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Ensuring 'Flexibility and Foresight'
Ruiz Bravo Enjoys Role as Deputy Director for Extramural Research

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

When NIH needed a new deputy director for extramural research, ads for the job could have read: "Wanted: Experienced scientist able to make tough decisions about research management look simple, make complex research policy manageable, make the jump from outside NIH to NIH insider (or in some other way be able to view both sides of issues), make all sides involved — fellow scientists, the boss, the press, the public — feel that decisions were arrived at fairly, and still make the work meaningful."


To some, the description "miracle worker" might seem more accurate and less difficult. However, self-described multitasker Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo — whose appointment was announced last Oct. 30 — admits the job seems tailor-made for her. Told that her predecessor insisted that a sense of humor was essential for success in the role, she readily agrees.

"This has all the elements that I love in a job," she explains, smiling. "It's challenging, it keeps me busy...and it's high in entertainment value.

"It was the opportunity to do something at a higher level," she continues, more seriously. "It also presented a chance to make a difference somewhere, and that's always been important to me."

In her new role, Ruiz Bravo oversees the development of policies and guidelines for NIH's entire research grant operation, which represents about 85 percent of the agency's total budget.

Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo

The Office of Extramural Research — the job's primary organizational structure and one of several NIH components scheduled for major changes following NIH's victory in its recent A-76 competition — is NIH's focal point and voice for all policies and guidelines for extramural research grants. OER policies and procedures affect the entire medical research community.

"The job involves communication across a lot of different groups, some with competing interests," Ruiz Bravo pointed out recently, after nearly 8 weeks in her new post. "My job is to get us all rowing in the same direction. The difference between this job and the one I left is that I get to be involved in more policy development here."

On any given day, Ruiz Bravo might be called upon by the media to address research policies in the news. Such issues as human subjects research, the appropriate care and use of animals in research, intellectual property and sharing research resources, institutional difficulties in responding to government regulations and many other hot topics are never far from the front page or nightly news reports, which means the NIH deputy director for extramural research must stay well-versed and at the top of her game. Ruiz Bravo says she manages this with a top-notch staff, many of whom she inherited with the job.

"The sheer volume and variety of things we face every day in this office is amazing," she acknowledges. "In fact, I've already found three things — speed, volume and variety — that you don't fully understand until you come to work here."

In addition, she notes, the job she left was great preparation for this one. Before becoming NIH deputy director, Ruiz Bravo spent 4 years in a similar, institute-level role as associate director for extramural activities at NIGMS. There she oversaw $1.7 billion in research and research training grant programs.

A former NICHD grantee, Ruiz Bravo was a faculty member from 1983 to 1989 while at Baylor College of Medicine, and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center's M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center. She earned her bachelor's degree in biology from Goucher College in Towson, Md., and master's and Ph.D. degrees in biology from Yale University.

"I'm a scientist at heart, a cell and developmental biologist," she says, recalling her years in the lab. "I don't miss the bench so much as I miss being more involved in the day-to-day management of the science. I left bench science because I'm a generalist. For me, being at the bench required that I focus too narrowly."

In 1990, Ruiz Bravo came to NIH as a scientific review administrator in NIGMS's Office of Scientific Review. Her husband, a research physicist, had been offered a position at Johns Hopkins, and Ruiz Bravo remembers feeling fortunate to find the SRA post nearby. Looking back at the job, she considers it to have been the perfect entrée to the NIH community.

"I really think that position was the best one for me," she recalled. "It helped prepare me for every job I've taken here since then, and it exposed me to the NIH environment as almost no other position could have. It was a great job."

Two years later she became a program director in NIGMS's Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, and in 1997, she moved to NCI as deputy director of the Division of Cancer Biology, where she was named acting director in 1998. In 1999, Ruiz Bravo returned to NIGMS as deputy director of its Division of Extramural Activities, before being named NIGMS associate director for extramural activities in October 2000.

Never idle, Ruiz Bravo eschews boredom with the novel toys surrounding her in her office.

Settling into her new office in Bldg. 1, Ruiz Bravo says one of her first goals is to help implement NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni's Roadmap for Medical Research initiative.

"The way we do science and the management of science have changed dramatically over the years," she explains. "It used to be highly reductionist — a single principal investigator looking at a single molecule. Now it's much more of a systems approach by a team of scientists. Our job at NIH is to make sure we have the flexibility and foresight to accommodate that shift."

Already Ruiz Bravo says she relishes tackling several different challenges at the same time despite the fact that her daily calendar stays full from sun up to sun down, and she can rarely predict what the next day will bring.

She concludes, "This is a great job for me — one where the sand is constantly shifting under my feet. One of the greatest fears of my life is being bored. I don't think that will ever happen here."

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