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Vol. LXII, No. 9
April 30, 2010

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On Being Twins at NINDS

Every day it’s a smile or nod from a somewhat familiar (or totally unfamiliar) face or “You didn’t say hi when I saw you yesterday.” Or the look of shock on people’s faces when they realize they’re not speaking with whom they think they are.

Ah, the life of a twin at NIH.

I’ve been at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke since 1999. Imagine my pleasure 4 years ago when I learned that my brother, Joe, landed a job at NIH. Then imagine my shock to learn that—in the more than 300 acres and many dozens of buildings that make up the NIH campus in Bethesda—we would be working in the same building and in the same wing.

Although we’re fraternal twins, I’m told we look very similar. There’s certainly a noticeable difference when we’re seen together, but apart it’s difficult for some people to identify the correct twin. But this is nothing new to us.

Brothers Joe (l) and Paul Girolami have worked in Bldg. 31 for the past 4 years.

Brothers Joe (l) and Paul Girolami have worked in Bldg. 31 for the past 4 years.

When we were growing up, our mother used to dress me in greens and browns, and my brother in blues and reds, so classmates and others could more readily tell us apart. It didn’t always work; my brother’s teacher once whacked me with her purse during a fire drill for talking in her class.

At NIH, I usually wear a tie; my brother works in an open-collar shirt (although he did dress as me one Halloween at NIH). Still, not a work day goes by that we don’t leave someone wondering which twin is which. Imagine having to show disbelievers your ID badge to prove that you are not your brother. On occasion, I’ve even taken people to the self-service store where my brother works so they can see us side by side and realize I’m not joking when I say, “I’m not Joe.” As one institute director said when he saw us together, “So there are two of you.”

Although I work for NINDS, my brother does not. Now think what it must be like for Drs. Erik and Alex Runko—fraternal twins who look alike, work at NINDS on the same floor, doing similar jobs (they’re both program analysts in the NINDS Office of Extramural Research) and overlap with the same staff. Alex has been with NINDS for nearly 2 years, while Erik joined 6 months ago.

Brothers Erik (l) and Alex Runko work for NINDS on the same floor in Bldg. 31

Brothers Erik (l) and Alex Runko work for NINDS on the same floor in Bldg. 31.

“While there are several examples of spouses within the same NIH institute, having a sibling, notably a twin, is a unique distinction,” says Erik Runko. “Prior to joining NINDS, Alex gave me plenty of insight into the job responsibilities and mechanisms within the extramural program. Now as part of the staff, I feel I use my brother as a valuable resource for guidance instead of pestering the program directors for details about the inner workings of NINDS.”

Although Alex and Erik work on the same floor, they work in different research clusters and find it scientifically fun and interesting to discuss the types of funded research within their respective disciplines of neuroscience. “So it is similar to our graduate student and postdoctoral years in that we discuss science and job issues, but now I just walk down the hall instead of talking by phone because then we were located at different parts of the country,” says Alex.

However, they still find it fun to confuse people at conferences when being mistaken for each other, although they promise not to trade places anytime soon at NIH. Erik says, “It was very easy to switch places that one time in the 4th grade when we wore the same Catholic school uniform, and although having an automatic scapegoat around was convenient, having separate responsibilities now is a comfortable arrangement.”

Being a twin is unique—sometimes challenging, but very rewarding. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

(Paul Girolami is a writer in the NINDS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.) NIHRecord Icon

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