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NIH Record Katz Sees Directorship as Chance to Make a Difference

By Robert Bock

"I viewed it as a tremendous challenge," said NIAMS director Dr. Stephen Katz about accepting his institute's directorship in 1995. "It was an opportunity to take all that I had learned in science and medicine and make a greater impact than I ever had before."

He came to NIAMS from the National Cancer Institute, where he served as chief of the Dermatology Branch, a position he continues to hold. An expert in cancerous and inflammatory disorders of the skin, Katz has demonstrated that skin is a critical part of the immune system. In particular, his work has focused on Langerhans cells. These outermost sentries of the immune system occur in the outside layer of the skin, but frequently report back to immune cells within the body.

Although at the top of his own research field when he assumed the NIAMS directorship, he faced the immediate challenge of learning rapidly about the institute's other component areas: arthritis and other rheumatic diseases, and disorders of muscle and bone.

"It was a steep learning curve," he said. "But I did what I always do: read voraciously, talk with people, ask lots of questions — and read voraciously."

He also credited his staff with quickly bringing him up to speed. The nature of managing science, he said, is first to understand the science itself. His program staff, he said, has done an excellent job of filling in gaps in his knowledge.

Dr. Stephen Katz

"There's no way you can be an expert in everything," he said. "But, because of the expertise of the people around me, I can now make decisions from a scientifically knowledgeable standpoint."

Katz said the focus of his institute is translating basic scientific advances into practical means to benefit patients. Recent successes from this approach include finding that osteoporosis in older women can be prevented with much lower doses of estrogen than previously thought, and the development of a new arthritis drug that targets the causes of the disease, not just its symptoms.

"Our work in this institute touches nearly every human being," Katz said. "Skin diseases, osteoporosis, arthritis, sports injuries, low back pain — what family do you know that isn't affected by one of these?"

He said NIAMS' mission traverses the human life span, dealing with disorders that are common, chronic, costly and sometimes disabling.

"Even if you improve life an inkling, with so many people affected, you've made a tremendous impact," he said.

Katz said that when he became NIAMS director, he and the staff undertook a thorough review of all programs, keeping some as they were, making modifications in others, and changing still others completely. As change is often unwelcome, this remodeling hasn't always been easy for him.

The transition from scientist to leader of an institute, however, was easy for him, he said, because he has frequently held leadership positions during his career. At various times, he has served as president and board member for both the Society for Investigative Dermatology, and the Association of Professors of Dermatology; secretary-general of the World Congress of Dermatology; and secretary-treasurer of the Clinical Immunology Society. In 1997 he was named to a 5-year term as president of the International League of Dermatological Societies.

In leading his institute, he said, he tries to set a good example, to be fair to the people who work for him, to listen to what they have to say, and to encourage laughter.

"An organization without laughter is not worth being in," he said. "Although we need to be serious, we can't be so serious that we forget what we're here to do."

In running any large organization, he said, leaders must know where the organization is today, where it was yesterday, where it will be tomorrow, and where it will be 5 to 10 years from now. But while a clear purpose is important in charting a scientific organization's course, scientific discovery demands spontaneity as well.

"In science, you can't stick to a road map, because new roads are popping up all the time," he said. "You have to be willing to take a chance."

Openness, too, plays a crucial role in his management practices. Katz said the only secrets in his organization are those that must be kept confidential as part of the scientific review process.

"My staff can ask me any questions they want," he said. "They may not always agree with me, but I should always be able to explain my actions."

Katz relies heavily on communicating often with both the scientific and non-scientific public. His schedule is brimming with speaking engagements to such diverse groups as the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and patient advocacy groups for arthritis, fibromyalgia and skin diseases.

"Sometimes the patients' groups are as perceptive as the people who know the science, because they may see a bigger picture," he said. "Who can argue with people affected by these diseases?"

Like many other institute directors, Katz also runs a laboratory of his own. The research process, he said, helps clarify his sense of purpose in carrying out his duties.

"As an active scientist, I get the sense of how hard it is to make substantive advances in knowledge."

Born in New York City, he would sometimes cut classes to attend Brooklyn Dodgers' games. Later in his childhood, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area. He earned a B.A. cum laude from the University of Maryland, an M.D. from Tulane University Medical School, and a Ph.D. in immunology from London, England.

After work, Katz likes to spend time reading, and attending the theater and opera. His diverse musical tastes run the gamut from opera to hard rock, and he plays guitar for the NIH band, The Directors.

Keeping such a demanding schedule isn't easy, he admits. He said he is helped in large measure by his staff and his secretaries — all of whom he is grateful to. The secret, though, to keeping on top of it all, is to give his full attention to whatever needs it.

"You need to be able to compartmentalize your life," he said. "You have to be able to focus completely on what you're doing at the moment."

(The author is press officer for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a member of the NIH Management Cadre class of 2000. This article resulted from an assignment to study science and leadership at NIH. Information about the cadre program is available at

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