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|Part Yellow Pages, Part Encyclopedia|
Intramural Database a Treasure Trove Of Who's Who, Doing What
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
If a historian were to chart the advance of NIH intramural science, there might be no better resource than two yearly publications now grown to a single web site once known as the Annual Reports and the Scientific Directory and Annual Bibliography, or SDAB. For many years a product of the Office of Communications, OD, where it grew from a slim volume of perhaps 100 pages to massive compendia of many hundreds of pages before the paper versions ceased publication in 1994, the SDAB, along with the Annual Reports, have matured into something called NIDB the NIH Intramural Database, managed by CIT's Division of Enterprise and Custom Applications. Because it is now an electronic "document," the NIDB, which debuted in 1998, is more robust than anything in print could be; it isn't limited by the constraint of deadline, nor is its size limited by the capacities of a bindery.
Like its paper predecessor, NIDB still contains annual bibliographies, which include all papers produced by intramural scientists each year, and the scientific directory, which lists all scientific staff in the intramural programs, plus the annual reports, which describe each principal investigator's activities, amounting to some 2,500 projects each year. But NIDB also includes an NIH "resumé," which provides NIH research and bibliographic information on all NIH researchers, not just principal and lead investigators.
As a tool for finding out who is doing what on campus, NIDB joins a host of social engineering projects designed to speed the progress of science, essentially by matchmaking. These include the annual Research Festival, which serves to foment collaborations among sundry researchers; the special scientific interest groups, which burgeon in new fields every year; and the "open lab" environments and clever building designs touted with each new construction project on campus, including Bldg. 50, the Clinical Research Center and the Porter Neuroscience Center, whose architects promise veritable hothouses of scientific cross-fertilization. Unlike festivals, interest group meetings and sunny stairwells, however, NIDB permits a scientist, without ever leaving his or her workstation, to mine literal tons of data, beginning with a simple query.
"We see the NIDB as a key mechanism to enhance collaborations across ICs and to stimulate multidisciplinary research projects," said Dr. Joan Schwartz, assistant director, Office of Intramural Research, and business manager of the NIDB. "For me, this is a dream come true," says Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research. "It is an enormously valuable tool for accessing the richness of intramural research not only for our own researchers but for the rest of the world."
For example, a researcher can type "NIDDK PCR" in the "Searching NIH Annual Reports" page to find reports combining people from NIDDK with a common lab assay known as polymerase chain reaction. NIDB instantly finds 13 reports, and presents the first 10 hits, listed by relevancy. A click on any given title produces a compact report that lists principal investigator, lab staff, total staff years dedicated to the project, keywords associated with the project, a summary of the work, and lastly, publications generated by the research. Many of these citations contain a further link to PubMed, so that NIDB users can bore their way to the full text of articles.
Particularly for the newcomer to NIH, the NIDB can drastically foreshorten years of information-gathering, networking and schmoozing that commonly precede a scientist's finding his or her intellectual home. That's part of the reason the site's technical manager Dr. Dale Graham likes it so much. "I used to be a researcher," said Graham, a computational biologist who earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1970, taught at Purdue University and was a working scientist from 1973 to 1990.
"There's lots of turnover in research staff at the NIH and by the time you leave, you're often just getting to know where the good stuff is." She concedes that NIDB does require some effort on the part of intramural scientists, who input its bedrock data, "but it lets the world know what we're working on."
Graham came to NIH in 1980 to work at NCI under Dr. Gilbert Smith on mammary tumor virus. "I was a cancer expert," she recalls. She spent 3 years there, then moved to Dr. Matthew Rechler's laboratory at NIDDK, where she studied insulin-like growth factor until 1990. "I was recruited by CIT to do support for scientists. I had already been spending lots of time helping fellow researchers with computers and with sequence analysis I just loved it," she continues. "I was delighted to go to CIT," where she specialized in scientific software and data presentation, earning an NIH Director's Award (1995) along the way.
Her expertise in bibliographic software led her to a major project to convert the august bound volumes of the old Annual Reports and SDAB into the new NIDB project, owned by the Office of Intramural Research. The NIDB site today is run by a staff of 3, with input from hundreds of scientists in the intramural research programs, who provide the data contained in NIDB. Though the existence of this site is not well-known to all NIH researchers, the search engine for the site is steadily gaining users, who are quick to remind Graham when any problems arise.
Graham thinks the site is underappreciated, presumably because of its lack of visibility. "I don't think people realize how valuable it is it seems like gold to me," she said. "It provides a good assessment tool for recruiting, it lets like-minded scientists create their own networks. Anyone can tap into it to see who is working on problems that interest them.
"The senior guys at NIH already know where all the treasures are," she adds, "so NIDB is especially useful to younger, lower-level workers" who are just finding their niche.. "I want to make their experience at the NIH richer and more effective. I remember what it was like to be a young scientist. This is a real research resource, containing very important information."
Graham emphasizes an advantage NIDB holds over its paper predecessor you can ask questions of it. "There are lots of different ways to mine these data," she says. "It's a good tool for assessing collaborative efforts, or for tracing the progress of a given project over a number of years. The PubMed links included in the bibliographies often lead to full-text articles." NIDB also allows multiple institutes to share credit for research publications; the paper version only permitted one institute to stake a claim.
When it was first launched, NIDB relied on reports filed by scientists of diverse experience, some of whom were postdoctoral fellows, who might not have been the most authoritative sources of material on a lab's output. Today, "You've got to be either tenured or on tenure-track to file or verify data," said Graham. "That is, while staff scientists or clinicians may file an Annual Report, it must be reviewed by a tenured or tenure-track investigator." She notes that each institute and center has its own peculiar programming requirements, hewing to the grand old NIH tradition of "operation by exception...meaning that no one follows the same set of rules."
It takes a substantial amount of behind-the-scenes geek-work, she divulges, to keep the site working properly. But all the technical improvements have paid off since the site debuted in 1998, because NIDB recently earned status as an NIH "enterprise project," along with such stalwarts as ITAS, NBS, NED, nVision and NIH Login. This means it has passed muster with a variety of boards including the information technology investment review board, the BOG (board of governors) and the FARB funding advisory review board. "These various blessings assure that we get funding," Graham noted.
Proud of a valued site that is daily gaining new adherents (the search site logs 300-800 hits per day), Graham is perhaps uniquely qualified to milk data from somewhat recalcitrant donors she has for the past 20 years been a llama rancher; llamas, she notes, "are very intelligent, but not very affectionate." Graham and her husband keep 23 llamas on a 20-acre farm 70 miles southwest of Bethesda in Culpeper County, Va., where they have recently finished building their dream house a log cabin.
"A llama," she observes, "is like a 300-pound vegetarian cat. Basically, the way they think is, 'If it's their idea, it's good. If it's your idea, it's bad.'" Which equips Graham who has seen llamas successfully trained to caddy on golf courses and been fascinated for decades with llama "thinking" to run the NIDB ranch quite nicely. To see for yourself visit http://intramural.nih.gov/search/.
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