Q&A with NICHD Acting Director Catherine Spong, M.D.

On October 1, 2015, Dr. Catherine Spong became acting director of NICHD. We recently checked in with her to chat about her plans for the year and to learn what she appreciates most about the institute.

Read on to find out what she had to say.

What are your goals as NICHD's acting director?

As a longtime member of the NICHD community, I aim to manage the institute actively. And not just because it is my nature to jump in and engage, but because this is a wonderful time for our institute to accomplish great things. We have major initiatives planned for this fiscal year, new leadership in the Division of Extramural Research, a reorganized structure across NICHD, and a new building for many of our staff. We are in a remarkable place to move forward adroitly and adeptly. I am eager to continue identifying scientific opportunities, as well as areas that need evaluation, and working with staff and our constituents to make continued progress.

I also recognize that times of transition can be daunting for staff, researchers, and advocates. So another personal goal is to help manage any potential "transition anxiety" by being as open and receptive with communication as I can.  

What are some of the major initiatives NICHD will be supporting this year?

NICHD is involved in many exciting initiatives this year. The Precision Medicine Initiative, led at the highest levels of NIH, will include children in future studies, and we expect that NICHD will help support this undertaking. Another NIH-wide initiative, the Common Fund's Gabriella Miller Kids First Pediatric Research Program, is supported by the strong leadership of NICHD's Dr. Lorette Javois. This newly funded program will develop a well-curated resource for the pediatric research community with genetic sequencing and clinical data that may help determine the biological bases of structural birth defects and childhood cancers. The NIH-led Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program will also be a major initiative across the NIH, in which NICHD will play an active role. We also hope that NICHD will take a leading role in the Institutional Development Award (IDeA Program) that supports faculty development and facilitates participation of rural children through a national research network at institutions in 23 states and Puerto Rico.

Many NICHD initiatives are also gaining momentum. We just announced $46 million in funding awards for the Human Placenta Project and plan to release another funding opportunity for that initiative this year, focused on the role of "omics" (genomics, proteomics, etc.) in assessing human placental development and function across pregnancy. PregSource, a project that will use crowdsourcing to understand normal pregnancy, is another initiative that will launch in early 2016.

We also are renewing a number of prior funding initiatives this fiscal year, such as the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers, the Specialized Centers in Research in Pediatric Developmental Pharmacology, the Population Dynamics Research Infrastructure Program, the Autism Centers of Excellence, and others.

Also, we have several new initiatives in the areas of disorders of sex development, long-term outcomes after brain trauma, child abuse and neglect, gynecologic health and disease, lab-on-a-chip technology, household air pollution, and neurodevelopmental assessments of infants and children in resource-limited settings. After a long drought of limited new initiatives, this is shaping up to be a banner year.

What do you see as the major scientific opportunities over the next 5 years?

Three years ago, the NICHD Scientific Vision (PDF - 2 MB) highlighted many opportunities across our broad mission. Many of these have seen significant progress, and other remain ripe for work. Recently, we have undertaken a closer look at the accomplishments across the vision topics, and we will work with staff, the community, and our Advisory Council to identify areas to highlight that are central to the NICHD mission and that most require our support.

You've served in both the intramural and extramural programs and in senior leadership. What do you think makes NICHD so unique?

I am probably biased, but I believe the NICHD mission is the most compelling of all NIH institutes. Our staff are incredibly passionate and dedicated to this mission, but it's the breadth of our research that I think makes NICHD so unique. That can make things difficult when it comes time to prioritize critical areas that all need resources—it's less like comparing apples to oranges than comparing apples to fire trucks! But at the same time, the breadth of our research and the interconnectedness of all of our mission areas make our work that much more exciting and significant.

NICHD makes significant investments in programs to train the next generation of biomedical researchers. How do you think the job has changed since you started out, and what advice do you have for students and fellows today who are interested in careers in research?

I started my research career at a time when the payline was relatively generous. Researchers could launch new initiatives nearly every year, and failures were tolerated because they were not taking away from another opportunity. Now, funding is more competitive, but students and fellows should not be discouraged.  It seems to me that we are even more invested in their success. Numerous initiatives, ideas, and concepts have been developed to support trainees, such as expansion of NICHD's K12 programs, the loan repayment programs, and the K99-R00 grant mechanism. All of these opportunities have helped to train our basic researchers and physician scientists and to fill critical knowledge gaps in several scientific disciplines.

I also think senior researchers are eager to mentor and support younger investigators now more than ever. In addition, with technology advances we now have the ability to accomplish long distance mentoring in real time, allowing people to advance collaborative projects even if they are thousands of miles apart.

I encourage all people who are interested in research careers to pursue their passion; there is nothing more rewarding than going to work with joy each morning and having fun pursuing scientific questions that are critical and exciting.

Originally posted: October 27, 2015

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