“She is a brilliant scientist,” said Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Volkow’s work has shown that sustained drug use can result in lasting physical changes to the structure of the brain. Other researchers have praised her for helping to establish addiction as a topic worthy of rigorous scientific study, elevating drug use above the realm of emotions and moral judgments and onto the more tranquil plane of data and objectivity.
“Let’s face it: People with addictions do bad things,” said Thomas McLellan, a friend of Volkow’s and a former senior drug official in the Obama administration. “Nora’s work has shown that they’re bad because the brain structures and functions that are specifically targeted by abuse screw up motivation, reward and learning.”
For her work, Volkow has been named to the National Academy of Sciences, and she has recently been nominated for a Samuel J. Heyman medal for excellence in civil service. The winners of the Heyman medal will be announced in October.
As NIDA director, Volkow has supervised funding for research into the genetic factors affecting drug use, as well as work on vaccines that researchers hope could prevent drugs from entering the brain.
Yet competition for the institute’s resources, reduced as a result of the federal sequester, is intense. Four in five applications for grants are rejected. Kleiman and others argued that while NIDA supports fascinating and groundbreaking research, Volkow’s agency neglects practical, unglamorous solutions that could help addicts more quickly.
“She’s going to find the drug that cures [cocaine] addiction and get a Nobel Prize for it,” Kleiman said, referring to Volkow. “Everything about NIDA has been distorted to that end.”
Volkow, who declined to be interviewed for this article, lives in Bethesda with her husband, National Cancer Institute physicist Stephen Adler. Colleagues described her as an energetic and tireless administrator who travels constantly for speaking engagements and runs daily.
She established her reputation as a neuroscientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. Before that, she studied medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, not far from where she grew up.
Volkow’s childhood home in Mexico City was an unusual one. Her great-grandfather was Leon Trotsky, the Soviet military leader and prominent Marxist whom Joseph Stalin expelled from Russia in 1929. Trotsky eventually moved to a villa on the outskirts of the Mexican capital, but he was not safe there.
In 1940, a Stalin agent hoodwinked Trotsky into meeting privately with him, saying he wanted to discuss an article on French economic statistics. Alone with Trotsky in his study, the assassin cracked open the aging revolutionary’s skull with the broad edge of an ice ax.