There are many types of people who have great impact on our professional lives. Some are the scientific leaders in our field, who often run large research groups, mentor us during the initial periods of our career and, frequently, have their work highlighted at national meetings or in journal perspectives. Others are very different. These are the people who work behind the scenes with grace and diligence to support the mission of funding agencies, scientific societies and journals that are essential for scientific research. Priscilla Chen was in the latter group.
Unfortunately, Priscilla died, rather suddenly, on October 11, 2013 at age 69. Since 1991 she had been a Scientific Review Officer (SRO) for the U.S. National Institutes of Health. SROs are the individuals who organize and oversee the review panels (study sections), which rate the relative scientific merit of grant applications. Priscilla began her career by supervising the function of the Oral Biology and Medicine 1 & 2 (OBM-1, OBM-2) study sections before these were reorganized in 2004. After that time, and until her death, she was the SRO of the Skeletal Biology Development and Disease (SBDD) study section in the Musculoskeletal, Oral and Skin Sciences (MOSS) Integrated Review Group. As with most funding agencies around the world, the relative merit for funding of a scientific application is judged by a panel of peers who weigh its qualities and likelihood for success. Among Priscilla’s multiple responsibilities was deciding who those peers should be.
I first met her in February of 1996 when she asked me to be an ad hoc reviewer for OBM-2. Being invited to review for a NIH study section is a rite of passage for a U.S. researcher, so I readily accepted her invitation. Only later did I realize that the first time one reviewed for Priscilla was an audition and, if you passed, you were asked back to review on a regular basis. I must have passed because over the next seven years I served three years as a non-permanent (ad hoc) reviewer on OBM-2 and then four years as a permanent member. I don’t think that I ever worked harder than during the three to four weeks before one of Priscilla’s study sections. More than anything she did, Priscilla emphasized to the members of her study sections that agreeing to be part of the review process involved a great responsibility to be fair and thorough. I always took this charge to mean that I had to know a grant application almost as well as did the person who wrote it. This meant reading applications multiple times and doing the background work in the literature to understand the scientific question that the application addressed and the likelihood that the proposed experiments would answer that question. It also meant that I had to appreciate multiple interpretations of the preliminary data and, occasionally, defend my assessment of the application when another member of the study section challenged my appraisal.
At a study section meeting, Priscilla made sure that each application received multiple fair reviews, typically from at least three individuals with somewhat diverse scientific backgrounds. By having the ability to select the composition of the review panel, Priscilla guaranteed that those individuals who did not complete their review assignments at a level that met her high standards would not be asked to review again.
In addition to her dedication to her job, Priscilla loved her stable of rescue horses, which she kept at her home, about two hours outside of Washington. Priscilla was a petite woman who lived alone and, as far as I could tell, single-handedly maintained up to a dozen horses while working full time as an SRO. Whenever I would talk to her on the phone, which was usually when she was calling me up to ask me to do some reviews, she would be all business until I asked how the horses were doing. Immediately, her attitude would change and she would gush on about all the things that maintaining so many animals of that size involved. If the members of Priscilla’s study sections were her surrogate children, we shared that role with her horses.
Priscilla will be dearly missed. For over twenty years she performed her duties with the highest dedication to our field. The members of her study sections all knew that the fate of careers hung on the decisions that they made at the meetings. Priscilla did her best to ensure that those decisions were done thoroughly and fairly.
Farmington, CT, U.S.A.
Dr. Priscilla B. Chen
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