Dream big with NINDS!

During my short time at NINDS, the dedication of our staff to our institute’s mission and their clarity of thought and depth of knowledge have repeatedly exceeded my expectations. That is why I am so excited to ask them to take a step out of the daily churn of keeping up with new discoveries, latest techniques, and fast-approaching deadlines to consider the bigger picture with me—to dream big about advancing our knowledge about the brain over the next five years. That is what the process of strategic planning is all about—a chance during your journey to climb the highest mast and see where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what storms you might have to weather as you follow (or, perhaps, adjust) the course you’ve set to reach your destination. The planning process will help to ensure that NINDS policies, practices and functions align with our mission, allowing us to better serve and anticipate the needs of all our stakeholders, including the research and patient communities, as well as the public. In short, this process will keep us moving (asymptotically, perhaps) to meet our mission. The timing, I believe, is exactly right; the recent decade has brought many exciting developments for our community, of which we must now take stock to identify our best ways forward.

In my experience, the journey of strategic planning is at least as important as the destination, if not more so. When executed thoughtfully and viewed as a continuing, dynamic, and adaptable sequence of ebbs and flows, it builds solidarity, consensus, unified vision and purpose, and teamwork.  The process I’m leading is designed to give everyone—our employees, researchers, collaborators, practitioners, advocates, and the interested public—the chance to have their voices heard and valued, while dedicated stewards keep us accountable for moving forward. In this case, the stewards who will help translate the input we gather into priorities and goals are my thoughtful and determined colleagues from across NINDS and NIH who live and breathe our mission every day.

As a starting point for this process, my colleagues and I have formulated very broad Strategic Goals, which I invite you to read, consider, and react to in our current Request for Information (RFI). We want to hear from you now and throughout the development of the new NINDS Strategic Plan. The input you provide to our first RFI will help us to prioritize the questions and topics we must really dig into during the most intensive phase of our planning process: identifying actionable objectives to meet our broad goals. We expect this phase to depend on additional and in-depth consultation with experts and critical stakeholders, at the conclusion of which we will release our draft plan for broad public comment before finalizing the document and embarking upon implementation.

The benefits of strategic planning lie both in the learning we do and collaborations we build during the process and also in taking necessary actions to follow (and, inevitably, adjust) the course we thoughtfully and intentionally lay out together. After all, while thought without action is useless, action without thought is worse. Please do send us your thoughts, so that the actions we plan and take together can anticipate and meet the challenges of tomorrow.

So Many Questions, So Little Time!

There are so many unsolved mysteries in biology and medicine! What causes Parkinson’s disease? How does our brain know what is important to remember and what is okay to forget? Why do some patients with multiple sclerosis have rapidly progressing symptoms while others have isolated episodes separated by months or years?

With so many questions to answer and so many diseases to treat, how does a scientist decide on which topic to study?

For some scientists, the motivation is personal. A grandparent may have died of a stroke; a sibling may be living with cerebral palsy or autism; or a childhood friend may have had epilepsy. As a result, they may have resolved early in life to conquering a disease with which a loved one was afflicted.

Other are simply fascinated and drawn to a specific scientific topic. There can be something inherently alluring about solving a mystery and making new discoveries! Even better is the possibility that a finding will be used to fight human disease and suffering. Often a particular field, biological concept, model organism, system, or technology is what lures a scientist to climb a specific branch of the scientific tree.

Still another group balances their research with seeing patients in the hospital or clinic. For these physician-scientists, it is not at all unusual for frustrations in the clinic—a medical problem for which there is no current treatment or a patient whose illness remains undiagnosed—to result in a commitment to finding an answer. This direct link between the clinic and the laboratory often becomes a two-way street where questions raised in the clinic drive research in the laboratory while discoveries in the laboratory drive innovation in the clinic.

So, how do they answer these questions?

First, they need tools and scientists are constantly developing new ones to help us understand how the brain works. The NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is a massive project aimed at revolutionizing how we study the brain, and it has helped develop tools to study the brain in ways that were thought to be impossible only a few years ago.

Second, scientists need specialized skills and training to handle technical and conceptual hurdles. This is often done through apprenticeships in labs and clinics. If a scientist doesn’t have first-hand training, they often work in teams with other experts.

Third, they need money. Money to pay for their teams; to buy their equipment and services. For this, scientists often write compelling grant applications to government agencies such as the NIH or to other philanthropic groups.

Scientists work long hours on projects that have uncertain outcomes. Often, they generate so-called “negative results,” meaning that their experiments produce unexpected answers to their original questions. While this can be frustrating at times, both “positive” and “negative” results can move the project forward and be extremely energizing and this is often coupled with the hope that someday, perhaps because of their idea or project, people will live happier and healthier lives. Their love of science, the promise of discovery, and the potential to make a difference keeps them going, and their passion for overcoming a particular question, problem, issue, or roadblock makes each scientist choose a specific focus for his or her studies.

Hopefully this gives you a better sense of how projects are chosen. Next time, I will take a closer look at the folks actually doing the research and talk about who the people are who train to be scientists.

Welcome to The Schor Line!

Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D.
Deputy Director, NINDS

Hello! My name is Nina Schor, and I am the deputy director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). I have been here at NINDS for just over a year, so I am still a relative newcomer. When I thought about how I could contribute to the NINDS mission, I immediately seized on the idea of writing a blog for the public.

So why a blog? Because this is my opportunity to talk to you about what we do. Taxpayers like you fund our research. Students and trainees working in hospitals and research labs make up the future scientific workforce, while patients and their families are the beneficiaries of scientific discoveries and inventions. So, I figure who better to engage about the work being done here at NIH and how we go about doing it than you?

Continue reading “Welcome to The Schor Line!”