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Vol. LXVII, No. 10
May 8, 2015

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A Host of Connections
Presidentís Advisor Jarrett Speaks at NIH Town Hall

On the front page...

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins chats with Valerie Jarrett on Apr. 14 in Masur Auditorium.

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins chats with Valerie Jarrett on Apr. 14 in Masur Auditorium.

It turns out that not only is President Obama keenly interested in NIH research—especially the recently announced Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI)—but also one of his closest advisors, Valerie Jarrett, has a wealth of connections that bind her to the NIH mission.

During an Apr. 14 visit to campus, Jarrett, who is senior advisor to the President, was interviewed informally on the Masur Auditorium stage by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. The event was part of NIH’s observance of National Minority Health Month.

Originally billed as “a fireside chat,” the event became “an armchair conversation” when Collins noted that “we looked into [having a fireplace], but the fire marshal would have none of it.” Nonetheless, the chat gained warmth when Collins disclosed that he consulted Jarrett’s father, Dr. James Bowman, during the early days of the Human Genome Project.


Bowman, an internationally renowned pathologist and geneticist who ran an NIH-supported center for the study of sickle cell disease at the University of Chicago Medical School, advised Collins about the need to make ethical, legal and social issues a priority in HGP planning.

After thanking the NIH audience for their service to the country, Jarrett explained that her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Robert Robinson Taylor, was the first African-American graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“After he graduated from MIT, Booker T. Washington [founder, 100 years ago, of the observance that has become National Minority Health Month] recruited him to the Tuskegee Institute to design campus buildings,” Jarrett recounted. “His students actually made the bricks that built the campus.” A U.S. postage stamp was recently issued in his honor, “and you can buy it now,” said Jarrett, who proved to be a gracious combination of entrepreneurial pluck and deep devotion to public service. She several times humorously jostled Collins about how much progress NIH has made so far in PMI.

Using questions submitted by employees and staff, Collins interviewed Jarrett for about an hour; he first wanted to know how Bowman influenced his daughter. Jarrett said she traveled the world with her dad, “the first African American tenured in the division of biological sciences at the University of Chicago,” and was born in Iran. “I used to walk to my father’s lab. I was fascinated by what he did.”

Jarrett said she started out pre-med as an undergrad, “but it was organic chemistry or anatomy lab that did me in,” she noted with a laugh. But she learned the rudiments of health care institutions by taking a job as a clinic coordinator at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

She explained that her father was an opponent not just of genetic discrimination, but of any kind of discrimination, including that based on pre-existing medical conditions. Jarrett said her father had plenty of exposure to health disparities, given that the UC hospital is located on Chicago’s south side.

Asked about the importance of role models to underrepresented groups and ways to attract them to scientific careers, Jarrett said, “My view is that diversity is a strength. We make better decisions when we are inclusive.” She said corporations have been shown to be more profitable when their boards are diverse.

“We’ve got to start earlier, with pre-school,” she emphasized. “My mother taught me that all important things happen between zero and 4.”

Jarrett noted that Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, grew up poor in New York, but got an internship during high school. “Somebody opened the door,” she said.

Jarrett said the White House Council on Women and Girls, which she chairs, puts an emphasis on family-friendly workplace policies, since 60 percent of families with children have both parents employed. She decried a continuing wage gap [78 cents vs. $1 per hour] between female and male employees, called for tax credits to support child-care costs and urged that employers adopt paid sick leave. “Forty-three million Americans don’t have a single day of paid sick time,” she reported.

Collins interviewed Jarrett for about an hour, touching on topics such as health disparities, minority health and life in the White House.

Collins interviewed Jarrett for about an hour, touching on topics such as health disparities, minority health and life in the White House.

Photos: Bill Branson

She said that college affordability, mentorship and programs to keep kids in school are major White House goals. Of the male-female pay gap, she observed, “I have found that men who have daughters in the workforce are sensitive to this issue.” She welcomed suggestions “other than knocking people over the head” about closing the gap, perhaps by creating incentives for managers to do so.

Collins commented, “You can’t herd cats, but you can move their food.”

“I like that!” Jarrett responded.

Collins recounted an Oct. 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office about PMI, when the President held forth on its importance. Said Jarrett, “The President is just passionate about it and thinks we need to take full advantage of new technology. He’s intellectually curious and especially likes talking to scientists. He says, ‘I love talking to people who are logical.’”

Jarrett traces Obama’s passion for medical research to the loss of his mother. “He’s totally committed [due to] losing his mother when she was younger than I am. That made it personal. So, Francis, how are we doin’?” she prodded jokingly.

Collins said that many NIH’ers have already canceled summer vacations to make progress on PMI and mentioned four workshops that, by August, will help guide the project. Jarrett said that one of her Silicon Valley acquaintances was already in touch with her about accepting NIH’s invitation to serve as an advisor, but warned that he has a reputation as a disruptor. “You’re going to have at least one disruptor on your group,” she predicted.

Asked about life in the White House, and whether it resembled the television drama House of Cards, Jarrett responded, “It’s more like The West Wing, which was my favorite show for 4 years.” She said the show captured the sense of collegiality, mission, purpose and good intentions of public servants. But she also admitted to peeking in, guiltily, on House of Cards as well.

“There is just no greater privilege than serving your country, at any level,” she told the audience. “You all don’t get enough recognition.”

Jarrett said no two days are the same at the White House. “That’s part of what I enjoy.” She gets up early, works out, then faces a broad menu of challenges that excite her.

She said she was especially grateful for accepting a dinner invitation one night years ago. She had met Michelle Robinson in 1991, while working for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Robinson invited Jarrett to meet her fiancé, Barack Obama. “That was a really important dinner in my life,” she said.

Collins concluded the discussion by asking Jarrett about the White House’s most important priorities for what he termed “the fourth quarter, when many exciting things happen.” Jarrett’s response belied the range of issues she confronts: getting a budget passed through Congress; immigration and criminal justice reform, including “strengthening relations between police and the communities they serve”; gun control legislation; using Executive Orders, such as the recent decision to restore relations with Cuba, and to craft trade agreements with 11 Asian nations (“China will move in if we don’t,” she said); the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to improve the lives of boys and young men (“Just by the grace of God, President Obama could be any one of these children,” she said); increasing the minimum wage and extending both same-sex marriage and leave benefits.

The President is also passionate about the problem of sexual assault on American campuses, Jarrett added. “One in five women experience assault while on campus,” she said, calling for a change of culture. She decried the extremes of drinking and drug use that characterize campuses. “A generation that prides itself on working hard and playing harder is not a good generation to be,” she warned, especially for employers of the future. “All kinds of terrible behavior” will be entering the workforce, she said.

Collins said that two NIH institutes, NIDA and NIAAA, are seeking ways to interfere with destructive behavior.

“We just have to be creative,” Jarrett noted. “Certainly don’t give up.”

Lastly, the doctor’s daughter urged NIH’ers to “get out of the bubble. Travel around the country and see lives improved by what you do.” Although she acknowledged that “NIH has far too few resources,” she urged the agency to tell its stories, which will be compelling.

Jarrett’s talk can be viewed at

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