National Academy of Medicine

2016 Adam Yarmolinsky Award

An Interview with Mary Woolley

Every year, the National Academy of Medicine awards the Adam Yarmolinky Medal for exceptional service to a member whose discipline falls outside the traditional health sciences. According to the NAM’s Articles of Organization, at least one-quarter of members must represent professions outside the health and medical fields, including the natural, social, computational, and behavioral sciences; as well as law, administration, and engineering. The 2016 Yarmolinsky Medal was awarded to Mary Woolley, President and CEO of Research!America, for her record of distinguished service to the National Academies. In the following interview, Ms. Woolley discusses the importance of applying an interdisciplinary lens to research, describes the need for public engagement in science, and reveals an unusual hobby.


You currently serve as president and CEO of Research!America, an organization dedicated to advancing medical and health research in the United States. How did you become passionate about research?

My background is in political science, sociology, and the humanities, but I got involved in a clinical trial right out of graduate school, quite by chance. It was the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial, which began in 1972 and lasted well into the 1980s. I worked on the trial for 10 years. The goal was to prevent cardiovascular disease in men who were at very high risk, but at the moment had no clinical symptoms. So it was about prevention, and I was very attracted to that. I became hooked on the intersection of research and political science, and the opportunity to make a difference in health by bringing to bear what I knew and cared about from the policy world.

Valuing perspectives from outside the traditional health and medical spheres is a chief tenet of NAM membership. Why is a diversity of perspectives so important?

Members with a political science or policy background add value and richness to the Academy. They bring a sense of the public context, including the political context, of efforts to advance research and achieve better health. Research doesn’t happen in a vacuum; health care doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is an important context, and that’s the genius of the Academy’s requirement to elect members from outside the health sciences.

Many different kinds of professionals need to work in partnership to really make a difference for health. That’s another thing that’s so attractive to me about the National Academies. A broad range of health professionals and experts from other realms are working together, trying to achieve truly difficult goals. I am so impressed by the commitment of the staff, as well as members and others who volunteer, to listening carefully to many different points of view and creating the cadence that’s needed to find a way forward. I believe we learn more by engaging with people outside our own areas of expertise, and the Academy does that superbly well.woolley-quote-1

Why is it sometimes difficult to persuade policy makers and the public about the value of medical and health research?

Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty strong point of view on this. The culture of research — people who work in and around research — doesn’t place a very high value on communicating with non-science-trained individuals. So, as we collectively struggle to help people understand the value of research and innovation from bench to bedside, we have to take some responsibility for not making the effort to reach out to non-scientists often enough. It takes a little bit of time and a little bit of effort — but only a little of each.

From public opinion surveys we’ve commissioned at Research!America, we know that scientists are essentially invisible to the American public. Only about 17 percent of the public can name a single scientist, living or dead. Not many can name an institution where science is conducted. There’s plenty of evidence that the American public has a great deal of respect for scientists — in the abstract — but they don’t truly know who our scientists are. This is a much bigger obstacle than we believe, and it has got to change.

Changing a culture is by no means easy. It takes leadership, determination, and understanding that there’s value to be had in training scientists to engage with the public.

Why is engaging the public so crucial?

There’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln — who also founded the National Academies — that I use all the time. He said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” You can see how well this reflects the necessary awareness of the public and political context for any kind of activity that seeks to drive change. This is certainly the case for National Academies reports and recommendations. Change requires the public to support it, even demand it. In the case of health, it’s often patient groups, more than anyone else, who end up driving the policy agenda. All the scientific evidence in the world won’t necessarily move the needle, but patient demand will. The goal should be to harness these two together.

 Who are some of your role models?

I’m very fortunate that I’ve had a number of extraordinary mentors and role models — one of whom won the Yarmolinsky Award previously — Paul Rogers, former chairman of Research!America and former Congressman known as “Mr. Health.” He liked to say, “Without research, there is no hope.” I find that very meaningful.

Jim Ludwig, a former boss of mine at a research institute in San Francisco, urged me to be more of a risk taker, to be bolder in finding the resources I needed to make something happen. He said, “Just remember, Mary, you have to send a lot of boats out before you find the new world.” That underscored for me that unless you’re willing to push hard and be relentless in pursuit of your goal, you’re not going to get there. The fact is, it’s going to be three steps forward and two steps back time after time. The good news is the world isn’t flat and people aren’t going to be lost at sea in the process, but I often think about what he said. It’s the importance of resilience.

Tell us about one of your hobbies outside your professional life.

I’m a deltiologist. Nobody knows what that means! It’s the study and collection of postcards. When I was young, I inherited a collection of historical postcards that are now 120 years old. There was a time when photos of natural disasters or public events, like peace protests, were made into postcards. I have quite a few of those. In recent years I’ve gotten attracted to postcards that have mistakes on them, like when stamps are printed upside-down.

What does it mean to you to receive the Yarmolinsky Award?

woolley-quote-2It’s an extremely high honor for me. I looked up Adam Yarmolinsky and saw that he worked for President John F. Kennedy. It reminded me that my passion for public service was triggered by shaking Kennedy’s hand while he was running for president. He came to my high school and I listened to his speech and I thought to myself, “Yep, this is something I want to be a part of.” So, receiving an award in Yarmolinsky’s name makes me recommit to making a difference myself.

The Adam Yarmolinsky Award
The Adam Yarmolinsky Medal is awarded to a member of the National Academy of Medicine from a discipline outside the health and medical sciences — for example, from fields such as the social and behavioral sciences, law, public policy, and administration. It recognizes distinguished service by a member who, over a significant period of time, has contributed in multiple ways to the mission of the NAM. To view past winners of this award, please click here