In August 2012, Gary H. Gibbons, MD, officially took the helm of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the third largest research organization at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Gibbons, a cardiologist, is one of the first Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program Scholars (1988), and NHLBI’s first African American director. He will work with a budget of more than $3 billion in his effort to nurture the next generation of researchers seeking to treat and prevent heart, lung, and blood diseases and sleep disorders. Here, he discusses his goals for NHLBI.
Q: What is your primary objective as NHLBI’s new director?
A: I see myself as very fortunate because going forward at NHLBI, we are building on the tremendously successful legacy of one of the longest standing NIH institutes. I am proud to be the new steward of this legacy and sustaining it is central to my role.
Q: Do you have a specific approach to supporting and encouraging research?
A: To begin with, I have a great appreciation for the value of basic science, as an engine of discovery, in finding new ways to improve and safeguard public health. I believe that NHLBI should have a balanced research portfolio that acknowledges that in order to achieve translation [turning biological discoveries into medical treatments] with clinical research, you need to invest in both bench and population science.
I will work to spur innovation and leverage the best ideas from the best minds to work on discoveries in several areas.
Q: Are there new areas of medicine that you hope researchers will explore?
A: Yes, there are many fields that are fertile for exploration over the next few years. There is personalized medicine, for instance: genomics, proteomics and epigenomics—a field of science known as the omics [science that uses new, high-throughput technologies to characterize biological substances such as genes, proteins and metabolites].
There is also work to be done using high-throughput technology to further characterize the biomarkers of people at risk for certain diseases or in the design of treatments. We may also be able to become better at delivering the right medications to the right person at the right time.
There’s also regenerative medicine which is, in part, based on gaining a better understanding of stem cell biology. In response to a heart attack, for example, we know that a person’s bone marrow will generate reparative cells that ‘home’ to the heart. We are just in the beginning phases of this field, but we anticipate progress in research in this area.
Q: Will you reach out to the research community?
A: Absolutely. One of my objectives will be to go on a listening tour to engage the national scientific community in a conversation about opportunities to advance all types of science that may improve public health.
Q: Do your early experiences as an RWJF Harold Amos Scholar still have an impact on your work?
A: The program’s emphasis on mentorship had a profound and lasting effect on my career. Participating in the Amos Program gave me a sense of being part of a community of scholars where bonding occurs. It’s important to be part of the alumni group because there are so few minority academics; it’s so easy to feel isolated. But, the Amos Program helps you see that you are part of a community of peers.
The fellowship meeting’s breadth also offers a great opportunity to discuss science and talk to people doing work distinct from your own. Intellectually, it’s expansive. I would not be doing the work I am doing now without the program.
Q: Do you hope to encourage a diverse group of scientists?
A: My role at NHLBI is to support all scientists appropriate to work with us, but it is part of my personal mission to ensure that we benefit from the full range and breadth of talent available in the United States. In addition, I greatly appreciate the mentors who inspired me, so I also hope to pass that along to the next generation, including those groups that are underrepresented in science.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP) was created to make it possible for scientists, physicians and dentists from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to advance to senior positions in academic medicine. The four-year, AMFDP supports biomedical, clinical, dental and health services/epidemiology research. Awards are offered to physicians and dentists who are not only committed to building careers in academic medicine and dentistry, but who hope to serve as role models for other students and faculty members from disadvantaged backgrounds.