News Around NIDDK
NIDDK staff join NIH-wide coalition to cultivate positive change
By Lisa Yuan
In April 2021, amidst a reported rise in anti-Asian sentiment nationwide, 14 members of NIH’s Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AA & NHPI) community gathered virtually to discuss what they could do to create positive change. As leaders of different AA & NHPI-focused NIH Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), they decided to join forces to provide a collective voice for the diverse AA & NHPI community across NIH.
A dynamic group at NIH emerged, calling itself the Federation of AA & NHPI Network, or FAN. FAN's mission is to cultivate an inclusive workplace where AA & NHPIs at NIH feel seen, heard, valued, and have equal opportunities to thrive. NIDDK’s Dr. T. Jake Liang stepped up to co-lead the group along with Caroline Goon, the principal strategist for the AA & NHPI Employment Portfolio in the NIH Office of Equity Diversity, and Inclusion.
“For the first time at NIH, we formed a coalition of the leadership of the various AA & NHPI-facing ERGs at NIH all under one umbrella,” said Goon, currently on a four-month assignment as senior advisor on the White House Initiative on AA & NHPI. “FAN currently is operating like a grassroots organization. While initially made up of these ERG leaders, our membership has grown to include those from NIH’s AA & NHPI communities and allies.”
FAN now has more than 80 members representing 21 NIH Institutes and Centers, including NIDDK, and all segments of NIH’s workforce. In its first year, FAN initiated meetings with former NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins and leadership across the agency to ensure that the AA & NHPI community had a voice in discussions on improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility at NIH. In these meetings, FAN members shared evidence-based data and personal perspectives on the specific workplace barriers that AA & NHPIs encounter, such as being seen as outsiders or excluded from leadership roles, and recommendations for tackling these issues.
“FAN is disproving the stereotype that AA & NHPIs are a silent, invisible community,” said Liang, who is an NIH Distinguished Investigator and the chief of NIDDK’s Liver Disease Branch.
FAN is creating visibility not only at NIH but also in the broader public health community. The group recently celebrated the publication of a Frontiers research paper on AA & NHPI federal workforce experiences, co-authored by FAN members and staff in the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. It is the first peer-reviewed paper ever published by a trans-NIH coalition.
The study showed that AA & NHPI employees are substantially underrepresented in senior leadership and managerial positions and that they regularly experience feelings of exclusion and invisibility. These experiences, according to the paper, stem from social interactions that reinforce stereotypes of Asians as being perpetual foreigners or “model minorities,” who are high achievers and unaffected by systemic racism. This common view of Asian American success may explain why the AA & NHPI community has historically felt left out of discussions about workplace inequities. The authors provided data-based recommendations for addressing these inequities.
“I hope this paper will serve as the blueprint for FAN’s future efforts in advancing our mission and improving the leadership opportunities of AANHPIs at NIH and beyond,” said Liang.
Liang looks forward to continuing to co-lead the group as it builds on the momentum of its first year. Among his priorities is to establish an organizational structure for FAN, including a Council and Steering Committee, that represents and engages the entire NIH AA & NHPI community. He and other FAN members also recognize the importance of building relationships with other diverse communities who share the vision of a workplace where all people have equal opportunities to thrive - a vision they believe can be achieved only by harnessing the strength of collective power.
As Liang stated on FAN’s first anniversary, “FAN is proof that together, we can do more, and together, when we speak up, our voices will be heard.”
Learn more about Liang’s background and work in his 2022 oral history on NIDDK’s YouTube page. Other NIDDK staff who are FAN members are Dr. Yihong Ye, Dr. Peggy Hsieh (who recently retired but is still active in the group), Celena Snoddy, and Lisa Yuan.
Getting to Know: Dr. Maren Laughlin
NIDDK’s Dr. Maren Laughlin manages the institute’s research portfolios in integrative physiology and imaging in the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Metabolic Diseases (DEM). She’s also the acting co-director of NIDDK’s Office of Obesity Research. In a virtual sit-down with Alyssa Voss, Laughlin discussed her metabolic research program and advice to students looking toward a career in science.
Tell me a little bit about your background and how you arrived at NIH.
I developed an interest in biochemistry while attending Oberlin College, and later went on to pursue a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Yale. My research there focused on metabolic flux measurement, which is the study of the cellular processes of metabolism in living systems.
I first came to NIH through a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute studying heart energetics with magnetic resonance spectroscopy. It was an exciting time in the field, since the current technology allowed us to study energy production and use in live animals.
After my postdoc I spent a few years at the George Washington University in the surgery department studying the metabolic processes in shock. After that, I came to NIDDK to my current role in DEM. It was around the same time the Special Diabetes Program started and it was exciting to be here for the beginning of the long-term research planning for that ground-breaking program.
What do you enjoy most about your role at NIDDK?
NIDDK is an intellectually exciting and stimulating place. I enjoy the science most, being able to quickly pivot and dive into emerging scientific questions in the field. My role is to have a broad viewpoint on basic diabetes and obesity research and I find it rewarding to be able to interact with scientists who do the research and plan programs for the future.
We are also able to put lots of new programs on the ground, which is really gratifying. NIDDK is full of kind, smart people and it’s a great place to work.
Where do you see your program moving over the next few years? What exciting things are on the horizon?
We’re at a time now when we have the ability to move beyond animal models and characterize the basic mechanisms of disease directly in people. One new program we have is looking at what happens after people lose weight to learn how some people keep weight off while others gain it back. We’ll measure the physiologic changes, but we’re looking at the whole person, including behavior, environment, and molecules that may contribute to these processes.
