NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Equity as Our Compass

Bertagnolli Begins as NIH Director

Headshot of Monica Bertagnolli. She is wearing a brown jacket with a patterned red shirt. An American flag takes up the left side of the background.
Dr. Monica Bertagnolli is the first surgeon and second woman to serve as NIH director.

Dr. Monica M. Bertagnolli started Nov. 9 as the 17th director of NIH. She is the first surgeon and the second woman to hold the position. Nominated by President Joe Biden, Bertagnolli was confirmed on a bipartisan basis by the U.S. Senate on Nov. 7. She transitioned from her role as the 16th director of the National Cancer Institute, a position she had held since October 2022. 

“Dr. Bertagnolli has spent her career pioneering scientific discovery and pushing the boundaries of what is possible to improve cancer prevention and treatment for patients and ensuring that patients in every community have access to quality care,” Biden said in his nomination announcement earlier this year. “Dr. Bertagnolli is a world-class physician-scientist whose vision and leadership will ensure NIH continues to be an engine of innovation to improve the health of the American people.”

Growing up in rural Wyoming, Bertagnolli experienced and saw firsthand the challenges faced by rural communities to access medical care and participate in medical research. Due to that lived experience, equity is a core value that drives all of her efforts, which include ensuring NIH research is equitable and accessible to all people from all walks of life regardless of income or zip code.

“As a physician-scientist for more than 30 years, I have seen the transformative power of NIH research to produce results that save lives, including my own treatment for breast cancer,” said Bertagnolli. “As NIH director, I look forward to ensuring that NIH continues to be the steward of our nation’s medical research while engaging all people and communities in the research effort that includes informing medical practice that drives equitable access to health care for all.” 

“Dr. Bertagnolli has spent her career working to improve the health and well-being of Americans,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “She has built a reputation for her willingness to take on the deadliest diseases facing patients and as a powerful advocate for cancer patients, working to end cancer as we know it. That same tireless energy and clear vision will serve her well as NIH director.” 

Chief among her key priorities is ensuring clinical trials yield the best results by increasing the diversity of participants; embracing the rapid expansion of new learning-based analytical tools and ensuring their use improves care for all people; and restoring trust in science by making it accessible to all communities, and inspiring the next generation of doctors and scientists. 

Bertagnolli also is committed to leveraging commonalities across all diseases—from biology to accessing care—to strengthen collaboration across the 27 NIH institutes and centers.

“My research focused on how inflammation causes cancer,” she said. “We know, however, that inflammation also is a major component behind Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune disorders, Long Covid, arthritis and many other diseases. As NIH director, I’m excited to drive cross-cutting research to capitalize on such commonalities.”

Screenshot of Dr. Bertagnolli at a Senate hearing during her confirmation process. She stands at a podium with a microphone, with a crowd of viewers in the background that includes a camera and videographer. There is a blue C-SPAN logo in the bottom right corner of the image.
At an Oct. 18 hearing with the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Bertagnolli recalled her upbringing in rural Wyoming and the long distances people had to travel for access to health care.

As NCI director, Bertagnolli initiated efforts to expand and modernize cancer clinical trials to increase the number of people who can participate in NCI-supported research. Under her leadership, NCI released the National Cancer Plan to galvanize communities to set specific goals to prevent cancer, reduce deaths from cancer and provide the best possible quality of life for people living with cancer.

Bertagnolli has been a cancer surgeon for more than 35 years. Before joining NCI, she specialized in treating and researching gastrointestinal cancers in her roles as the Richard E. Wilson professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Bertagnolli’s research has advanced the current understanding of the gene mutation that promotes gastrointestinal cancer development and the role of inflammation as a driver of cancer growth. She also has worked to increase responsible access and sharing of cancer clinical trial data among researchers and has promoted the inclusion of rural communities in clinical studies. She is a past president and chair of the board of directors of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and has served on the board of directors of the American Cancer Society and the Prevent Cancer Foundation. She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2021. 

Bertagnolli graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and earned a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She trained in surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and was a research fellow in tumor immunology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who has served as acting NIH director of NIH since December 2021, has agreed to resume his role as the NIH principal deputy director to assist with the transition. NCI Principal Deputy Director Dr. Douglas Lowy will serve, for the fourth time, as NCI acting director until Biden appoints a new director.  

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