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Vol. LXIII, No. 14
July 08, 2011

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NIGMS Director Berg Departs, Leaves Legacy
By Alisa Zapp Machalek

Dr. Jeremy Berg

NIGMS director Dr. Jeremy Berg at his farewell party

Photo: Liz Bouras

When Dr. Jeremy Berg accepted the directorship of NIGMS in 2003, he admits he had a lot to learn about what the staff did. Now, as he prepares to leave, he says they’re what he’ll miss most.

Berg is leaving for the University of Pittsburgh. He will be Pitt’s first associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences.

Before coming to NIH, he was director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences and professor and director of the department of biophysics and biophysical chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. These posts revealed his ability to achieve his goal of making positive, productive changes to large organizations.

Berg made many positive changes at NIGMS. He developed a new grant mechanism to support paradigm- shifting ideas, increased support for new investigators, developed the institute’s first formal strategic plan and its first strategic plan for training, launched the institute’s first phase III clinical trials, led the Protein Structure Initiative into a new phase, oversaw assessments of large-scale and other programs and created an online conversation with the scientific community through an outlet he named the NIGMS Feedback Loop.

Now popular with scientists, the Feedback Loop launched in 2005 as an e-newsletter to alert grantees and applicants about funding opportunities, meetings and resources. It morphed into a blog 2 years ago, becoming a near-real-time, interactive exchange with the community and covering issues such as peer review, workforce diversity and funding trends.

Scientists responded with what Berg calls “a resounding thank you” when the Feedback Loop published its first funding curve. Readership skyrocketed when he started posting his own data analyses. He earned the nickname “blogger- in-chief,” and scientific journals started covering his posts.

Scientific societies also recognized his work. In 2009, he won the Distinguished Service Award from the Biophysical Society. In 2010, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine. In 2011, he won public service awards from both the American Chemical Society and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Most recently, he was elected to be the next president of ASBMB.

Natural Leader and Team Player

Berg is not a micro-manager. He describes his approach as “finding good people and letting them do their jobs.”

His leadership style was a perfect fit for NIGMS, says Dr. Judith Greenberg, who will serve as acting director of the institute until a new director is hired.

“Jeremy’s straightforward style and approachability encouraged people to rise to new challenges and fostered the collegial spirit that NIGMS has long been known for,” she said.

Berg himself embodied that spirit. He had an open-door policy and made a point of visiting staff in their offices to share information. Each year, he ran in the NIH interinstitute relay race, brought at least one of his children to Take Your Child to Work Day and enthusiastically participated in other quality of work life events.

Change Agent

A frequent catalyst for change, Berg pointed out in 2004 that adjustments were needed in the new NIH Director’s Pioneer Award program: The first group of recipients included many of “the usual suspects”—and no women. He was promptly given responsibility for the program.

The following year, six of the 13 awardees were women. Also, in contrast to the inaugural crop, more than half were relatively junior (at the associate professor level or below). In subsequent years, these trends continued and the awardee pool also became more racially and ethnically diverse.

In 2007, Berg was asked to create and manage a similar program targeted to early stage investigators, the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

He also championed an NIGMS-led effort to tackle the challenge of how to encourage and fund truly out-of-the-box thinking—the sort of paradigm-shifting ideas that the research community clamors for, but that may not do well in traditional peer review.

Berg also played a leading role in a number of trans-NIH efforts, including the peer review overhaul, efforts to enhance minority training programs and encourage women in scientific careers and working groups in bioinformatics, computational biology and structural biology.

A New Chapter

As Berg moves to Pitt, he will join his wife, Dr. Wendie Berg, an expert in breast imaging who became a professor in Pitt’s radiology department in March 2011.

“The time I have spent at NIH has been a highlight of my career,” said Berg. “I had no intention of leaving NIGMS at this point, but am doing so in support of the career of my wife.”

After Mrs. Berg was recruited by many institutions around the country, the couple considered a range of scenarios before making their final decision. In the end, said Jeremy, “the University of Pittsburgh offered tremendous opportunities for each of us.”

