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At the FDA, seeking a more perfect union

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2002 - Autumn


Organizing and running a labor union isn’t exactly what he trained for, but Robert Young, M.D. ’67, Ph.D. ’69, clearly enjoys the job. For the past four years, Young has served as president of a newly formed chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union representing 3,800 employees at the Food and Drug Administration’s Washington headquarters (nearly a third of whom have doctoral-level degrees). “It goes to show that your career can take turns that you might never have imagined,” said Young, who jokes that he runs the employee “complaint department” at the FDA. The researchers in Washington are among 5,000 FDA employees represented by the union nationally. Young’s colleagues have elected him union president twice in a row.

Young says that union representation for the researchers provides a safeguard in the same way that guarantees of academic freedom protect professors. The union helps to ensure that researchers get to “call the shots about the quality of the research being submitted” by shielding them from political, economic and bureaucratic pressures. Before taking on the union job, Young had worked as a researcher himself, first reviewing applications to market new drugs or to test them on human subjects and subsequently evaluating the reliability of drug data. His tenure at the FDA overlapped with that of David A. Kessler, M.D., who was the agency’s commissioner from 1990 to 1997, but by the time Young began his union duties, Kessler had moved to Yale as dean.

Young originally envisioned himself as a clinician. After an enjoyable summer working in the lab of Frank Ruddle, Ph.D., he decided to augment his medical degree with a doctorate in pharmacology, then spent two postgraduate years in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. It was when he worked at the National Cancer Institute that he discovered that as much as he enjoyed the doctor-patient relationship, he found research more compelling. Young also earned a master’s degree and a J.D. in labor law at Georgetown during the 1980s, collecting so many acronyms after his name that he does not use them all. A resident of Bethesda, Young is married to concert pianist and Department of Justice trial lawyer Virginia Lum. Their children are Justin, 9, Marielle, 11, and Colette, 13.

His career turn says much about the value of the Yale System, Young believes. “I do hope the students learn that a graduate and medical education can be used for medical careers in addition to clinical practice, research and teaching,” he says. “The values embodied in the Yale System can lead one into disciplines somewhat remote from where one started, and it can be a lot of fun. In my years on Cedar Street, I would have never thought I would be involved in the kinds of things I have done. It’s been quite an adventure.”