NIDDK Director's Update Fall 2021

News Around NIDDK

NIDDK expands understanding of COVID-19

More than a year and half after the pandemic began, NIDDK’s work to expand prevention and understanding of and treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, carries on through its support of research both within and outside the National Institutes of Health.

Recently published work from NIDDK investigators includes:

Dr. Bax in lab.
Dr. Adriaan Bax sitting in his laboratory. Dr. Bax and Dr. Carson Chow, both NIDDK investigators, were authors for the paper, Self-infection with speech aerosol may contribute to COVID-19 severity.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health

Many NIDDK grantees have also been tackling COVID-19, with recently published findings including:

As well, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins co-authored a paper titled SARS-CoV-2 infection induces beta cell transdifferentiation with support from NIDDK.

More information on the relationship between COVID-19 and diabetes can be found in the NIH Director’s Blog post, “How COVID-19 can lead to diabetes.”

Dr. Francis Collins in his lab coat.
NIH director, Dr. Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is an author on the NIDDK-supported research SARS-CoV-2 infection induces beta cell transdifferentiation.
National Institutes of Health

In September, NIDDK hosted a virtual symposium, Obesity and COVID-19 – Obesity Research Task Force. The symposium discussed the many ways in which COVID-19 may disproportionately affect adults and children with, and at risk for, obesity. NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, who co-chairs the task force, delivered welcoming remarks.

For additional snapshots of NIDDK’s COVID-19-related work, see previous NIDDK Director’s Update articles:

For more information on NIDDK’s response to COVID-19 and links to grant information and publications, visit the NIDDK COVID-19 Research Response page. To subscribe to NIH’s updates on COVID-19, visit www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus.

For more information on COVID-19, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) coronavirus webpage.


Within NIDDK, efforts to cultivate workplace diversity reflect the voice of its people

By Lisa Yuan

“You speak, we listen, things happen.”

The NIDDK Executive Office coined this phrase several years ago to describe its commitment to translating staff feedback into meaningful change. This approach is at the core of the Institute’s internal efforts to advance diversity, equity, accessibility, civility, and inclusion – a longtime priority at NIDDK that is receiving renewed focus in light of the turbulent events of the past year.

NIDDK pride month graphic.

The NIDDK Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Civility (IDEAC) Steering Committee
Among several new initiatives, NIDDK leadership established the NIDDK Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Civility (IDEAC) Steering Committee, comprised of 24 members representing a broad cross-section of the Institute’s workforce. The new group aims to develop a strategic framework for a diverse, inclusive, and respectful workplace. The committee will evaluate new and existing programs, advise senior leadership, and lead the implementation of NIDDK’s anti-harassment plan and related activities.

“NIDDK is devoted to fostering a culture where all staff feel valued, empowered, and supported – and IDEAC will help us achieve this goal,” said NIDDK Executive Officer Camille Hoover. “With people from multiple departments and positions, ranging from trainees to senior leaders, the committee truly reflects the voice of our people, and we’re thrilled with their enthusiasm.”

Subcommittees
In fall 2020, IDEAC created an interactive campaign for NIDDK staff to submit, comment, and vote on ideas they felt were important for the committee to address. Based on the robust response, IDEAC launched four working groups: Buddy System, Seminar Series, LGBTQ+ Community Support, and Training Portfolio – all made up of staff from across NIDDK.

Each group will build action plans in their respective areas – for example, creating a buddy system for new NIDDK staff; designing training activities on racism and related topics; and increasing support of NIDDK LGBTQ+ community members. In an early activity, the LGBTQ+ Community Support Group spread positive awareness by sharing “NIDDK Celebrates Pride Month” graphics for staff to use as virtual meeting backgrounds and in their email signatures.

NIDDK pride month graphic.
Ames Sutton headshot.
Dr. Ames (Amy) Sutton, NIDDK postdoctoral fellow and co-leader of the Institute’s LGBTQ+ Community Support Group.

Dr. Ames (Amy) Sutton, who uses the pronouns she/her/hers, is a postdoctoral fellow in NIDDK’s Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Obesity Branch and co-leads the LGBTQ+ group. “As someone who is gender- and sexually diverse, I hope this group is one of many ways that NIDDK will become more affirming and inclusive of LGBTQ+ folks through community building, advocating for accommodations, and encouraging allyship,” she said.

Staff continue to learn

As all four working groups begin to develop initiatives, IDEAC will review and help implement those activities, along with other related NIDDK programs. The committee will also continue to seek staff feedback to identify future focus areas and make recommendations to senior leadership.

