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Spring 2014
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Feature Story
 
The Ambassador
Overseeing an NIH institute means bringing the best research to the most people.

It's a breath-stoppingly hot August day in Bethesda, Maryland. The thermometer reads 98, but the real-feel temperature is around 110. The sidewalks of the National Institutes of Health’s 300-acre campus are mostly deserted. The heat finds you even under the trees. You can almost hear the leaves sizzle.

But nine stories up, in the “A” Wing of Building 31, Griffin Rodgers ’76 MMS’79 MD’79, MBA sits in his office— bookshelves tightly lined with journals and reference books, desk barely visible under neat piles of yellow, red, and blue folders—and emits an enviable aura of cool. As director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), he is responsible for the fifth largest of the NIH’s 27 institutes, and one that seeks to cure many of the most common, chronic, and costly maladies that plague Americans today: diabetes, obesity, liver disease, Crohn’s disease, hepatitis, kidney and bladder diseases, and hyperthyroidism, to name a few. Yet you get the sense that the heat is no more likely to make Rodgers break a sweat than is his responsibility for a $2 billion annual research budget and 1,300 of the country’s best scientists and administrators.

It’s only gradually that you realize that for all his warmth and calm, this is a man of intense and entwined passions— for science and medicine, and for service to others.

For Rodgers, NIDDK research is not an end in itself. Rather, the mission is to make the best research relevant and affordable to the public. Citing the staggering social and economic toll of diabetes, for example—26 million Americans with the disease, another 79 million with pre-diabetes, $174 billion in health care costs annually—and a concurrent flat or shrinking budget, he makes a compelling case for creating the most effective programs that can reach the greatest numbers. (One of these is the National Diabetes Education Program, based on a lifestyle modification study supported by NIDDK and tested by researchers— including Rena Wing, professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of Brown’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center.)

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