Learn Something New Every Day

27 Aug

My spouse recently got a call from a couple of faculty members in the computer science department at the college where she teaches. Lynn teaches in the art department; graphic design, motion design, typography, and the like. The computer science guys wanted to explore the possibility of her teaching a course in data visualization. Knowing that I have both an interest in the topic, plus the need to fumble through learning it (and using the new-found skills) for my job as an evaluator, she asked me what I thought about the opportunity.

Lynn knows enough about data visualization to know there’s a computer programming aspect to it. The computer science guys know enough to know there’s a design element to it. They all know that there’s math involved, specifically statistical analysis. I also suggested that it involves writing and/or journalism. She was hesitant – and rightly so – to jump on board without thinking and talking it through, because what she is an expert in is only one area of a multi-disciplinary field.

“It’s team science,” my boss, Nate, said when I shared the story with him. Exactly. And in many ways it’s an example of how the ways we traditionally teach, research, and work need to be re-examined and re-worked.

Too often, I find, we search for collaborators within our own circles of expertise. Librarians collaborate with other librarians. They might be from different types of libraries or different library departments, but often we’re all librarians. Researchers collaborate with other researchers. Scientists with other scientists. In some ways, it can be argued, this is team science (or team-based work), but it falls short of the ideal.

At it’s best, team science brings together experts from across different disciplines to work on problems that simply cannot be tackled by any one group. Think about a health problem like obesity. It’s huge and as such, touches upon so many different aspects of life. Addressing it requires everyone from geneticists to behavioral psychologists to nutritionists to exercise physiologists to public policy makers to urban planners to educators to medical doctors to parents to science writers to … it’s probably easier to identify the experts not needed than those who are. The point being that some of the most successful efforts at addressing obesity are those that bring as many of these fields of expertise together, to work together towards a solution. (The UMass Worcester Prevention Research Center is an example, close to home for me.)

But back to data visualization, what I’ve found is that those who do it best are either freakingly gifted (there’s always an Edward Tufte in any area) or they’re smart enough – and talented enough – to assemble good teams for the work. As I’m seeking to discover the best resources to learn and practice the skills for this job, I’m continually reminded to look across lots of different disciplines. I look to evaluators (Stephanie Green and Chris Lysy), graphic designers (Nigel Holmes), business intelligence consultants (Stephen Few), journalists and journalism professors (David McCandless and Alberto Cairo, respectively), artists (Manuel Lima), statisticians (Nathan Yau), doctors (Hans Rosling), and the people in my very own Quantitative Health Sciences Department. I read things by people who are good presenters, experts in visual communication, and those skilled in improvisation. In other words, while I’m limited in resources to actually form a real team of experts to do data visualization for the UMCCTS, I’ve learned enough to seek them out from across lots of corners so that I can do a better job. (I’m also lucky enough to be working in an environment where people don’t mind me trying things out on them. It’s a benefit of being in academia.)

Thanks to Chris Lysy’s (DiY Data Design) weekly creative challenge, this week I practiced using design icon arrays to report on the findings of a course evaluation with a small (n=15) class size. We get so hung up on “big data” that it’s easy to forget the real challenges of working with and presenting the results from small data sets. I really enjoyed taking this challenge and putting it to use. Here are a couple of examples. For the sake of privacy, I’ve redacted the questions being reported.

Time

Sample Arrays

Now, here’s one lesson that I learned for the next time that I use this visualization device. I need to make them like this:

better copy

This example allows me to better show that each response is represented by a single box, thus 11 people answered “Yes” and 4 answered “Somewhat.” Live and learn. Every day.

Next Tuesday, I’m taking a workshop on creating podcasts. It’s something that I’ve wanted to try and I found a 2-hour, evening class in Boston. Stay tuned to see what that new learning might bring. 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

13 Aug

Granted, it was only a week, but I got a lot done during my summer vacation.

Family visited. (That was fun.) We had the memorial service for my mother-in-law who passed away last January. (It was a meaningful and special time. I know she’d approve.) We went to Cape Cod for a couple of days. (Can’t beat that.) I built a patio in our backyard. (Yes I did.) And I read a book. (Of course I did.)

Rebanks

I read the book, “The Shepherd’s Life,” by James Rebanks. It’s a beautiful story, beautiful writing by a contemporary shepherd; a story of people who straddle the line between a long, deep history and an ever-encroaching modern world. I loved it. I also read it for fun and thus wasn’t thinking much about work or libraries or evaluation or any such stuff that feeds my blog posts as I turned the pages. But along about page 58, I found the need to fold over a dog-ear edge to remind myself of a paragraph that was a good one for this space:

My grandfather worked hard and turned that run-down farm around. He supplemented his farm income by working on other neighboring farms. He was a good horseman. He dealt in livestock. Was an opportunist, like so many of his peers: If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change. Do whatever you needed to – because you stood on your own two feet, there was no one to pick you up if you fell down. The geographic constraints of the farm are permanent, but within them we are always looking for an angle.

