After 33 Years of Federal Service
NINDS’s Warren Pursues New Direction
When Margo Warren, director of media relations in NINDS’s Office of Neuroscience Communications and Engagement, first came to NIH in 1988, her coworkers treated her to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Bethesda. “My fortune cookie said, ‘You are headed in the right direction.’ I kept that fortune for years and stayed at NIH ever since,” she said.
Now, after 33 years of federal service—all with NIH—Warren’s fortune has led her in a new “right” direction, straight to retirement. She officially retired on July 31.
“In journalism school we used to joke about public relations—PR—being the dark side,” Warren said. “But PR at NIH is anything but. I have always been proud to work at NIH because we aren’t selling anything, we aren’t pushing any agenda, we are only providing news about biomedical research. Our job in communications at NIH is to make the very technical very understandable for the media and our enormous body of stakeholders, the taxpaying public. There is a saying about how science isn’t completed until it’s communicated, and that is what we do.”
Warren earned her bachelor of arts degree in journalism and Latin from the University of Arizona (UA) in 1976, where she was an award-winning investigative reporter and feature editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat—UA’s student newspaper. However, after graduation, she found that journalist positions were scarce.
“I had always been a writer and studied journalism in high school and college,” she said. “I wanted to stay in journalism but the year I graduated I couldn’t find a job. Interest in journalism was at its peak and Woodward and Bernstein had just broken Watergate  in the Washington Post.
She eventually landed a job in the Community Relations Office and Tucson Film Commission in Tucson’s City Hall. There her PR career was born. She was assistant director of the office—providing counsel on PR-related matters to the mayor, city council and numerous department heads.
“I had lots of great experiences there including hosting a public affairs radio and television show, and managing the Tucson Film Commission, which marketed the city as a movie location,” Warren recalled. “I got to drive Sydney Poitier around for location scouting, sit in on an interview with Richard Pryor and have drinks with Billy Wilder. We also handled the protocol for a state visit by Imelda Marcos.”
In 1983, Warren left Tucson and City Hall to come to Washington, D.C., as communications director at the National Water Alliance—an environmental coalition on Capitol Hill chaired by then Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ). There she arranged editorial boards and media tours, edited the quarterly newsletter and coordinated efforts for a national public service media campaign.
In 1988 Warren joined NIH in the NIA communications office as a public affairs specialist. She organized a promotional campaign for large-scale national clinical trials, developed press releases and articles for the media, trained scientists for interviews with print and broadcast media and managed the institute’s audiovisual collection and exhibit program.
A couple of years later, in 1990, she moved from NIA to NIAID. “I had been at NIA for 2 years and wanted to be busier,” Warren remembered. ”I got my wish after getting hired in the NIAID press office during the AIDS crisis. I remember writing a press release on AZT [azidothymidine] as a treatment for pregnant women, while a group of ACT-UP protesters were shouting outside of Bldg. 31—seven stories below my office. I worked with a reporter from People magazine who was interviewing Dr. [Anthony] Fauci for the 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year edition…in 1990!”
Warren made her final institute stop in 1991 when she became part of the NINDS family, where she has served in many roles—including writer, editor, media trainer, chief of the Health Education and Public Liaison Branch, project officer for the communications contract with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, and director of media relations—and has worn numerous hats (Those who know her know the hats were always stylish and that she had the perfect designer shoes, handbags and jewelry to match).
She played an active role in stroke education after the announcement of the institute’s groundbreaking study on the first treatment for acute stroke, tPA (tissue plasminogen activator).
“In my time at NIH I have been witness to and part of the astounding story of stroke going from an untreatable, disabling and sometimes fatal disease to a treatable disease,” she said. “Before 1995, people viewed stroke as a hopeless condition. It took many years of effort to radically change the mindset of doctors and patients who simply didn’t know stroke was an emergency. Now there are thousands of stroke treatment centers, a new generation of stroke specialists and nonstop advances in imaging technology and improved treatments.”
Warren was a driving force behind NINDS’s national campaigns—Know Stroke, Know the Signs, Act in Time and Mind Your Risks. Her stroke education efforts even took her to California where she hobnobbed with Hollywood executives in a successful attempt to promote the importance of stroke and tPA on the hit medical TV drama ER.
In addition, she coordinated NINDS’s press activities for a broad range of neurological disorders—working closely with media to gain coverage for important scientific findings. She was a founding member of the NINDS nonprofit forum—a meeting that connects patient advocate groups with NIH and NINDS staff—and a member of the executive committee of the Brain Attack Coalition, a group of leaders in the stroke field.
Through the years, Warren has served on various NIH, NINDS and trans-NIH committees and working groups, and she has received top awards for her previous feature writing and investigative reporting, scores of NIH and NINDS group and individual merit awards, a Plain Language award for the NIH Stroke website (www.stroke.nih.gov), and an NINDS Director’s Award for the Mind Your Risks campaign. In 2011, she was inducted into the UA Journalism Alumni Hall of Fame.
But, perhaps, more meaningful were the heartfelt accolades she has received from her colleagues since she announced her retirement.
On her digital kudos board, many noted her quick wit, infectious laugh, congenial personality, unmatched work ethic, tenacious drive to promote science and unwavering ability to put everyone—from young interns to junior staff to those in top leadership—at ease, regardless of the circumstances.
Even in her parting words, Warren continued to put science first.
“I have been so proud to see Dr. Fauci again being recognized as a national hero in medicine, in 1990 with AIDS and now with Covid,” she said. “If there has been any good to come out of the pandemic, it may be that the public now recognizes the value of NIH, who we are and what we do.”
In retirement Warren plans to return to her love of writing by writing a book and working on her travel blog, “Margo on the Go.” An avid tennis player, she aspires to spend every day on the courts, travel and spend time with her husband, Darr, and two grown sons, Peter and Franky.