CSR’s Luckett Retires After 30 Years at NIH
Don Luckett is retiring as communications director at the Center for Scientific Review with 30 years of service, though he initially refused the job that launched his NIH career.
Armed with a great liberal arts education from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Luckett had anticipated more than $6.50-an-hour temping at NIH. But he acquiesced, having spent the previous 10 years painting houses and writing the great (unpublished) gay American novel.
He landed in the Office of AIDS Research as the numbers of people dying from AIDS soared. There, he served as secretary to Dr. Jack Whitescarver, who managed OAR for Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“Phones rang, acronyms flew and every document that went to Dr. Fauci landed on my desk,” Luckett said. “I took up the challenge with a blue/red pencil and sent edits back to the staff scientists. It wasn’t long before they hired me as a writer/editor.”
The work was meaningful and he loved the staff camaraderie. He especially enjoyed responding to letters. He carefully replied to those who thought they’d found the cure for AIDS in their garage laboratories, and he often went above and beyond.
“I managed to get a gravestone for an orphaned AIDS child who was beloved by Clinical Center staff,” he recalled. “I often told patients, lovers and family members how the NIH cavalry was on the move. I silently wept over the many courageous souls fighting AIDS—awed at what NIH was doing, but knowing we might be too late for them.”
When CSR needed a communications director in 2000, he jumped at the new challenge and stayed on to serve four directors. He has helped many scientists navigate their grant application reviews and promoted many interesting projects to enhance peer review.
He asked countless people across CSR and NIH to help advance these initiatives. “I retire with incredible gratitude for all those who said yes over the years,” Luckett said.
He has never tired of telling NIH’s story: how finding and funding promising research has saved and improved millions of lives, and how investing in peer-reviewed, basic research pays huge dividends down the road. Twice, he was thrilled to join then CSR director Dr. Richard Nakamura to bring this message to Capitol Hill.
Storytelling is in Luckett’s blood. One of his favorites is about the NIH review committee that awarded a $10 “grant” to two kids requesting funds to build a rocket ship in 1957. The payoffs were impressive, and Luckett thought the story could get children excited about NIH and science. So he wrote and oversaw the development of a children’s book and cartoon. More than 32,000 copies of the book were distributed at the annual NIH Take Your Child to Work Day celebrations and the USA Science and Engineering Festivals.
More recently, CSR joined with NIAID, NCI and NHLBI to develop the NIH Scientist Launch Game app—www.csr.nih.gov/rocket.
Luckett’s also done yeoman’s work leading the development of videos with more than 200,000 YouTube views. He launched a webinar series for applicants that won an NIH Director’s Award in 2015. His last act before leaving was to help NIH celebrate CSR’s 75th anniversary with a soon-to-be-released video—Catalyst of Hope and Health: 75+ Years of NIH Peer Review.
“I’ve had a front row seat to the development of science that has saved millions, and I’ve made such wonderful friends,” Luckett said. “It’s been such a privilege, but it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation. I’m looking forward to writing books, visiting friends and exploring other ways to do good.”