McHale retires from government work
- By John Breeden II
- Feb 09, 1998
McHale, chief of the Scientific Information and Data Systems Branch at the National
Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), retired from
government late last year. The computer scientist will now devote much of her time to a
lifelong love--natural sciences.
McHale volunteers at the National Zoo in Washington, where she can be seen dipping her
hand into the Think Tank, a petting zoo for sea life, and emerging with a creature to show
curious zoo visitors.
The Friends of the National Zoo member is no stranger to either wildlife or computers.
She began working with animals after she earned a 1965 bachelor's degree in biological
sciences from Drexel University in Philadelphia. In her first government job, she
dissected rat brains at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute.
But an allergy to rats led her into the burgeoning field of information technology.
"My research subject was rats," McHale said. "We irradiated them, and I
dissected the brains and ran chemical tests to see whether the four brain enzymes were
affected. The more you work with rats, the more the allergy builds up," she said.
McHale said she soon realized it would be difficult to rise above a GS-9 job in a
federal laboratory with only a bachelor's degree. But she didn't want to spend years
studying for a doctorate. So that--and the allergy--led to the change to computers.
She joined the National Institutes of Health in 1974 as a technical information
specialist. She was quickly promoted to the chief of program information systems for the
National Eye Institute.
In 1981, she became the chief of the Biomedical Services Section at the National
Library of Medicine (NLM). She said programming NLM's Toxline database was one of her
greatest accomplishments. The database tracks the toxic effects of chemicals used around
Computers became her passion, she said.
"I took my first computer course at Drexel, and my grade was 100," she said.
"That said something to me. Anywhere I could use computers in my work, I made the
effort. Blending science with computers allowed me to be very effective in providing
information for managing the extramural programs at NIH."
She joined the National Institute of Aging in 1985 as the chief of program analysis and
the technical information office. In 1987 she moved to NIAMS, then a new division in NIH.
McHale's reputation preceded her during her career. Supervisors credit her with solving
problems before they became problems.
"I operated on the premise of 'Don't ask for permission, but beg for
forgiveness,'" she said. "I was proactive and designed systems that could
provide me with the answers for the questions that may be asked. In other words, I don't
like fighting fires. I like to be in control."
As the chief of scientific information for NIAMS, McHale received several awards for
her IT work.
She also served as chair of an NIH Architectural Management Group subcommittee. The
subcommittee was responsible for creating security plans for NIH's backbone network. She
also helped maintain automation systems for the entire NIH user community.
Retirement won't slow her down, she said. She is in the Galapagos Islands as a zoo
representative this month, studying the unique biology of the islands. And though she
plans to relax at her time-share apartment in St. Martin, retirement for her is just a
"Life after retirement is very busy," she said from her new mission in the
Galapagos. "I sometimes wonder how I worked and accomplished the things I did."
And she won't be giving up IT entirely either. She works as a computer consultant in
her own company, Computers Made Easy. When she returns from the Galapagos, she also will
teach a continuing education computer class at Montgomery College.
"All of my work now is on a case-by-case basis," she said, "not to tie
me down, but to keep my fingers in the computer world."
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.