, you predicted that the future will be defined by data and we need to be ready. Are we?

We are so far ahead of where I thought we would be, it is astounding.

Part of that is because of the tremendous foundation we had in place for data access through NCBI’s highly sophisticated information systems, but what really jumped us forward was Jim Ostell coming in as director of NCBI.

We’re working to move NIH into a future where we don’t hold all the data here, but data are interconnected across public and private repositories; data are safe and secure because we have policies in place; and data have a high level of integrity because our research processes generate data in a better way.

That’s a 10-year vision that’s not going to happen right away, but we are a part of it. We have been helping build the level of trust across NIH, and that has been spectacular.

That’s really good news.

It is. It’s really terrific.

Dr. Collins has praised you for having a worldview that is both nuanced and optimistic. This is on display every day in your blog posts, your speeches, and your interactions with staff. How do you keep it up?

I’m constantly learning and constantly energized and proud of what I’m finding.

What has inspired you the most?

The staff, no question. Absolutely.

Even though you inherited us?

It speaks well to the history of the Library.

Truly the inspirational leadership that Dr. Lindberg offered drew people of great talent. The managerial and administrative decision making that Betsy Humphreys fostered, supported, and enacted made our managers and supervisors really skillful in accomplishing activities through their staff. Everything from how NCBI does curation across multiple genomic databases to the manner in which Library Operations staff has to acquire, sort, and provide metadata for different objects…I walked into an extremely well-functioning institution.

Brennan gestures toward her presentation slide on data-powered health

Dr. Brennan describes the future as one of data-powered health.

One of the challenges is that when an institution has been well-functioning, it can be hard to understand the motivation for change. So, the very thing that has made us good and strong and has inspired me has also presented enormous challenges.

Tell us more.

I see data-driven discovery coming at us as a tsunami. Although we are better prepared than we were two years ago, we’ll need to realign some of our talents and skills in different ways.

I’m inspired by the dedication people have—the commitment to the mission is amazing. I’m also grateful for the mindfulness they have of what I might need, whether it’s someone briefing me before I go to a meeting or someone on staff sending me a little Halloween candy saying, “We’re glad you’re here.”

Speaking of changes, now that the strategic plan has been posted, what do you think will be the easiest part of the plan to implement and what will be the most challenging?

The easiest part will be the extension of our training and outreach missions. While there will be new ways to do them, we don’t have to sell people on the mission. When we do outreach education and training, to a person, our staff are clear that they’re doing work to help people make better use of the Library’s resources. They don’t see themselves as health educators or conquering tuberculosis or improving maternal-child attachment. Instead they see themselves as being the pathway through which someone can get needed information from our resources. Training and outreach missions have already been accepted and embraced as a value for the Library.

What about the toughest part?

The toughest part will be two things.

One, sunsetting long-valued services. It may be that a service is no longer needed or the audience has  shifted. I think, for example, of our sunsetting Senior Health this year because the service was replicated in other parts of NIH.

And two, I think it will be conceptually difficult to move to a more common technical core. The Library has had a tradition of what one would call staff build, which means products were built from the bottom up: basic information, the web interface, the content, the access controls. As we go into the future, we must have a more sustainable, scalable, and reusable technical infrastructure.

Anything ever keep you up at night?

What wakes me up in the middle of the night is: where are we going to put people?

My goal is to double our research programs and we’ll probably add 125 scientific and library staff, but I don’t have enough desks for all of them. We’re going to have to rethink our workflows and increase our utilization of space, and we have to think about the social value of space. Of course, we’ll need to have more flexible work spaces.

I’m encouraged by the architectural drawings that have been provided for the first floor of Building 38. We can make better use of that space. We’re going to have to raise $50 million to make that happen. My job is to work with NIH leadership to make it happen.

Bits from Dr. Brennan

Mantra: When I was asked about career advice, I said, “Find your passion and your career will follow.” In this job, I need to be bold. I need to be following my passion, and my career will come along.

Favorite travel destination of the past year: Berlin. I hadn’t been there in probably 35 years. To see the city without the wall was amazing.

Go-to-item for lunch: The pea soup from the Building 38A cafeteria

Most scenic walk on the NIH campus: Going from the Metro to NLM. I love seeing our building!

Favorite exercise? Walking—That’s what you do when you don’t have a car!

We’re also interested in what you’re finding in your own lab. Can you give us a sneak preview?

It’s called the Advanced Visualization Branch.

Did you create this branch?

I created this branch within the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). Like all Institute directors at NIH who have laboratories—and about 20 of the 27 directors have active laboratories—I had to look elsewhere because you cannot have your laboratory in your own Institute.

What’s the purpose of the Advanced Visualization Branch?

The purpose of the Advanced Visualization Branch is to devise innovative ways to use visualization experiences to enhance patients’ abilities to self-manage. I have long realized that reading alone is not enough. My five years’ experience in the Living Environments Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison taught me that immersive visualization has enormous power to improve problem solving, allow for rehearsal of new behaviors and actions, and increase a person’s sense of creative thinking. Our lab is beginning to devise and test strategies that use advanced visualization approaches to accomplish these aims.

VR [virtual reality] labs offer two advantages for studying how patients translate patient education and guidance into their every-day workflows. First, immersive virtual reality can give visual cues that “place” a patient in a familiar setting—home, work office, etc.—and they can practice the new skill aided by an environment that is like the very one where they’ll need to carry out that new skill. Second, VR frees us from the laws of physics and the constraints of reality, so if we want to develop new approaches to helping patients make better choices by getting information in the moment, such as inspirational phrases projected on a wall or nutritional facts hovering in the air over a carton of orange juice, we’re able to do so!

So cool.

A seated Dr. Brennan gestures as she talks

Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan’s high-energy style captivates listeners and engages followers on social media.

Another part of your job is communication. You’re active on Twitter and busy with your blog. What are you valuing the most about communicating through social media?

The shocking thing to me is that Twitter is actually making me a better speaker. Through the Twitter feed that people contribute to while I am delivering a speech, I can see if I’m not being clear, and afterwards I can see what resonated with people or what didn’t.

What I really like about the blog is the reach it has. I hear from people all the time who have read it, even my brothers.

What surprises you—besides that your brothers read your posts?

I’ve said it before, but it still holds true. I find this sense of patriotism in my work and how important it is that our country has invested in NIH and NLM.

You keep up such a high energy level so our questions is: How do you do it?

My job is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s important that I refresh myself.

I generally don’t work in the evening or on the weekends. I had a big talk to give this week, so I did work seven hours the other night, but that’s unusual. Maintaining a work-life balance helps. I’m blessed with being able to sleep well, and I exercise a lot, so I have a lot of natural contributors to well-being, but I also make choices about what I’m going to invest my time in. Also, this is a great job. I get to work with really interesting people and on really important problems.

You’ve lived in DC two years now. What have you come to appreciate about your life here?

I live without a car, so I never worry about parking. It’s a little bit of a metaphor for my work here because I rely on others. I have to go with the rhythm, so I’m rarely late for things. I don’t try to squeeze in errands. Of course, I miss my Madison friends, and the fabulous winters out there!

What do you see for the future of medical librarians?

What I didn’t appreciate at the beginning and that I have come to appreciate is how the Library community views themselves. The future of both person-centered health and data science rests in the hands of librarians, and it’s our responsibility to help them find the pathways to do that.

To me, medical librarians are more important now than they have ever been in this country.

View of NLM through trees, a sidewalk and parking lot in the foreground

Dr. Brennan loves catching sight of the NLM building as she walks to the office in the morning.

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