“While NIDDK is a highly successful and engaged organization, we’re always looking for ways to improve,” said Hoover. “We recognize that the pillars of civility, diversity, and inclusion must be woven into the framework of all our programs – and getting there requires the perpetual education of leadership and staff.”

Hoover’s office recently facilitated a number of “listening circles,” offering a safe space for staff to discuss sensitive but crucial topics, such as racial unrest and gender inequality. Many attendees expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share and learn from diverse perspectives. The positive feedback underscored the importance of continuing to provide avenues for staff to voice ideas and concerns, which Hoover said will contribute to and inform change.

These efforts of continual improvement within NIDDK complement the Institute’s outward-facing work to improve systemic racism, including through its upcoming Strategic Plan, which will address diversity and equity in the broader scientific workforce. In addition, NIDDK is participating in a robust NIH-wide effort, UNITE, to end structural racism at NIH and in the biomedical research community.

“It’s my hope that we take this opportunity to build momentum and create meaningful and systemic change in equity, diversity, civility, and inclusion,” said NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers. “I’m confident that – with the valuable guidance of IDEAC and its working groups, and the cooperation of allies across the Institute – we will achieve this crucial goal together, for the betterment of science and of ourselves.”

NIDDK leaders discuss diversity efforts.
NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers and Executive Officer Camille Hoover discuss NIDDK’s diversity efforts in Federal News Network interview.

Editors’ note: Rodgers and Hoover recently spoke to Federal News Network about NIDDK’s work towards building an engaged, diverse, and inclusive workforce – read the story and listen to the interview here.


Getting to Know: Dr. Ellen Leschek

During this 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, research on insulin is going strong, much of it supported through the NIDDK Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolic Diseases (DEM). Dr. Ellen Leschek is a program director working on the division’s clinical type 1 diabetes research. She spoke to Alyssa Voss about her career at NIH and her passion for medicine and family.

You are a pediatric endocrinologist. What brought you to medicine?
Believe it or not, I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 5. For some reason at that age, it struck me that when visiting my own doctor, I thought I could do a better job! I felt that I had the ability to make kids feel comfortable and I could take good care of them. And from there I never wavered. After a pediatric rotation in medical school, I decided I wanted to specialize. I completed a pediatric endocrinology rotation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and I loved it.

What brought you to NIH?
I’ve been at NIH my entire career. I completed my endocrinology fellowship and then worked in the intramural program at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). I conducted research focused on growth and puberty. One of the first studies I took on was a trial that served a pivotal role in the FDA approval of the use of growth hormone to treat extreme non-growth hormone deficient short stature. I also worked with Dr. Louisa Laue who was a pioneer in the discovery and treatment of a rare condition called familial male precocious puberty (FMPP). I led the FMPP treatment trial from the early 1990s. It was a long study that followed participants until they reached final adult height. The findings from that study were recently published.

How did you arrive to NIDDK?
I’d known a few of my current DEM colleagues when I was at NICHD and they told me about a program director position available at NIDDK. It came at the right time when my NICHD studies were winding down and I was ready for something new. I was hired to work on the Type 1 Diabetes TrialNet program, and later I got involved with the Restoring Insulin Secretion (RISE) study, the Rare and Atypical Diabetes Network (RADIANT), and the Epidemiology of Diabetes Interventions and Complications study (EDIC), the follow-up study to The Diabetes Control and Complications Trial (DCCT).

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is working on large clinical studies because of the potential impact that they have on public health. They often can be paradigm-changing. For instance, it’s so fulfilling to be involved in the development of something to prevent or delay the onset of type 1 diabetes. When it comes to EDIC – the ability to understand type 1 diabetes as it progresses and as people age. We’re learning all kinds of stuff from EDIC. We just published a paper on cognitive issues, and now we know we need to look carefully for this in older individuals. Because of EDIC, we know how important it is to control blood glucose to prevent complications.

Interviewee with her grandchild.

I hear you also work at a diabetes camp in the summer! What is that like?
I am on the planning committee and medical staff for Camp Possibilities, which is a week-long camp for kids with type 1 diabetes. This year was really nice and fun. Especially because last year’s camp was canceled, the kids were really happy to get together, despite the smaller group. There are many volunteers who come from NIH including endocrinology fellows and others. NIDDK’s Dr. Rebecca Brown is the deputy medical director.

