OEP Director O'Donnell Ends 31-Year NIH Career
By Rich McManus
When Irish eyes aren't smiling, Dr. James F. O'Donnell's visage could be among the most imperious at NIH; nature endowed him with a gaze as imposing as the stony cliffs that stop the Atlantic on Ireland's western edge. For most of his 31 years here, the face has been an asset to a variety of leadership positions. Most recently director of the Office of Extramural Programs in the Office of the Director for the past 9 years, he retired Mar. 31 to pursue, among other ambitions, the mystery of his Irish roots.
On the morning after St. Patrick's Day, however, in an office already half-dismantled, O'Donnell breaks easily and often into warm smiles. A colleague darts in to wish him well and he rises to share a laugh and a gentlemanly peck on her cheek. As dour as many of his responsibilities have been chairing such extramural entities as POPOF (project officers and program officials forum), participating in EPMC (extramural program management committee, where he attended more than 2,200 hours of meetings since he became a member in 1971) and the EAB (extramural associates board) O'Donnell can shed like lightning the frost of authority. High standards couldn't mask his essential geniality, which didn't go unnoticed by colleagues.
"Jim has been my supervisor for almost 9 years," said Dr. Walter Schaffer, research training and special programs officer in OEP. "During that period he has shown a thoughtfulness and consideration that you rarely find in a high level manager. Although he is always focussed on the job and the creation of a high quality product, he also is sensitive to the personal needs of his staff. He is always willing to pitch in and help out if one of his supervisees needs a hand. I think Jim's steady hand on the helm of the OEP will be sorely missed."
That steady hand was honed in some hard schools. Born in Cleveland, O'Donnell, 70, went to a Jesuit college St. Louis University then served 2 years in the Army during the Korean War before proceeding to one of the toughest graduate programs in the country the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He had already accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine when one of his thesis reviewers at Chicago called him back to reprove one part of his dissertation, a snafu that delayed his teaching and research appointment by 3 months. "It was a tough school, but a great education," he chuckles in retrospect.
O'Donnell studied nucleotide metabolism in liver disease for 10 years in Cincinnati when he saw an advertisement in Science magazine for the Grants Associates Program at NIH. By then his administrative responsibilities at the medical school had been increasing, and he discovered it was an appealing alternative to bench science.
Now defunct, the GA program was, from 1962 until its demise several years ago, NIH's prime mechanism for converting researchers into health science administrators, and its roster of graduates forms a Who's Who at NIH for the past three decades. A 1-year whirlwind of rotational assignments with NIH's managerial elite, the GA program launched O'Donnell into the upper reaches of the agency. His first post-GA stop was in NICHD for 2 years. In 1971, he was named assistant director of the Division of Research Resources (now NCRR). Five years later he was DRR's deputy director. In 1979, he became a charter member of the Senior Executive Service, the highest rank in federal civilian service.
O'Donnell left NCRR 9 years ago to assume leadership of OEP. "It gave me an opportunity to move into an extramural policy position. It was a very attractive post for me, having had experience in a division. It also provided an opportunity for development of extramural staff training programs."
At heart, O'Donnell is a professor. The OEP brought him back to his days as a medical school lecturer and "took care of my frustrations as a teacher after leaving academia.
"I developed, about 4 years ago, the required training program for new HSAs (health science administrators) at NIH," he recounts, admitting that he borrowed many concepts from the late GA program. "I'm very proud of the extensive case study book we use as training for extramural staff. It describes situations that actually occurred, and we use it as a basis for discussion. It's part of the core training for HSAs."
The career highlights he remembers best are those that broke through bureaucratic barriers to actually benefit people: keeping alive the extramural scientist administrators' seminar series, even after the GA program died; drafting appropriations language that was adopted, verbatim, by Congress in establishing the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program ("That was a good day's work," he allows); igniting congressional support to rebuild the Jackson Laboratory in Maine after a fire destroyed much of the facility; helping HHS assess research infrastructure repair needs in the wake of the Northridge earthquake that hit Los Angeles Jan. 17, 1994.
"That was an interesting experience," he says. "An aftershock shook the bed in my hotel room one night, and at dinner another night the plates and glasses were shaking."
O'Donnell insists it isn't difficult to set aside such a satisfying career. Rather, "It's the normal fulfillment I'm ready to move on to the next phase of life. It's just been a terribly rewarding career. I don't regret a day I've been at NIH."
He says he'll miss the people he worked with most "I worked with really great folks." To reward them, O'Donnell insisted on hosting his own retirement open house Mar. 30. "I'm putting it on," he declared. "I want to show my appreciation. I'm not asking my staff to put on a party."
Though he plans to remain in town "We love this area," he says O'Donnell and his wife yearn to revisit Ireland, where they have been twice in the past on genealogical missions. It turns out both can trace ancestors to villages only a few miles apart in County Mayo. The prospect of further research into his roots leaves his face alight probably the way most of his colleagues at NIH will remember him best.