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Deputy Director Wendy Baldwin Heads for Kentucky

By Carla Garnett

How did a 2-year assignment as an NIH health-scientist administrator become — seemingly overnight — a 30-year federal career? That's only the latest tough question for Dr. Wendy Baldwin, NIH deputy director for extramural research since 1993. At the end of 2002, she retired from a challenging 3-decade career at NIH and headed for a new career as vice president for research at her alma mater, the University of Kentucky (UK).

Dr. Wendy Baldwin
Baldwin arrived at NIH in 1973, fresh from a 4-year stint as a research assistant at UK. Her 2-year appointment as a health-scientist administrator in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development blossomed into a 20-year stay there. She served as chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch at its Center for Population Research from 1979 to 1991; she then became NICHD deputy director in 1991.

"The work was always exciting," Baldwin recalled. "We were in on the early stages of some of the most controversial topics, such as adolescent reproductive behavior and behavioral aspects of AIDS transmission. Behavioral research in the context of AIDS was a very sensitive topic. We had to deal with a lack of understanding about what causes behaviors to change. It was a big challenge."

For a generation now accustomed to openly addressing contentious aspects of sexual health and behavior, the titles of Baldwin's articles from the early 1970s and 1980s, such as "Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing — Growing Concerns for Americans," "Early Teen Pregnancies," and "Trends in Adolescent Contraception, Pregnancy and Childbearing," may seem simply like good, fundamental research on which to base informed discussions. At the time, however, the substantive focus of Baldwin's published work had not received extensive attention by the scientific community.

"We assessed what was known and unknown about the health consequences of sexual behavior for mothers, fathers, children and families," Baldwin noted. "We also launched new programs of research on childcare. Before our studies, there were limited, if any, data on these issues."

NICHD director Dr. Duane Alexander said Baldwin played several roles at his institute and that she had a tremendous impact on the direction of research in many areas. Her ability in handling the fallout associated with controversial scientific topics inevitably launched her into the uppermost echelon of NIH leadership.

"Wendy firmly established social and behavioral research as an important component of overall research at NIH," he noted. "She became the most knowledgeable federal official with regard to teen pregnancy and sexual behavior, and was frequently called upon by Congress and the administration to provide data and evidence on these topics as well as suggested approaches to dealing with the concerns. The increased attention to the problem of teen pregnancy in the 1980s and the declining rates in the 1990s are outgrowths of her research program, expertise and testimony. After testifying on these sensitive issues, representing NIH on other topics was relatively easy."

NICHD's Dr. Christine Bachrach, who took over for Baldwin as chief of the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch, recalled some of the more interesting — and lighthearted — times that Baldwin had experienced.

"At NICHD, Dr. Baldwin oversaw the development of two major new studies of sexual behavior related to the emerging HIV epidemic — one on teens and one on adults," Bachrach said. These surveys had not yet been made public when Baldwin took her family to visit the new park at Great Falls. "A Washington Post reporter accosted her there and interviewed her about the park. She apparently almost gave [Dr.] Alexander a heart attack when she called and told him that she'd been quoted at length in the Post — until she told him the subject matter.

"I remember that Wendy was always getting hate mail because of her program in the teen sex area," Bachrach continued. "One such letter started off with 'Dear Permissive Windy.'" According to Bachrach, Baldwin's sense of humor is well-documented and will be sorely missed around NIH. While at NICHD, she was famous for participating in elaborate productions for the annual institute holiday party.

In 1993, the late Dr. John Diggs suggested to then-NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healy that Baldwin replace him as deputy director for extramural research. Unwilling to leave her position at NICHD, she eventually agreed to come to the Office of the Director on a detail assignment, at the request of Healy. It was the next NIH director, Dr. Harold Varmus, who convinced Baldwin to take the job permanently.

In more recent years, Baldwin's work went well beyond the substantive areas she covered in NICHD. One important and exciting activity involved creating and leading the bioengineering consortium known as BECON, which brought together representatives from NIH ICs, worked with the bioengineering scientific community and launched new initiatives such as the bioengineer research partnership grants that have helped the NIH bioengineering investment grow.

"Working with Wendy since the beginning of BECON has been a real challenge," said Dr. Jeff Schloss of NHGRI, who in 2001 succeeded Baldwin as BECON chair. "Regardless of how much enthusiasm BECON members brought to the table, or what great new ideas we came up with, Wendy was more passionate, or cranked up the creativity a notch, to make this new initiative succeed. Get ready, UK."

Looking back over her career as director of the Office of Extramural Research at NIH, Baldwin said there are several projects she is most pleased to have implemented, chief among them being the Human Subjects Research Enhancement Program. "Human subjects research is instrumental and fundamental to the NIH mission," she said. "It was absolutely essential that universities be able to meet demands for protecting human subjects. The enhancement program put pressure on institutions to better educate their investigators and deal with adverse events."

In addition, Baldwin is also pleased to have had an opportunity to streamline the grants administration and communication processes. Computer-based information systems significantly improved efficiency, data quality and management. CRISP, electronic research administration (eRA), and iEdison were created or strengthened in OER during Baldwin's tenure.

Acknowledging that all her posts at NIH have required patience, dexterity and the ability to work on more than one task at a time, Baldwin said two other essential factors made her job easier and successful. "It is absolutely essential that you have a sense of humor in this job," she advised. "That and a capable and flexible staff. I have been lucky to have worked with the most wonderful people. I believe I have the greatest staff.

"NIH is a place where you can do things that you can't do anywhere else," Baldwin continued. "The people are wonderful. The mission is compelling. It's a place that makes people's lives better. You can see programs go from ideas to outcomes. However, NIH is not the only thing in the world that one can do. When my alma mater came tapping on my door with an irresistible offer, I decided that the time was right."

Working with new UK president Dr. Lee Todd, Jr., Baldwin has pledged to strengthen interdisciplinary programs and clinical work. She will oversee a burgeoning scientific enterprise that increased its grants and contracts awards by 22 percent from 2001 to 2002. In July 2002, UK announced it had for the first time broken the $200 million mark in research funding.

"Being NIH deputy director for extramural research gave me exposure to absolutely everything — from basic to applied research, dealing with the press and Congress as well as working with researchers," Baldwin concluded. "It's a little hard to leave at a time when NIH is poised to do a lot more under its new director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni. He has so many qualities that are ideal for NIH. From his experiences at Hopkins, he has a real appreciation for how a university runs and exactly what happens when NIH supports research in these settings. However, I'm looking forward to life on a university campus again, to devising research strategies for one setting versus the larger scientific community and to just doing something new."

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