When you’re not working and you’re not volunteering, what might we find you doing?
Anything with my family! I am all about family. If I’m not working, I’m spending time with my husband, daughters, son-in-law, sister (and her family) and parents. I especially love spending time with my new grandson. That’s what I love doing the most. I also crochet. I’ve been making lots of baby blankets lately!


NIDDK division charts new course in training grants

By Matt Oldham

Change has come to some training grants at NIDDK’s Division of Kidney, Urologic, and Hematologic Diseases (KUH). For more than 50 years, NIH institutes have used the Institutional National Research Service Award, also known as a “T32” grant, to recruit pre- and postdoctoral research trainees in specified scientific areas. These grants, awarded to research institutions, provide tuition and stipends for participating trainees in active research projects, providing the trainees an opportunity to gain experience that falls both within their interests and that are within NIDDK’s mission. But over time, it became apparent that T32 grants are not always successful with recruiting and retaining trainees in the KUH workforce.

In 2019, KUH hosted a workshop to explore ways to improve recruiting for the program. As a result, institutional training grants from KUH have shifted to a new grant type called the Institutional Network Awards (U2C-TL1) that will focus on providing administrative, networking, and professional support to training institutions following a cooperative agreement model. This training program is the first-of-its-kind for any organization within NIH. Drs. Tracy Rankin, KUH’s deputy director and Victoria Spruance, KUH’s program official for the U2C-TL1 program, co-authored a paper describing the input they received during the workshop in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Photo of Dr. Victoria SpruanceDr. Victoria Spruance

“In order to improve outcomes data from Institutional Training Programs, we heard from the community that more resources were needed,” said Spruance. “We had to think beyond the ‘T32’ in order to provide these resources, and to build a stronger training community.”

The Institutional Network Award is designed to improve research recruitment and retention by building a more connected and responsive research community, with new resources. For example the grant includes community outreach programs and institutional applicants to host a virtual peer-to-peer platform (think, Slack or Microsoft Teams) that trainees can use to collaborate and communicate across departments and disciplines. Institutional awardees will also provide workshops and courses in topics like entrepreneurship and leadership – skills necessary to be successful in research support, publishing scientific literature, or running a lab – in addition to grant writing and communication.

“We’re really excited about the possibility to participate in the new U2C-TL1 training program that KUH is starting,” said Dr. Mirela Dobre, a nephrologist and the U2C-TL1 networking co-lead for Case Western Reserve University. “The new format emphasizes collaborations that reach far and beyond medical subspecialty training.”

Photo of Dr. DobreDr. Mirela Dobre

Resources from the Institutional Network Award can go to both early career researchers and those new to the fields within NIDDK’s mission. A unique feature of the new program is the encouragement for institutions to ‘buddy’ with others, including local minority-serving institutions or community colleges, to bolster NIDDK’s efforts toward increasing biomedical research participation from underrepresented populations.

“NIDDK’s new U2C-TL1 training grants bring together efforts to recruit and retain a pipeline of outstanding and diverse investigators interested in kidney, urologic, and hematologic diseases. Through these grants, we will seek out the most effective aspects of scientific training programs and share those that work,” said NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers. “This program may serve as a model for other NIDDK divisions and NIH institutes as well.”

The program’s first awardees were announced in September (Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine – Case Western Reserve University, Northwestern University at Chicago, University of California Los Angeles, and University of Virginia). For more information on the U2C-TL1 grant, visit: grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-20-220.html.

View full-sized imageGraphic framework of training experience.
A robust research training program incorporates research activities, professional development activities, and outreach in an interdisciplinary and collaborative environment. The new KUH “U2C-TL1” program aims to address many of these components.

Joint symposium marks a century of diabetes research

Screen capture from Twitter Chat.
Drs. Cefalu and Rosenblum hosted a twitter chat during the Heterogeneity of Diabetes: Beta Cells, Phenotypes and Precision Medicine Symposium.

In June, NIDDK and the Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism, and Diabetes of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research held a joint virtual symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. The symposium, Heterogeneity of Diabetes: Beta Cells, Phenotypes and Precision Medicine, brought together clinicians, researchers, and others from across the world to discuss the impact and promise from insulin-related discoveries made over the last century.

The symposium program and links to the full session videos are available at: www.niddk.nih.gov/news/meetings-workshops/2021/Heterogeneity-Diabetes-Beta-cells-Phenotypes-Precision-Medicine.

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