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Vol. LX, No. 10
May 16, 2008

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Bachrach Named Acting OBSSR Director

Dr. Christine A. Bachrach has been appointed acting NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research.
Dr. Christine A. Bachrach has been appointed acting NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research.

Dr. Christine A. Bachrach has been appointed acting NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research and acting director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. She began serving in these posts on Apr. 7, following Dr. David Abrams’ departure.

Bachrach has worked in the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch in NICHD’s Center for Population Research since 1988, first as a statistician/demographer and since June 1992 as chief of the branch. She came to NIH from CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. She was a long-time member of the NIH behavioral and social sciences research coordinating committee and a founder and cochair of the NICHD Consortium for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. She also oversaw the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and cochaired the 2000 NIH conference “Toward Higher Levels of Analysis: Progress and Promise in Research on Social and Cultural Dimensions of Health” and the social environment working group of the National Children’s Study.

Bachrach received her Ph.D. in population dynamics from Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health. Her own research has examined a variety of topics related to the family, including fertility, contraceptive use, sexual behavior, cohabitation and adoption.

NIDCR’s Porter Retires After Career In IT

Dr. Victoria Porter

When asked about the most rewarding moment of her career, IT expert Dr. Victoria Porter doesn’t hesitate. “I am really proud of how I handled things after the fire,” she answers. In February 2004, an electrical fire broke out in the basement of Bldg. 30—NIDCR’s lab building— and the servers went offline. But Porter knew what had to be done and who to call to get the servers back up. She had them up and running in less than half a day. She also made sure that staff who were relocated to other buildings had immediate access to IT support.

Porter credits this quick action with the connections she’s made during her career. “I’ve developed a lot of contacts at NIH, which has been a real boon for me,” she said. “I’ve always said, ‘I may not know the answers to everything, but I know who to ask.’” Porter, who most recently served as director of the scientific systems core in NIDCR’s intramural program, retired in February after more than 36 years of government service.

“I’m not necessarily going to miss the work, but I am going to miss the people,” she said. “I’ve been at NIDCR my entire career—I grew up here. I have a lot of fond memories and a lot of friends, not just coworkers.”

Porter was recruited to the institute in 1971 by Dr. Bruce Chassy, a scientist at the (then) NIDR who was teaching a class at American University. Porter had just received her M.S. in chemistry at AU, where she had also done her undergraduate work.

Shortly after arriving at the institute, her supervisor urged her to get a doctorate and she earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Maryland. Her early work focused on developmental biology of the cellular slime mold Dictyostelium discoidium. She and her colleagues also studied enzyme regulation of sugar metabolism in two oral microorganisms: Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus casei.

But by the late 1980s, Porter decided the computer world might be a better fit. She recounts that she used computers since first arriving at the institute, including a Honeywell mainframe that, she said, “took up a whole wall of the computer room.” She also remembers using a terminal to talk to a DEC 10 (a Digital Equipment Corp. mainframe computer) and running an early gene sequence analysis program.

“Anyway, I found out I liked playing with computers a whole lot more than I liked bench work,” said Porter. “I discovered if I poked around I could figure things out and solve problems.”

So she joined the computer section in 1988. Among her first assignments was maintaining and supporting the Genetic Computer Group (GCG) software on the VAX 750. She also helped scientists navigate the GCG software and kept software up to date on “the few” Macintosh-pluses then in the computer lab.

In 1990, Porter and Sheila Taylor worked with CIT to get Ethernet networking technology into Bldg. 30, which had no direct connection to the outside world. Once CIT provided a link to the NIH network, Bldg. 30’s network could be connected world-wide. “When we asked staff if they wanted a connection to the Ethernet for when they had a desktop computer, many responded ‘Why would I want a desktop computer?’ Of course, as the years passed, everyone wanted access to the Ethernet,” she said laughing, “and now, no one can figure out how we lived without it.”

Over the past decade, Porter began using graphical user interface software to write web applications for labs and facilities at NIDCR. Most recently, she implemented the CIT redesign of the Bldg. 30 network and served on NIH-level committees charged with overseeing numerous IT issues.

“When people asked what I did for a living, I would tell them ‘I play with computers,’” she said. “In fact, I can honestly say that for the most part, my job was fun.”

Porter’s retirement plans include traveling, volunteering for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, gardening and exercise. She will also revisit oil painting, which she says deserves long stretches of uninterrupted time.

Retired NINDS Scientist FitzHugh Is Mourned

Dr. Richard Fitz-Hugh from 1984

Dr. Richard Fitz-Hugh, a retired biophysicist in the NINDS Laboratory of Biophysics, died on Nov. 21, 2007, of pneumonia. He was 85.

FitzHugh, who retired in 1985 with 29 years of service, began his NINDS career in 1956 as a research physicist.

Born in Concord, Mass., FitzHugh attended Phillips Academy in nearby Andover and graduated in 1948 from the University of Colorado in Boulder, earning his bachelor’s degree in biology. He received his doctorate in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University in 1953.

During World War II, FitzHugh worked for 3 years on the production of B-29 airplanes at Boeing Aircraft Co. in Wichita, Kan. Between 1953 and 1955, he was an instructor in physiological optics at the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1956, he joined the Laboratory of Biophysics, which was created by Dr. Kenneth Cole, a pioneer of electrophysiology.

FitzHugh is well-known for his pioneering work in neuroscience. He proposed the Fitz-Hugh-Nagumo equation/model, a simplified version of the Hodgkin-Huxley model of nerve excitation that is fundamental in neuroscience.

“Dick came up with a much simplified version which can explain essential features of experimental observations,” said Dr. Kuni Iwasa, chief of the NIDCD biophysics section and a former colleague of FitzHugh’s. “This led to the mathematical basis of how neurons respond to electrical stimuli as well as how they spontaneously fire. This understanding is essential for quantitative description of neurons’ behavior.”

Dr. Richard FitzHugh, a biophysicist in the NINDS Laboratory of Biophysics, circa the 1960s.
Dr. Richard FitzHugh, a biophysicist in the NINDS Laboratory of Biophysics, circa the 1960s.

FitzHugh’s mathematical model turned out to be identical to one for electrical circuits proposed by Dr. Jin-Ichi Nagumo, a professor of electrical engineering at Tokyo University. So, the model became known as the FitzHugh-Nagumo model.

Birdwatching, nature photography and hiking were just a few of FitzHugh’s many interests. He was also a potter and owned his own kiln.

“Dick was an extremely pleasant person to talk to and to work with,” said Dr. Gerald Ehrenstein, a retired scientist from the NINDS Laboratory of Biophysics and former colleague of FitzHugh’s. “He projected a sort of antisocial manner by usually working alone and by putting up a sign on his office door saying ‘No man is an island, but some of us can be peninsulas.’ In reality, he responded warmly to social and professional requests. He was generally regarded as NIH’s premier computer expert as well as a leading mathematician, and he freely offered help to other scientists.”

In his later years, FitzHugh continued to program his personal computer. He also wrote an autobiography.

He is survived by his wife Elisabeth, two sons Thomas and William, and two grandchildren Reid and Emma.

NIH Scientist Named to NAS

Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz

Dr. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz was recently elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences for excellence in original scientific research. Membership in NAS is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States. She will be inducted into the academy next April during its 146th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Lippincott-Schwartz, who is chief of the section on organelle biology in NICHD’s Cell Biology and Metabolism Branch, was elected along with 71 others, bringing the number of active NAS members to just over 2,000. Among NAS’s famed members have been Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Alexander Graham Bell. Many members have won Nobel prizes.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furthering of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Established in 1863, NAS has served to “investigate, examine, experiment and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

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