NIH Record - National Institutes of Health


NLM Celebrates Brennan’s Contributions to Data-Driven Discovery

Brennan stands at podium draped with Connell banner. A slide is projected on screen beside her.
Dr. Patricia Brennan at Connell School of Nursing in 2017

Photo:  Justin Knight

Two women, with heads tilted towards each other, glancing upward
Brennan and her mother, Lois, watch the video that opened Brennan's swearing-in ceremony.

Photo:  caffeine photography

Four people seated at conference table, shown in profile
Brennan (l) with NLM panel (from l) Dr. Bart Trawick, Joyce Backus and Dr. Mike Huerta at a 2019 Data Science Open House.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Several men and women stand in a group photo outside the Clinical Center
Brennan (r) and other NIH leaders with HHS Secretary Becerra (fourth from l) in 2021

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Brennan, seated, leans up to hug Campbell with another well-wisher at podium in background
Brennan (l) embraces Glen Campbell, Chair of the Friends of the National Library of Medicine, at Brennan's retirement ceremony.

Photo:  NLM

If you’ve ever met Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, you know she speaks quickly and thinks even quicker. She’s swift to innovate and swifter to collaborate—the very embodiment of “accelerate.” And during her time at the National Library of Medicine, she set NLM’s trajectory to speed into the future as a leader of biomedical informatics and computational health science research, even well after handing off the baton.

Recently, Brennan gathered with family, colleagues and friends in Natcher Conference Center to celebrate her retirement. As she took to the podium, she acknowledged her inclination to speak fast as well as an important attribute she developed as NLM director.

“Fundamentally, the job of a director at NIH is to learn through listening—whether it’s to other colleagues, to the needs of our scholars, our researchers, the public, our investigators,” she said. “Working at the National Library of Medicine has taught me a lot about shutting up and listening.”

In September 2016, shortly after she was sworn in as NLM director, Brennan began building on the work of previous trailblazers such as former NLM Director Dr. Donald Lindberg by positioning NLM as a global scientific research library with visible and accessible pathways to universally actionable, meaningful, understandable and useful research and information. Her goal? To prioritize discovering new analytic and data science advances.

“The future will be defined by data,” Brennan predicted at her swearing-in ceremony. As director of the primary source of biomedical data that serves science, research and society, she knew “we need to be ready.”

Brennan’s unique experience as the first nurse, industrial engineer and woman named to lead NLM guided her approach to integrate health information management with artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and deep learning.

She made enormous progress towards a vision of making NLM the epicenter of data science at NIH. For one, NLM strengthened its literature and data resources, including moving the Sequence Read Archive, the largest publicly available biological database, into commercial cloud platforms. NLM also shared its expertise across NIH, helping colleagues improve systematic data collection, embrace modern approaches to curation and discovery and progress towards interoperability.

Her work never went unnoticed. 

“Patti is known throughout the NIH community for her commitment to data science and we have worked to amplify the impact of data science for biomedical and behavioral research,” said Dr. Susan Gregurick, NIH associate director for data science and director of the Office of Data Science Strategy. “If you have had the opportunity to work with Patti, as I have, you will realize that her commitment to her colleagues is as passionate as her commitment to data science. She is truly an amazing and inspiring leader.”

Brennan developed extraordinary bonds with colleagues, leading to frank conversations around data science, medical informatics, AI and other topics in a rapidly growing, data-centered discovery landscape.

“The most important part about my interactions with Patti have been the honesty and candor,” noted Dr. Lawrence Tabak, then-NIH acting director. “She was honest and secure enough to reach out to me—regardless of what position I was holding—and tell me what she felt I needed to know as opposed to what I wanted to hear. As a result, Patti became a very trusted counselor for me, providing truly significant insight on how to navigate several challenges far beyond the things that the NLM director would need to worry about.”

Her talent for building collaborative relationships extended well beyond NIH; in fact, it was those forged with outside research professionals and organizations that positioned NLM as a global resource for advanced biomedical science, informatics and data-centered research.

“While I’m going to miss your valuable leadership and perspective in interagency contexts and your efforts to bring our agencies closer together to collaborate on a whole host of fronts in data, AI, and beyond—I think NLM and NIH really have huge shoes to fill on that front—most of all, I am going to miss what a wonderful friend and person you have been in shaping all this work together,” said Dr. Erwin Gianchandani of the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships at the National Science Foundation, via video recording. “I’ll miss our chats on the margins of meetings, I’ll miss the incredible wisdom and advice you’ve offered, and I’ll miss the personal touch that you have brought forth.”

Brennan’s attitude also served as “one-NLM” glue. 

Dianne Babski, associate director of library operations, said Brennan helped NLM “truly become a united and collaborative team…Patti’s emphasis on teamwork, collaboration and open communication has been key to achieving our collective goals. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about her is her ability to bring our organization together.”

Dr. Shannon Zenk, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), also spoke to Brennan’s NIH-wide collaborations and contributions. 

“Patti will be sorely missed at NIH and across the nursing research community, especially for her support and mentoring of women leaders,” she said. NINR hosted Brennan’s Advanced Visualization Lab. “We were proud to support her trailblazing research in using cutting-edge technology—including interactive virtual reality simulations—to improve health outcomes.”

“She has placed us on a trajectory to do amazing things,” said Dr. Richard Palmer, acting director of NLM’s Division of Extramural Programs. “She has not only changed the culture of an organization, which is not easy; she also helped all of us reach further than we thought we could and achieve more than we ever thought possible.”

Dr. Jeffrey Reznick, chief of the History of Medicine Division, appreciated how Brennan positioned NLM as the steward of globally respected collections and resources for modernized data-driven research.

“This history and the future of NLM as it approaches its third century of public service helps us appreciate the solid progress of NLM thanks to Dr. Brennan’s leadership,” Reznick explained.

He presented Brennan with a brick from NLM’s previous home on the National Mall. Handed down from generation to generation, the unique artifact remains preserved in the collections of the library.

On announcing her retirement, Brennan said she considered not just her career, but also the entire NLM team. 

“Most of all, I’m very proud of NLM’s greatest asset—you,” she concluded. “It’s been a great honor and privilege to serve NLM all these years and learn from you.”

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The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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