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‘one of the deans’

Longtime NIGMS Communications Director Dieffenbach Retires

Ann Dieffenbach

NIGMS’s Ann Dieffenbach retired Aug. 3 after more than 40 years at NIH.

Thoughtful. Astute. Strategic. Committed to excellence. Those are just some of the words colleagues use to describe Ann Dieffenbach, who retired on Aug. 3 after more than 40 years at NIH, 33 of them as the communications director of NIGMS. 

“Under Ann’s direction, NIGMS opened up new avenues for communication and interaction with the scientific community and other key audiences,” said NIGMS director Dr. Jon Lorsch. 

Dieffenbach began her NIH career in 1974 as a summer student at what is now CIT. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1976, she joined NIA, arriving just weeks after the arrival of its founding director, Dr. Robert Butler, who was a legend in the field of gerontology. 

As NIA matured, so did Dieffenbach’s career. Within a few years, she had risen to become deputy chief of the information office. In 1983, NIGMS director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein selected her for that institute’s top communications job.

At the NIGMS communications office, Dieffenbach fostered a culture of teamwork, creativity, a willingness to try new things and a dedication to continuous improvement. During her tenure, the office launched the institute’s web site, two blogs and a presence on major social media sites. It produced award-winning science education materials, publicized Nobel Prizes to 57 grantees and marked the institute’s 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries. The office also led outreach efforts that included Cell Day, a live webchat between NIGMS scientists and secondary school students, and Life: Magnified, a popular exhibition of scientific images at Dulles airport and online. 

“One of the things I liked best about this job over the many years I held it is that it stayed very interesting, because it was constantly changing. So I was always looking at new opportunities and new challenges,” said Dieffenbach. “In the time I’ve worked here, we saw the advent of desktop computers for word processing, email, the Internet, blogs and other social media, all of which have transformed the way we do business and improved our ability to hear from and reach out to our many audiences.” 

Dieffenbach nurtured an environment at NIGMS in which communication plays an important role, both internally and externally. Communication and transparency are key elements of the institute’s strategic plan and the communications office works in close partnership with scientific and other staff. To recognize the many significant communication activities of staff outside her office, Dieffenbach created the NIGMS Outstanding Communicator Award in 2005. 

Over the years, Dieffenbach advised NIGMS directors and many others on a wide range of communication issues and strategies.

“Ann was one of my go-to people at NIGMS,” said former director Dr. Jeremy Berg, who is now editor-in-chief of Science magazine. “She is a good listener who would offer clear reactions and opinions. She helped guide me through some challenging situations with her gentle but firm wisdom.” 

Added Lorsch, “Ann has an amazing ability to spot and manage risks in communication. She was the first person at NIGMS besides the acting director who was allowed to communicate with me before my selection as NIGMS director was announced. She gave me an excellent crash course in doing media interviews and I continue to use what she taught me on a regular basis.” 

Dieffenbach also helped shape NIH communication policies and practices.

“Ann was one of the ‘deans’ of the communications directors,” said John Burklow, NIH associate director for communications. “I’ve relied on her wise counsel for many years, whether it’s to think through how to strengthen the ‘NIH identity’ or how we can learn from each other as a community.”

Dieffenbach served on the team that developed the NIH strategic communications plan and, for a number of years, she led communications for the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and New Innovator Award programs. For these and other efforts at the NIGMS and NIH levels, she received five NIH Director’s Awards, two NIH Awards of Merit and a PHS Special Recognition Award.

One achievement that Dieffenbach is particularly proud of is the part she played in naming the main auditorium in Natcher Bldg. in honor of Kirschstein, who was the first woman to lead an NIH institute and who made many contributions to NIGMS, NIH and the scientific community.

Dieffenbach is known as a sharp-eyed editor, exceptional organizer and careful planner. 

“The irony is,” she quipped, “I’m still working out my plans for what to do in retirement.” Some of those plans include learning new skills and pursuing activities she didn’t have time for while working. 

As always, she’s excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. But she says she’ll miss a lot about NIH, “most of all, the smart, talented and dedicated people I have been fortunate enough to interact with on a daily basis.”

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