When it came time for Miriam Kelty, PhD, to formally retire, she didn't want to make her National Institute on Aging (NIA) colleagues listen to one more retirement speech.
So calling upon her love of music, she got up and sang a song instead--to the tune of "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta "The Pirates of Penzance."
Her lyrics recounted some of the research NIA has supported, poked fun at its bureaucratic procedures and looked forward to the pleasures of retirement, such as skiing, swimming and scuba diving.
Her colleagues liked it fine, says Kelty, laughing, although she was surprised not many people in the audience knew the tune. "It got me out of giving another speech," she says. "What do you say after you review your career and say, 'Thank you'?"
During her career, Kelty, 67, played a key role in several movements shaping U.S. psychology, from the flowering of health psychology to increased understanding of positive aging.
As APA's scientific affairs officer from 1970 to 1975, she helped establish an ad hoc committee to create task forces that delivered reports on emerging areas of research such as the psychology of family planning and population policy, health psychology, and the environment and behavior.
Concerned about ethical issues in research, she worked for the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research from 1975 to 1978. The commission wrote the Belmont Report, establishing ethical principles guiding biomedical and behavioral research.
When she finished her career as director of the NIA Office of Extramural Activities, she oversaw a budget of more than $800 million annually in grants supporting research on aging. The research has helped illuminate what had been a neglected corner of scientific inquiry and found new ways to improve quality of life for the elderly, say researchers such as psychologist Margaret Gatz, PhD, of the University of Southern California.
Work started early
Kelty's life has always been marked by hard work, a love of learning, a taste for adventure and the willingness to try new things.
She grew up in Brooklyn, in what was the Italian/Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park. Her father, Charles Friedman, immigrated to America from Russia with his parents as a young boy. He owned and ran a movie theater called The Gold, and Kelty started working there when she was 9, selling popcorn and candy, finding seats for patrons and helping keep the books.
As a sophomore, Kelty won a spot at the city's High School of Music and Art. She had no formal art lessons outside of school, so she put together a portfolio of drawings and paintings on her own to apply to the prestigious school.
Kelty still uses that experience today when encouraging younger colleagues to pursue funding for research.
"It was a real crapshoot, and when I give grant talks now at the young-person level, I tell them that rule No. 1 is if you don't apply, you don't get it," she says.
Kelty became the first member of her family to attend college when she started at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But a year at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1958 convinced Kelty that she couldn't return to the pastoral quiet of rural Ohio, so she transferred to the City College of New York (CCNY) for her senior year.
Kelty took two courses at CCNY in comparative psychology from the late Daniel S. Lehrman, who then offered her a job in his lab, the Institute of Animal Behavior at Rutgers University. There, Kelty studied the sexual behavior of ring-necked doves, developing a fascination with the connections between physiology, hormones and behavior.
"I looked at the impact of behavior on biology, and of biology on behavior. That early interdisciplinary training gave me a very good background in both psychology and biology," says Kelty, who initiated and served on a task force that helped jump-start the field of health psychology when she came to APA in 1970. She earned her doctorate from Rutgers in 1965.
Her postdoctoral experiences created a lifelong concern with research ethics. At one program, a supervisor tried to list himself as first author for work she completed, and when she objected, she was told, "This is the way it's always been done."
During her time at APA, she worked on the development of ethical principles for the conduct of research with human participants.
Looking back to her own experiences and the positive example set by Lehrman, Kelty says she's always made mentoring a priority because she wants to help young scientists--especially female ones--find direction in their careers.
Social psychologist Teresa Levitin, PhD, first got to know Kelty when Kelty hired her as an executive secretary at NIH in 1976.
"Miriam was never too busy to take time to discuss a problem or a concern," says Levitin, now director of the Office of Extramural Affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That responsiveness was one of the things Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate, first noticed about Kelty.
Kelty, one of the first APA staff members Keita met when she visited APA as a graduate student, was obviously busy, but still took the time to talk with Keita about the projects she was working on, Keita says.
Supporting research on aging
The final half of Kelty's career was spent at the NIA Office of Extramural Activities, which funds research by scientists and institutions outside of NIH. As her management responsibilities increased, Kelty says she concentrated on helping an "adolescent" institute develop rigorous grant-awarding procedures.
"I worked hard with NIA staff to develop and implement policies and procedures for the way we do business and to communicate them to our research community," she says. "I also worked to better integrate NIA with the rest of NIH and the emerging focus on interdisciplinary and integrative science."
Additionally, Kelty founded the Inter-Institute Bioethics Interest Group in 1995. Open to researchers and administrators from across NIH and the public, the group meets 10 times a year and discusses ethical issues in research.
Besides offering an organized way for NIH staff to talk about ethical issues in research, the interest group helps connect people who are particularly interested in ethics across the agency's diverse institutes.
"It brings together people who can call one another, a group of peers they can talk with," Kelty says.
Kelty's scope expanded well beyond her Bethesda, Md., NIA offices, though, notes Gatz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California. For example, Kelty's office supported Gatz's international work using a Swedish dataset on twins to investigate the development of dementia.
In retirement, Kelty stays busy. She still chairs the ethics interest group, and is consulting with NIH on grants-related processes.
Scuba-diving is another passion, after her daughter Ruth, a marine scientist and diving instructor, taught and certified her in scuba-diving as a birthday present a few years ago. This summer, Kelty participated with other divers and scientists in an oyster-seeding project on the Magothy River off the Chesapeake Bay, diving into the murky water, planting oysters and bringing up samples for measuring.