IRG Chief Ni Retires from CSR
Language propelled Dr. Weijia Ni from his childhood in Shanghai, China, through a decade-long ordeal on a state farm during the Cultural Revolution, to education and a career in the United States. After 20 years at NIH, he retired Aug. 31 as chief of the Risk Prevention and Health Behavior Integrated Review Group in the Center for Scientific Review.
In the early 1960s, Ni was chosen to attend an English-language elementary school. That association, combined with his parents’ careers as professors, contributed to hardship when China’s political winds changed. His family was separated, his schooling ceased and he labored at a remote camp near the Sino-Siberian border.
When universities re-opened in 1978, he was determined to earn one of the coveted spots. Studying alone at night, he regained his English-language skills and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1981 from Heilongjiang University in Harbin.
Ni went on to graduate studies in linguistics at Fudan University in Shanghai. Through the Open Door Policy, President Ronald Reagan visited Shanghai in 1984. His speech at Fudan inspired Ni and other students to seek advanced education in America. With the assistance of a U.S. Fulbright professor, Ni obtained a scholarship to study linguistics at the University of Connecticut. In 1985, he boarded a plane for the first time, with $40 in his pocket.
Ni earned his doctorate from UConn in 1991. After postdoctoral work at Haskins Laboratories at Yale, he conducted NIH-funded research on language disabilities at Haskins and other locations. He came to CSR in 2001.
“People were surprised that a Ph.D. linguist would work at NIH,” he said, but explained that CSR sought expertise in his fields of psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. The two study sections he helped launch after he came to CSR remain strong. In addition to serving as scientific review officer for 12 years, he worked as a referral officer for 9 of those years.
With encouragement from mentors and colleagues, Ni became IRG chief in 2013, managing a strong team of SROs. They, in turn, value his guidance and exemplar.
“He is an extraordinary mentor who epitomizes the role of servant-leader,” said Dr. Miriam Mintzer, an SRO who nominated Ni for HHS’s Dr. Francisco Sy Award for Mentorship. “He’s in the trenches working side by side with us and at the same time he motivates us and gives us lots of autonomy.”
One of Ni’s NIH legacies is a database tool he developed called Review Management (RM) that tracks the multiple aspects of peer review and is used by more than 100 review officers in CSR and various institutes and centers. Mintzer noted Ni has continually improved RM and trained review officers to use it. He needed to prepare six SROs to maintain RM after his retirement.
Dr. Samuel Edwards, chief of the Brain Disorders and Clinical Neuroscience IRG, came to know Ni through participation in leadership training and experiences shared as fellow IRG chiefs. “Weijia is renowned as being hands-on, fair and honorable,” Edwards said. “He is dedicated to the review process.”
With his daughter completing her medical residency at Mount Sinai and beginning a fellowship at Montefiore Medical Center, Ni said, “I feel I can retire now.”
Atop his agenda when possible after Covid-19: a visit to his and his wife’s parents in China.