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NHGRI Taps Laura Lyman Rodriguez to Lead Office of Policy, Communications and Education

Laura Lyman Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Laura Lyman Rodriguez, Ph.D.
By Jeannine Mjoseth
NHGRI Staff Writer

Laura Lyman Rodriguez, Ph.D., was finishing up a summer internship at Washington and Lee University (W&L), Lexington, Va., shortly after the Human Genome Project started up in 1990. As a graduate student, she was struck by the potential societal implications of the Human Genome Project. This seed of interest took root in Dr. Rodriguez and flowered into a passion for bringing non-scientists and scientists together into an active dialogue about research and its ethical applications.

Now, as the newly-appointed director of the Office of Policy, Communications and Education (OPCE) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Dr. Rodriguez will oversee development of the institute's policy positions on the ethical, legal and social implications of human genome research. She will also be responsible for communicating information about NHGRI's genomic research programs, tracking and analyzing legislation and developing NHGRI's education and community outreach programs to a wide range of groups from public to health professionals.

"This is an amazing time to be working at the genome institute. Until recently, the genome research community primarily focused on basic science," said Dr. Rodriguez. "With the launch of the new strategic plan in February, an explicit shift is underway to move the science into the clinic, which, of course, has always been the long-term goal. And this shift is happening in real time, so we must learn as we go."

After finishing a bachelor of science at W&L and a doctorate in cell biology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Dr. Rodriguez was drawn towards the policy world. She handled all science-related issues for a member of Congress as a congressional science fellow and focused on protecting human research participants as a study director at the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2002, Dr. Rodriguez joined NHGRI and began moving steadily toward the position she holds today.

"Dr. Rodriguez's unique combination of experiences and skills will make her an outstanding director of OPCE," said NHGRI Director Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D. "Her science background provides a strong foundation for understanding the implications of genomic advances, her extensive experience in science policy allows her to provide key leadership in a rapidly changing and complex area of research, and her credibility serves to galvanize widespread respect for her by staff within and outside NHGRI. The policy, communication and education issues surrounding genomics research will only become more complicated in the coming years, and Dr. Rodriguez is poised to provide NHGRI effective leadership in these areas."

According to Dr. Rodriguez, one of the most important aspects of her new position is bringing everyone together to develop policy positions around the ethical, legal and social issues related to genomic research. This includes the research community, the general public, congressional and administrative policy makers and other non-governmental organizations.

"We need to find common pathways to integrate genomic information and medicine into society so that it truly benefits the individual while also supporting scientific advances," said Dr. Rodriguez. "We have a real sense of urgency because we're talking about information that is unique and intrinsic to the individual. It's about who you are at the most basic level." She will focus on a number of ethical, legal and social issues, including:

  • Protecting the interests of people who participate in research.
  • Interpreting and integrating whole genome information to inform clinical care.
  • Ensuring fair access to genomic information and genomic medicine.
  • Using genomic information to improve health behavior.
  • Determining how race and ethnicity relate to the biology of disease and the potential to advance genomic medicine.
  • Developing innovative outreach and communication strategies to engage the public in conversations about genomic research.

"One of the biggest issues facing NHGRI and other genomic researchers is how to incorporate public perspectives into the culture of how science is done and how to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between those perspectives," she said. "These issues cut across all types of research and touch directly on each one of the OPCE branches: policy, communications, education and genomic healthcare. It's challenging and powerful work. My hope is for OPCE to become a constructive catalyst for these conversations at NHGRI, NIH and within the research community at large."

Last updated: May 23, 2012