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Vol. LXIII, No. 8
April 15, 2011

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Rockey’s Love of Mission Transmits to Women's History Month Audience

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Dr. Sally Rockey

Dr. Sally Rockey

It seems entirely possible that NIH deputy director for extramural research Dr. Sally Rockey is able to summon nearly the same amount of enthusiasm about coming to work each day as she does about going to see Bruce Springsteen in concert, which she has done some 53 times so far.

NIH’s extramural boss, it turns out, loves The Boss and is also proud to be a bureaucrat, as long as she gets to define the term.

The featured speaker at NIH’s 2011 Women’s History Month Observance on Mar. 16, Rockey offered a lively account of the “love story” that has taken her from graduate studies in entomology to one of the highest posts in federal science. Or as she puts it, “From studying bugs to developing drugs.”

As a child, Rockey loved animals, and collected toy horses, not dolls.

“I was curious about animals,” she said, “and that led to an interest in biology. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a scientist.”


But the insect world repelled her. “I totally despised insects,” she said. “I was terrified of them.”

She studied zoology in college, mainly because it offered a variety of career options. During senior year, she took her first entomology course. “It was like a lightning bolt,” she said, “when I started understanding these curious creatures.”

Despite the misgivings of her parents, Rockey began pursuing a Ph.D. in entomology at Ohio State University, an admittedly “unexpected choice” in a career that would become defined by the embrace of alternative paths.

One of two women in a graduate program of 60 students, Rockey was lucky enough to find a remarkable mentor, who encouraged her love of science and her career. But she did lament the dearth of female role models with whom she could commiserate.

Also on the Women’s History Month program with Rockey were NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady.

Photos: Bill Branson

Rather than pity her condition, however, Rockey said she “learned to lead as a way to excel. I discovered then I had particular skills in management.”

After earning her doctorate, she entered another unfamiliar world—federal science, about which she knew nothing—at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extramural program. It was there that the mission of public service became clear to her and that the term “bureaucrat” lost its taint. “

I lovingly refer to myself as a bureaucrat,” she said. “I really did believe in public service, and in the government’s role of helping others achieve their goals.”

Although she now recognizes that her forte is research administration and management, she didn’t know what those terms meant at the outset of her government career.

“I was worried about what would happen if I left bench science,” she said. “Could I go back?Would I have any impact?”

Rockey said she was delighted to discover that, as an administrator, she could set national research priorities, gain a broad perspective on science, meet the community of investigators and, best of all, never stop learning.

“I have learned more science as an administrator than I ever would have known otherwise,” she told the Wilson Hall audience.

She became a national expert in the field of federal assistance while at USDA, but before leaving there, she was thrown another curveball when she was abruptly named chief information officer. “I didn’t know a router from a switch,” she said, “but it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

“Embrace the unexpected—it’s one of the most important things we can do in our careers.”

Within 2 years she turned a failing IT enterprise into a success, mainly by resorting to management skills she had developed years earlier.

At NIH for the past 6 years, Rockey says she’s having the time of her life and “an exceptional experience.” Although attracted by NIH’s mission, she was also intimidated when she first arrived on campus and found “all these people with brains the size of a planet.

“I had to be a quick study,” she explained. “There was so much about NIH to learn. It was hard work. Around here, you find yourself developing sweat beads every day.”

She offered data on how women compare with men in NIH’s workforce, noting that in the higher grades, women fare markedly better on the extramural side, where they comprise 53.1 percent of positions GS-14 and above, than in the intramural program, where the percentage hovers stubbornly at around 21. However, NIH’ers holding Title 42 (highest paid) positions include 61.3 percent men and 38.7 percent women. Rockey also talked about investigators in the extramural workforce outside NIH and how their numbers are growing, “although we still have a ways to go.

“We need to do a better job of promoting women in biomedical research,” she said, adding that the pipeline of women trainees is fairly robust, although with some drop-offs at specific career milestones.

She concluded, “I love being a critical part of the scientific enterprise. NIH has an astounding mission and I do feel I have a personal impact. I love getting up in the morning and going to work.” She advised, “Embrace the unexpected—it’s one of the most important things we can do in our careers.”

Taking questions, she admitted that more than 30 years of insomnia have given her an advantage in balancing work demands with hobbies that include bridge, a book club, gym workouts and guitar lessons. She also conceded that listening was a skill she had to master. “I have to practice it deliberately,” she said.

The observance also included remarks by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who noted that during a recent 9-day sojourn in South Africa, he was especially impressed by the contributions of “fearless and courageous” women who staffed the outlying clinics he visited. He noted that six institute/center directors at NIH are women and that women comprise more than 59 percent of the NIH workforce, but “there is still work to do” in encouraging the path to senior leadership for women at NIH.

NINR director Dr. Patricia Grady concluded the event by encouraging women to emulate Rockey as sharers of career success stories. “We salute all women who have excelled in science and other professions,” she said, “and we look forward to a new generation of trailblazers.” NIHRecord Icon

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