After 33 Years at NIH, NIDA’s Austin Retires
When Joellen Austin (née Harper) was 12, she and her mother took a four-day bus tour from her home in western Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. She didn’t return home with many mementos but she did leave with the certainty that she wanted to work in the government, where “they were making things happen for Americans.”
As she prepares to retire from 34 years in public service—33 of those years at NIH, including as executive officer at three different institutes—Austin said the experience has been greater than her childhood self could have imagined.
“I was excited to come to NIH but didn’t expect I would stay here forever,” she said. “Once I fell in love with NIH, where else would I ever want to go?”
Austin is the youngest of six children. Her late mother Peggy is her role model. Peggy solely supported her children on her secretary’s salary and ultimately sent Joellen to college. Her mother’s model of strength and perseverance despite adversity shaped the person Austin became.
After working her summer and winter breaks in grad school at the Department of the Treasury, Austin was hired as a presidential management intern at NIH. She moved up the ranks and, by 2000 when she became chief grants management officer at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), she thought she might have reached the end of the professional road at NIH.
Then, “I felt like I won the lottery,” she said.
Her NINDS executive officer sponsored her to go back to school full-time to the Sloan Fellows Program at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, from which she graduated in 2003.
“When you come back [from Stanford], you will be ready for the next level of management,” she remembered her sponsor saying.
That turned out to be true. Within a year of her return, Austin was named acting executive officer, and eventually NINDS’s official EO. Her talents for strategic problem-solving, applying her interpersonal skills to resolve conflicts and establish partnerships, turned out to be critical skills for the EO role.
Her next opportunity was as EO of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in North Carolina which, after four years, led her to NIDA in 2015.
Reflecting on her 34-year career, Austin said there are a handful of NIH leaders who stand out as taking a chance on her and serving as sponsors in her career growth and progression. She hopes she did the same for many others during her NIH career.
Austin is an extrovert who gains energy from her one-on-one interactions. At each institute, she said she had opportunities to help great scientists become great leaders. This led her to seek certification as an executive and leadership coach, work she looks forward to continuing after federal retirement.
She’s particularly proud of how she saw the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to expand transparency within NIDA, holding monthly town hall meetings alongside NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow. Her goal was to ensure staff knew that leadership cares as much about the NIDA mission as the health and safety of all the people at NIDA who make that mission possible.
Austin singled out her work at NIDA with Volkow as the most rewarding and impactful of her career. Volkow agreed.
“Joellen’s contributions to NIDA are too many to summarize but among the most valuable was her management style, which brought clarity, fairness, transparency, accountability and efficiency to NIDA while also helping to create a culture of inclusiveness and appreciation,” Volkow said. “NIDA and NIH are better for Joellen’s service; we at NIDA will miss her deeply.”
Looking back, Austin stressed the rewards she found in her career at NIH.
“The meaningful work at NIH is unmatched in the government,” she said. “I am proud to have worked alongside all of the other incredible people who have devoted their careers and their lives to the NIH mission.”