I’m also honored to be acting co-director of the Office of Obesity Research for basic mechanisms of disease. In addition to our focus on research aimed at treating obesity, we hope to leverage new tools to better understand how to prevent obesity and weight regain after loss. A better understanding of the biologic pathways affected by obesity, such as the immune and nervous systems, may help people living with obesity or overweight to be metabolically healthy even if they can’t lose weight.
What advice do you have for students and those interested in pursuing a career in research?
One piece of advice is to be patient and work hard to get a broad education – not just in science but in other areas of thought. Lay down the groundwork but learn from fields outside your own and be curious and creative. The research enterprise needs every type of person, from different backgrounds, to bring fresh ideas and viewpoints to tackle major scientific questions.
What do you enjoy doing while you’re not working?
I enjoy painting, gardening, cooking, and live music, especially opera and jazz. I am lucky to live in a neighborhood where I can walk daily with friends. My husband is an aficionado of classic films, so I also watch a lot of old movies with him. Editors’ note: Dr. Laughlin’s paintings are featured in the Winter 2020 issue of the NIDDK Director’s Update.
NIDDK holds second annual blood drive
In November, NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers rolled up his sleeve to participate in NIDDK’s second annual blood drive. The two-week drive supported patients at the NIH Clinical Center receiving medical treatment. This year many NIDDK staff, fellows, contractors, and family members provided blood, platelet, and other blood product donations.
NIDDK Fellow Spotlight
Name: Valerie L. Darcey, PhD, MS, RD
Hometown: Bethpage, New York
Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Integrative Physiology, Laboratory of Biological Modeling
What inspired you to pursue a research career?
During my undergraduate studies, I found it curious that my neuroscience textbooks discussed how the precursors of many of the neurotransmitters that form the basis of our brain function, cognition, and behavior must ultimately come from our diets. I wanted to learn more about how modifying diet would affect our behavior.
When I graduated, I continued to work as a research assistant in University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. When I got the opportunity to be a part of a study testing the safety and efficacy of low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss, I elected to take a lead role assisting with a sub-study of this trial that looked at changes in cognition and behavior caused by prescribed dietary change.
Being part of that research and seeing how we can actually design studies in humans to look at the effect of changing diet on neurocognitive and neurobehavioral outcomes was a watershed moment! Many years and a few degrees later, here I am, privileged to study these very questions with the unparalleled resources at NIH.
What public health problem do you ultimately hope to solve with your research?
Imagine being better able to stick to a new goal and suppress old habits just by changing what’s on your plate!
At its heart, my work focuses on whether and how our nutritional status (e.g., our body size, what we eat) affects the neuroscience of our habits, impulses, and ability to control them. In my career, I hope to extend this work to other areas where sustained behavior change is needed to improve clinical outcomes - for instance, using supplemental medical nutritional therapy for smoking cessation or minimizing drug and alcohol misuse. Unlocking these keys to sustained behavior change will improve health for so many.
Researchers leverage NIDDK resources through the NIDDK Central Repository
When Drs. Aria Olumi and Zongwei Wang from Harvard Medical School wanted to study urologic effects of enlarged prostate, they turned to NIDDK’s Central Repository - a resource for members of the research community providing access to data, biospecimens, and other items generated from studies supported by NIDDK and within NIDDK’s mission.
Olumi and Wang learned that the Repository had banked biosamples from a prospective study evaluating the efficacy of a drug used to manage an enlarged prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). These samples were exactly what the researchers needed.
“The samples from the NIDDK Central Repository have proven to be invaluable for our studies and have really helped move our research forward,” said Olumi. “The access to the unique tissue samples, which are very difficult to replicate, has also made a strong impact in crystalizing the central hypothesis for another NIDDK R01 study we are leading,” added Wang.
The Repository’s biospecimens are stored and distributed to qualified researchers, but many types of imaging, biological, and characterized genotype data are also available. All privacy is maintained, and research participants consented to having their data stored and used anonymously. The Repository especially supports and encourages secondary research by junior and established investigators, and investigators with novel approaches. Secondary research analyzes already-generated data to answer different research questions.
“Secondary research using Repository specimens and data helps to maximize research participants’ contributions and decreases expensive duplicative sampling efforts, which increases the overall scientific value and impact of the originating study,” said Dr. Rebecca Rodriguez, director of the NIDDK Central Repository in NIDDK’s Office of Clinical Research Support.
NIDDK’s Central Repository is not new, having been in operation for 19 years. But it has grown expansively over the years and now includes more than 6.7 million biospecimens from 150,000 unique participants of 158 ongoing and concluded NIDDK-funded clinical research projects.
There website and online request process for data and biospecimens is now completely revamped and streamlined based on user feedback. Certain requests will require an X01 Resource Access Award, but many may be eligible for the internal administrative review or may leverage existing grant applications if one was submitted that include a Repository impact report.
The Repository also provides support to eligible NIDDK-funded large clinical studies during project planning stages before data are collected and advises on best practices for informed consent language, sample collection, and short- and long-term specimen storage.
“We hope the new streamlined request process and website get these valuable resources to more researchers faster and easier to continue fostering innovative research,” said Rodriguez. Researchers can visit repository.niddk.nih.gov to see what resources are available or to start a request. Central Repository resources are also linked to other external repositories to promote and broaden access to the available resources.