People as Partners
Bertagnolli Energizes Crowd in First Town Hall
The anticipation was palpable. NIH’ers had gathered in Masur Auditorium, eager to get better acquainted with NIH Director Dr. Monica Bertagnolli at her first Town Hall on Dec. 19. Bertagnolli—the 17th NIH director and the second woman and first surgeon to serve in the lead role—had taken the helm in November and was enthused to share her vision for the agency.
As she walked on stage to resounding applause, Bertagnolli said she was overcome with the enormity of the moment and task at hand.
“My entire career, I have admired and looked up to NIH and thought of it as the pinnacle of everything I wanted to do, everything in our field that really makes the world better for people and people’s health,” she said. “To be here today as the director, I have to tell you quite frankly, is amazing and overwhelming. I am energized by this honor and am determined to represent you all well.”
In remarks that emphasized collaboration, excellence, harnessing technology and promoting trust in science, she spoke openly and affably about her experiences and goals to a packed auditorium and more than 6,000 NIH’ers who tuned in live via videocast.
After formal remarks, she sat down for a fireside chat with NIH Principal Deputy Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, during which she addressed the most popular concerns submitted by staff in an online poll.
Bertagnolli shared how her upbringing on a sheep and cattle ranch in rural Wyoming shaped her perspective. The closest hospital was 100 miles away. To attend school, she and her siblings moved to a town 97 miles away during the week; they rejoined their father on the ranch on weekends and in summer.
“Growing up in a place completely off the electrical grid and far away from the grocery store, we learned to be independent and resourceful,” she recounted.
Inspired to become a doctor like her Uncle Pete, she’d planned to work in internal medicine. “But to my surprise,” she said, “the first time I walked into an operating room, I knew I had to be a surgeon.”
After decades as a surgical oncologist and researcher in Boston, she is invigorated to start this new chapter at NIH—having first arrived as National Cancer Institute director and now serving as NIH director.
When presented with the staff survey’s top question, Bertagnolli responded from personal experience. Will NIH continue to support telework and local remote options? Bertagnolli said she herself teleworks regularly. She travels to her NIH office three or four days each week from Boston.
“Those one or two telecommuting days are really critical for me for family reasons,” she said, noting she and her husband Alex have an autistic son who lives with them in Boston. While she encourages staff to be physically present, if and when possible, she emphasized ongoing support of work-life balance and flexibility.
Bertagnolli added other personal tidbits during the fireside chat. “I love to get in big old boots, tromping out in the middle of a swampy river, and catch fish,” she confided. In addition, she said she especially enjoys such winter sports as ice skating and skiing.
She also spoke of her battle with early-stage breast cancer in 2022, shortly after arriving at NCI. She was fortunate to have benefited from NIH research, which guided her treatment.
“We have to make sure those benefits get to everyone,” she said, stating a core tenet of her vision for NIH. She underscored that the knowledge and discoveries generated in NIH labs and clinics must involve and reach all communities, everywhere.
“My life experiences, both personal and professional, as someone who grew up in a rural area, as a woman in science and surgery, as a cancer survivor, as the parent of a child with autism—now a young adult with autism—these have all given me a very powerful sense of the transformative potential of our research and also the critical importance of equity, of access to all people, to research.”
A critical way to make progress in this area, Bertagnolli noted, is harnessing information technology, machine learning and data science.
“Take your brilliance and work together,” she said. “Communicate it together. Bring the people you serve into this process…May we use this now as a moment to help educate and engage the public in everything we do.”
Channel all of the data and new knowledge into ways that transform life, she challenged. “As this rush of information comes in, we must be more effective, more proactive in connecting what we learn, understanding the interplay between the genes we inherit and the environmental and societal factors that surround us, beginning even before birth, and connecting that knowledge to everyday life, clinical practice and community health.”
Another goal under Bertagnolli’s leadership—and one she expounded on in response to another staff poll question—is improving the public’s confidence in science.
“Trust is everything,” she said. Engage research participants. Consider community wants and needs. Communicate as effectively as possible, she urged.
“We will engender trust in science when people who stand to benefit from our research become our research partners, when we design studies that engage people and respect their needs, and when they see the results make their lives better,” she said.
Bertagnolli also advocated for more collaboration across institutes and centers. “There are fundamental questions in health that really span all organ systems,” she said. Learn from other disciplines. Take advantage of commonalities across research areas.
Some staff—by way of the third top poll question—admitted feeling overworked and undercompensated. Bertagnolli said, “The best solution for that, to me, was always camaraderie with my fellow combatants in the world of trying to overcome disease. Find your team.” And when problems arise, “Don’t sit in silence…Support each other and ask for help,” she urged.
Tabak asked whether the new director had advice she would tell her younger self or perhaps researchers just starting out. Bertagnolli recalled her early days, coming from a rural state, entering a field that then included few women. She had just wanted to fit in. But, she said, “I was an odd duck. I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Now, though, she observed, “it is perfectly OK to be an odd duck. If you’re on a mission like the rest of us, we need to celebrate and appreciate that…Demand to be accepted for who you are. That’s what gets all of us the best from you.”