Getting to Know the New NICHD Director

I have been asked several times since the announcement of my appointment as NICHD Director, “What attracted you to this position?” There are many factors. I always have been passionate about advancing knowledge to help people. Although I really enjoy taking care of patients and families, I realized early on that I could have a much bigger impact on health care through research.

I am fortunate enough to have seen one of my basic research projects advance into medical practice. The project—isolating fetal cells from the blood of pregnant women—is now a clinically available, noninvasive test for screening placental DNA that has been used by more than 2 million pregnant women. This test has resulted in an estimated 70-percent decrease in the use of invasive prenatal diagnostic procedures (such as amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling), significantly reducing the incidence of accidental pregnancy loss that sometimes results from these procedures and thereby making prenatal screening safer worldwide.

While it is gratifying to see the clinical benefit of a focused area of research, I felt I could have an even greater influence on the lives of children and families by joining NIH and helping to advance a research agenda that can affect so many in our society. The NICHD mission is extremely broad. While this presents some challenges, it also creates opportunities to take multidisciplinary and longitudinal approaches to the research portfolio. I believe that my clinical training in pediatrics, medical genetics (including care of people with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities), and neonatology, as well as my research expertise in reproductive genetics and genomics and fetal care, align well with this mission.

Additionally, I have been dedicated throughout my career to the training and mentoring of students, residents, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty. My concerns about federal research funding and the loss of some of the best and brightest people from the academic pipeline played a significant role in my decision to seek the position of NICHD Director. I wanted the opportunity to work with leaders at NIH, as well as with those in the pediatric, obstetric, gynecologic, basic science, and rehabilitative medicine communities, to find ways to improve prospects for talented academic investigators looking to advance their career and make a difference.

Another important factor in my decision to join NIH was the lure of public service. As the child of immigrants who came to the United States before and after World War II, I wanted to give something back to the country that sheltered my family and provided us with economic and educational opportunities. A lot of that inspiration comes from my grandmother, who having escaped the Nazi invasion of Austria, settled in New York City and immediately volunteered to drive an ambulance.

I am truly excited and humbled by the opportunity to lead NICHD and, as I begin my Directorship on November 7, I look forward to establishing productive collaborations with people within my institute and throughout NIH and beyond. I am ready to advance the important scientific missions of NICHD and NIH, but I want people to know that my life does not exclusively revolve around science. I have a wonderful family that includes a husband and two adult sons who still enjoy going on vacation with us. We love to travel; over the past few years we have concentrated on Central and South America, with trips to Panama, Peru, Chile (including Easter Island), and Argentina. We also like to hike, and I am an avid cyclist. I also appreciate the visual arts not only for their intrinsic beauty, but also their ability to enhance the creative process. I am looking forward to exploring the museums in the DC area.

Originally posted: 11/07/16

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