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NHGRI Legend Retires After 30 Years of Institute Service

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It’s the end of an era in genomics. It passed quietly this month but will certainly be noticed: Elke Jordan, deputy director of NHGRI, retired on July 1. A 30-year fixture at the NIH who guided the Human Genome Project from conception to near-completion and saw up-close the stormy departure of former director James Watson and the recruit of new hero Francis Collins, she gingerly packed up her office over the last several weeks, worried that she might throw away some tidbit about the project that historians are already clamoring for.

In 1988, Jordan was asked to leave her post as associate director for program activities at NIGMS to work in the nascent office that would become NHGRI. The Human Genome Project, she says matter-of-factly, “began the day I started.” She watched over the years as the controversial office became a center, which in 1997 was given even more recognition when it was designated an institute.

Throughout the earlier years, “we never knew from one month to the next whether we would still be there,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine now how controversial the idea was.” Occasional needs for improved technologies or other breakthroughs added to the uncertainty: “Along the way there were periods when everybody was tearing their hair out, saying, ‘We’re not going to make it, this isn’t working.’”

Over the years, other job opportunities arose, but Jordan, now 65, only briefly considered them. “After being in the hotseat in the genome, everything else seems pretty mild,” she explains.

In her last weeks at the institute, Jordan was hard at work on the latest NHGRI initiatives, including the coming hap map project. Another task was establishing a plan to ensure the institute’s importance after the human genome is finished — that plan is due out in the fall, she says. One solution comes with NHGRI’s announcement of priorities for the sequencing of more organisms. Jordan dispels the idea that this signifies a shift away from the “human” component of the institute’s charter: “It’s clearly going to put a greater emphasis on applying the knowledge we’ve gained to human health,” she says. “The purpose of sequencing these additional organisms is to understand the human sequence and how it works.”

As for her own future plans, Jordan is all set to work part-time at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, a Maryland-based corporation that facilitates partnerships between NIH and outside parties. The foundation has been responsible, for instance, for “bringing in funds from pharmaceutical companies to help expedite sequencing of the mouse,” she says. “These kinds of partnerships are really taking off.”

Jordan, who was born in Germany and spent years in England, got her start in molecular biology research working on bacterial viruses. Deciding that she didn’t want to pursue a research career, she responded to an ad in Science for the now-defunct NIH grants associate program, which took researchers and put them in management or administration positions for a year “to convert them into people who could work in the NIH extramural program.”

Though her foundation job will allow her to keep an eye on the NIH, Jordan says she’ll miss being an insider. “It’s a wonderful perspective [at NIH],” she says. “You really feel like you have information before it gets published.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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