Despite his skill as an administrator, Berg is a scientist at heart (he calls himself a “data guy” and clearly relished doing data analyses for the Feedback Loop). While serving as NIGMS director, he maintained a lab in the NIDDK intramural program. At Pitt, he will continue his research—and return to teaching, which he looks forward to—as a faculty member in the department of computational and systems biology at the university’s medical school.

As he leaves, NIGMS is facing a number of transitions. In addition to anticipating a new director, it is planning to absorb some NCRR staff and programs. It’s also engaged in implementing the training strategic plan and preparing to mark its 50th anniversary in 2012. To Berg, this environment resembles the one that initially drew him to NIH.

“The budget-doubling period had just ended and no one knew what would happen next,” he recalled. “It was clear the institute needed strong leadership to guide it into a new phase. I was up for the challenge and felt it was a good opportunity to give back.”

Berg hopes to continue to contribute to NIH in his new position, working from the outside to convey the needs of the scientific community and help address them.

Spittel Joins OBSSR
Dr. Michael L. Spittel

Dr. Michael L. Spittel

Dr. Michael L. Spittel recently joined the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research as a health scientist administrator.

Previously a program officer in the NICHD Demographic and Behavior Sciences Branch, he brings a wealth of experience in population health to OBSSR. His focus is population studies on mortality and morbidity; infant and child health; novel biomarkers and genetics in social studies; statistical methods and computational advances in demography; and health disparities.

As a program officer, Spittel managed and led a scientific portfolio of research grants, program projects, institutional training grants, international training, fellowships, contracts and various career awards.

In addition he served as the program officer/scientist for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Data Sharing for Demographic Research, Community Child Health Network and co-managed the DBSB training program that supports pre- and postdoctoral researchers in demography.

Spittel received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin. His scientific interests and publications include the early antecedents to health disparities, networks and neighborhood effects, infant mortality/low birth weight, immigration and innovative statistical/computational methodologies.

Before joining NIH, Spittel was a postdoctoral fellow in the mortality statistics branch of the division of vital statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics. He is interested in integrating cutting-edge social science methods and approaches in an effort to advance population and behavioral health.

“The explosive growth in genetics/biological information and novel computational/ statistical methodologies provides a wealth of opportunity for new avenues in the behavioral and social sciences,” he said.

Hazen Joins CIT as Executive Officer
Stephen Hazen

Stephen Hazen was recently appointed executive officer of the Center for Information Technology. He served in NCI extramural management since 1991, most recently as director of the Office of Extramural Finance and Information Analysis. “CIT is completely different from anything I’ve ever done before,” he said. “There are no grants and no appropriations. The biggest thing that strikes me is that CIT acts as the centerpiece, linking everyone at NIH together. If you are online, you are using CIT.” Hazen enjoyed a preview of working with CIT while transitioning the CFC campaign, which he led for NCI in 2008, to CIT leadership the following year. Earlier in his NIH career, he held positions as budget analyst, program analyst and administrative officer at NCI and NLM.

Rider Honored by PHS Medical Officers
Capt. Lisa Rider

NIEHS clinical researcher Capt. Lisa Rider was named 2011 Physician Researcher of the Year by the physicians professional advisory committee of the Public Health Service; the committee represents the nearly 900 medical officers in the more than 6,000-member Corps. Rider, who is deputy chief of the NIEHS environmental autoimmunity group, was honored for her groundbreaking research in the area of a mysterious and debilitating autoimmune disease among children, a condition thought to be triggered by environmental exposures and genetic polymorphisms. “[This award is] presented in recognition of her noteworthy basic and clinical research into juvenile dermatomyositis,” read the citation on her plaque.

Dr. Bill Suk

Dr. Bill Suk

Photo: Steve Mccaw

Suk Honored by Combustion Emissions Group

NIEHS Superfund Research Program founder and director Dr. Bill Suk was recognized by colleagues with the Adel Sarofim Award for Excellence in Combustion Research. He received the award at the 12th International Congress on Combustion By-Products and Their Health Effects held recently at Zhejiang University in Hanzhou, China. The award praised Suk for “outstanding professional achievement in championing research on the origin, fate and health effects of combustion emissions.”

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