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NINDS's Extramural Research Director Atwell Retires

By Shannon E. Garnett

"I could not imagine having a more exciting and rewarding career than the time I have spent at NIH," said Dr. Constance W. Atwell, director of the NINDS Division of Extramural Research, who recently retired after 26 years of service to NIH. "To move from conducting research in academia to facilitating research through grants and contracts was clearly the right choice for me, and I have never looked back."

Atwell earned her undergraduate degree in 1963 as a National Merit Scholar from Mount Holyoke College, where she graduated magna cum laude and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned both her master's and Ph.D. degrees — specializing in developmental psychobiology — from UCLA in 1965 and 1968, respectively.

Another of Dr. Constance Atwell's contributions to NIH has been her 20 years as a YMCA fitness instructor, teaching most of her classes as part of the NIH aerobics and dance program in Bldg. T-39. In retirement, she looks forward to spending more time with her husband, who retired 3 years ago, and her 6-month-old grandson. She will also continue to work with the RBMS part-time.

After UCLA, she went to Pitzer College and the Claremont Graduate School in California to serve as a professor — teaching perceptual, developmental, cognitive and physiological psychology — and a scientist — serving as principal investigator on an NIH-funded research project on the development of vision and the vestibular system in human infants. She spent 1968 conducting cross-cultural color vision research in Kenya and teaching child psychology at University College in Nairobi. She then returned to Pitzer.

Atwell joined NIH in 1978 as a grants associate in the Division of Research Grants (now CSR), where she received a year of training in health science administration with an emphasis on extramural programs.

She then moved to NEI to become chief of the Office of Clinical Applications of Vision Research, directing a program on the role of the central nervous system in vision. In 1981, she became chief of the Strabismus, Amblyopia and Visual Processing Branch. In this post she planned, developed and evaluated research and training programs in the visual, oculomotor and perceptual sciences. Her accomplishments included starting the first NIH-funded clinical trial in strabismus and neuro-ophthalmology, and developing a clinical research collaboration among basic vision scientists, ophthalmologists and optometrists.

Later, in 1988, she took on an added duty, becoming NEI's deputy associate director for extramural and collaborative programs — assisting the associate director in reviewing research and training programs, coordinating the administrative efforts of the scientific program branch chiefs and managing the day-to-day activities of the extramural and collaborative programs.

Atwell left NEI in 1992 to accept the position of associate director for extramural activities, NINDS.

In 1998 she served as acting NINDS deputy director and was appointed associate director for extramural research in 1999.

"Connie is an extraordinary manager," said NINDS director Dr. Story Landis. "Her keen encyclopedic knowledge of extramural research and training policy and programs has been a great and invaluable resource to NINDS staff, the NIH community at large and especially to our many grantees and award recipients. Throughout her time at NIH, she has been extremely committed to the research career development and training of investigators — junior and senior. She has served as a wonderful mentor to those around her, and perhaps most importantly, to thousands of individuals and institutions that have received our grants and awards. Her willingness to give of her time and counsel to potential applicants at professional meetings stands out as a measure of her complete and total devotion to the job. She will be sorely missed."

In addition to her work at NINDS, Atwell was involved in a number of trans-NIH committees. She cochaired the advisory committee for research on women's health, which helped to increase visibility of women's health issues at NIH, and later led to the establishment of ORWH. She also chaired the improving peer review committee, a reinvention component.

"This was not an ordinary committee," Atwell explained. "It was a think tank that allowed us to think outside of the box on how to design a peer review system." Many of the changes in peer review at NIH, such as streamlined review, criterion-based review and expedited council approvals stemmed from the work of this committee.

Beyond NIH, Atwell served on the executive committee of the Federal Demonstration Partnership — a public-private collaboration to improve administration of research grants and contracts at educational institutions, and as chair of the research business models subcommittee (RBMS)— part of the committee on science of the National Science and Technology Council — which was created to address policy implications arising from the changing nature of scientific research and to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of federally funded research.

