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New Scientific Director Seeks to Advance Scientists' Careers

By Robert Bock

"Children are one-third of our population, but 100 percent of our future," said NICHD's new scientific director, Dr. Owen Rennert about his recent appointment as head of the institute's Intramural Research Division. Essential to our future, he added, is an understanding of the reproductive and developmental processes that guide human beings from a single fertilized egg through to adult life.

"Uniquely, the institute is positioned to decipher the intricate sequence of normal development — and to find remedies for when things go wrong," he said.

A developmental biochemist by training, Rennert most recently served the institute as acting director of the Center for Research for Mothers and Children. Before coming to NICHD, he was chair of the department of pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, where he also earned his M.D. and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry and a residency in pediatrics.

Dr. Owen Rennert

Rennert plans to continue his research interests while at NICHD and will move his Georgetown University laboratory to the NIH campus in the near future. One of his major research interests is mutations that give rise to disorders in sexual differentiation. One such mutation, in the luteinizing hormone receptor, results in a form of hereditary male precocious puberty. The mutation may also lead to insights on tumor formation, as those who have it are also more likely to develop cancer of the testes.

His other main research interest is pregnancy-associated glycoproteins, which are produced by the uterus in response to the attachment of the placenta. Although their function is not well understood, these glycoproteins are thought to play a role in modulation of the immune system during pregnancy.

"Research provides me with scientific legitimacy and credibility," he said. "To know what science is about and to be able to judge it, I have to practice it."

Rennert said he became interested in the management of science so that he could promote the careers of other scientists. He provides researchers with the resources they need, encourages them to value their individuality, helps them to narrow their focus, and pushes them to succeed.

"Essentially, you need to find good people, and give them the latitude to develop themselves," he said.

Rennert said the greatest influence on his career was his father, Dr. David Rennert, a physician who emigrated from Nazi Germany and later held teaching and clinical positions in this country.

"He's the wisest man I ever knew," Rennert said. "He demanded that you do your best, because he did his best — all of the time."

For Rennert, the distinction between basic and clinical science is largely artificial. Advances in the treatment of genetic disease, he said, resulted from the fundamental advances in human genetics. He looks to this marriage of basic and clinical science to help eliminate the health disparities of minority populations. Although health disparities are often social and economic in origin, many also result from biological differences between people that may place some at greater risk for disease than others.

Science, he said, is in a unique position to identify these differences and develop treatments that counter the risks some of these differences convey.

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