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Vol. LVIII, No. 3
February 10, 2006

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Ski Accident Can't Stand in Way of Peer Review

This year is the 60th anniversary of an NIH invention — independent peer review of research applications. It's a system that depends on thousands of dedicated volunteers from all branches of biomedical research. This is the story of one such volunteer.

If he hadn't been on crutches, you might almost imagine Dr. Andrew Robertson pulling on his cap, Gary Cooper-style, and saying, "Aw, 'twarnt nothing."

But Robertson, 46, was hobbling bravely into a Bethesda motel to chair a Center for Scientific Review study section's peer review of a program project — just a week and a half after the ski patrol carried him off a Colorado mountain with multiple fractures.

  Dr. Andrew Robertson overcame ski-related injuries to attend his CSR study section's peer review meeting.

He had been showing his two daughters how to ski on Thanksgiving Day when he hit a patch of ice and fell. His ski failed to release and he suffered both a spiral fracture of the major leg bone and a second tibial fracture up near his knee.

At the CSR meeting, "Reviewer Administrator Nuria Assa-Munt was terrific. She met my plane. She helped me keep my leg elevated — it turned purple if I didn't — and she couldn't have been nicer," he said.

In a recent interview, Robertson said he was lucky that his daughters got him immediate care — "though they did see some humor in their instructor breaking his leg" — and because he was treated at a renowned clinic in Vail by Dr. William Sterett, orthopedist and head team physician for the U.S. Olympic Women's Alpine Ski Team.

"He and the clinic put an emphasis on minimal intervention, so instead of a cast, I got a flexible brace that could bend at the knee. The brace was mostly to protect the leg from further injury." In January he was permitted to remove the brace for good and to stand, slowly putting more and more pressure on the leg. He was scheduled for a sports test in early February — and was hoping to turn in his crutches as well.

Hearing of the incident, CSR director Dr. Toni Scarpa wrote Robertson, "NIH peer review maintains its indispensable role because of the commitment, devotion and sacrifices of colleagues like you."

Robertson has served as a reviewer for nearly 10 years and studied protein structure and function while a faculty member at the University of Iowa for much of that time. Recently, he became chief scientific officer of the nonprofit Keystone Symposia in Colorado. "One of the perks.[is] being in the Rockies so you can ski," he said. He intends to return to the slopes once his medical team allows it. "But nothing fancy."

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