During her career, Atwell received many honors, including the NIH Director's Award and the NINDS Leadership Award, both in 1998. In 1992, the Low Vision Research Group established the Atwell Award for Excellence in Low Vision Research to honor her instrumental role in encouraging high-quality low vision research.

CSR's Janet Newburgh Retires

By Don Luckett

"Sometimes it was a little scary along the way," says Dr. Janet Newburgh, looking back as she retires from the Center for Scientific Review, where she was associate director of the Division of Receipt and Referral. "There weren't tons of people doing what I was doing."

Dr. Janet Newburgh
At age 18, she left her family in Miami, Okla., and went to Oklahoma State University to study foreign languages. But she soon realized she "was in the wrong pew." Newburgh discovered a keen interest in science and switched majors. At the end of her first semester, however, she got married and dropped out of school so her husband could continue his studies. "It's one of the things that a lot of Oklahoma girls did," she explains. But she still kept her foot in the door at the university. "I worked in the dean's office," she says, "and took correspondence courses."

A year later, she gave birth to a son. Her desire to become a scientist only grew, and she returned to school 7 months later. "You put together child-care situations — wives of other students and day care centers," she explains. "And sometimes my grandmother stayed to help." Newburgh still struggled to manage her studies and her growing family — she had a second child a year later. "Sometimes I'd walk into an exam totally cold," she explains, "but it's pretty amazing."

Newburgh received her degree in chemistry in 1963 and applied for graduate study in biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "This was the very early days of increased funding for the natural sciences — post-Sputnik," she explains. "Two weeks later, I received an acceptance letter." She focused on enzyme and protein chemistry and her family. In her third year, she was pregnant with a third child and in the midst of a dissertation on the structure of the enolase enzyme.

It was impossible to avoid criticism back then. "My husband's mentor at the university leaned on me to abandon my studies," she explains. "He felt that I was not providing the proper wifely support...I came close to being swayed, but then I thought I was entitled to graduate school, and support from a fellowship made it possible to continue."

After receiving her Ph.D. in 1967, she moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where she taught chemistry and biochemistry at a private university and a high school. Newburgh returned to this country in 1971 and continued her protein enzyme research at Oregon State University and the University of California, Berkeley. She then studied the pyruvate kinase isoenzymes. She later moved her NIH grant to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

In 1980, Newburgh joined the NIH Grants Associates Program, which recruited accomplished scientists from the academic community for careers in research administration. "It was a year of working assignments, seminars and courses," she says. "Sometimes I had to pinch myself it was so wonderful." After completing the program, she spent 7 years as a program officer, first at the National Eye Institute and later at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

In June 1988, Newburgh had a life-changing conversation with Dr. Yvonne Maddox, now deputy director at NICHD. Maddox invited her to see her run the Marine Corps Marathon. Newburgh, who was 46 years old at the time, surprised both Maddox and herself by saying she would run it with her despite having never run a marathon before. Since then, Newburgh has completed marathons in all 50 states. (See the Mar. 5, 2002 NIH Record.)

In 1990, Newburgh left NIH to take a year off and work as a consultant. During this time, she became involved in peer review and liked it so much she spent the next 7 years coordinating scientific review groups, which primarily assessed biomedical grant applications for the U.S. Army.

Newburgh has completed marathons in all 50 states, including here at Pike's Peak.

Her interest in peer review eventually led her back to NIH, and she joined CSR's Division of Receipt and Referral in 1998. "We sort out the applications to the different referral officers, who assign them to the appropriate institutes and review groups," she explains. "The most rewarding part has been helping people, both applicants and NIH staff, with problems concerning grant applications...and there have been loads of opportunities to do that."

Newburgh plans to continue to work as a consultant and run marathons. "I ran a marathon on Pike's Peak last August," she says, "and I've committed myself to going back this year because I think I can do that better."

When she reflects on her career, she says she is heartened by the fact her six children never complained about her working. "My oldest daughter once said, 'One of these days you're going to win a Nobel prize [because] you're a very good scientist,'" says Newburgh. "I'm still waiting to hear from Stockholm," she adds, with a quiet, satisfied laugh.

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