As I read these words, my mind went to the the “geographic constraints” of the library and librarianship. Traditionally, the physical library has been a boundary for librarians. It’s been a constraint. Even the professional title of “librarian,” a derivation of “library,” has dictated where and how and what librarians do. But this, of course, has changed of late. Why else do people like me do librarian work in other places and under other titles? Like Rebanks’ grandfather, we’ve adjusted, adapted, and changed. We’ve done what we needed to do in order to keep going.

I’m not really sure which profession is older, librarianship or shepherding, but they’ve surely both been around since the dawn of time. We’re surviving professions; ones that survive by being opportunistic. When we refuse to take advantage of opportunities, when we refuse to adjust and adapt and change, when we trust too heavily on some larger entity to make us relevant and/or keep us going, we die. When we can no longer figure out how or lose our desire to do these things, family farms cease and libraries close. It’s a fact of life for both.

I took a lot away from this book. I was inspired by the landscape, awed by the amount of work that goes into this livelihood, and stirred to make my own life (both at work and at home) to be a bit more honest. By this, I mean having something to show for my day at the end of each day. I find it’s too easy for me to slip into a cycle of doing a whole bunch of tasks, e.g. answering a hundred emails, going to meetings, taking notes on this and that, watching television, running on a treadmill, noodling around on my guitar or mandolin; things that, when I reflect upon them at the end of the day, I’m not sure have led me to accomplish a whole lot. Thus, I built a patio. And I returned to my office this week with a goal to be a bit more aware of how I’m working and how I’m spending my hours behind my desk or in front of my computer.

It was only a week of vacation, but I believe that these type of renewals are exactly why we need them. I hope you’ve found some time for vacation this summer, too. If not, it’s still not too late!

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

31 Jul

Nothing says vacation time like a water skiing squirrel!

Go, Twiggy, Go!!

I’ll be back writing mid-August. Until then…

Fancy Doodles

23 Jul

One of my favorite parts of my still relatively new job as an evaluator is being able to tell the stories of our programs not only in words, but also in pictures. Regular readers of my blog know how much I enjoy and value sketching, doodling, and drawing as part of my work process, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my sketchnotes over the past few years here on my blog, but my new role allows me to create infograms for each newsletter produced by the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. I thought I’d share some here.

When I had to report on the current work of our funded clinical scholars, I decided to highlight how a small group of people (6) can lead to much larger groups and connections and ultimately, outputs such as subsequent funding and peer-reviewed papers. Turning those facts into pictures, I came up with this:

Slide1

For those curious, I used PowerPoint to draw this graphic. The dollar signs and presentation screens are clip art, but the rest I was able to draw by hand. You can draw pretty much anything with triangles and rectangles and circles. :)

Next, I had to report on the progress of another group of funded researchers – our Pilot Project Program Awardees. I took the information given to me via lengthy written reports and turned it into this graphic to show the importance and value of Team Science. For this one, I tested out the infographic site, Easel.ly. It allows you to do many things via their free version.

PPPSummaryUpdateSpring2015

Most recently, the Principal Investigator for our Center wanted to know about the funding of these Pilot Projects since we began doing so, back in 2007. What could we say about this program, since we initiated it? I decided one thing worth evaluating was our return on investment. Since 2007, the UMCCTS has awarded around $5 million to fund research that promotes collaboration between basic science and clinical researchers, provides seed funding for ideas to grow, and advances translational science. What’s been the return on that investment? Turning back to PowerPoint, I created this graphic:

PPP Investment

It’s a challenge to collect and analyze the data behind these images, but in many ways the bigger challenge is to figure out which story is the one to tell and how best to tell it. It’s a skill of an accomplished evaluator, something that I can’t really call myself only 8 months into the job, but I’m happy to report that it’s both interesting and rewarding to work towards such a goal.

Listen Up!

17 Jul

podcastI need to offer up a HUGE thanks to my friend and colleague, Kate Thornhill, Research and Instruction Librarian for Digital Scholarship at Lesley University’s Moriarty Library in Cambridge, MA, for recently turning me onto the terrific podcast, Lost in the Stacks. From WREK, the student-run radio station at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, the show is hosted by Charlie Bennett and Ameet Doshi, along with Anthony Nguyen, Fred Rascoe, Lizzy Rolando, and Wendy Hagenmaier. All librarians at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, they bring an hour-long program offering really interesting interviews with librarians focusing on all sorts of cool themes. But it doesn’t end there. In between the interviews and/or segments, they play some pretty groovy tunes, an eclectic mix of great songs. I just LOVE it!

I imagine that Kate sent me the info on this show because one of their most recent programs, Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian, offered up interviews with Elizabeth Keathley, Chief Officer and Digital Asset Manager at Atlanta Metadata Authority and author of Digital Asset Management, and Nisa Asokan, Editor at WebMD and Co-Owner, Manager of the music production company, Tight Bros Network. Being one who easily falls into the “Once a Librarian, Always a Librarian” career category, I appreciated so much the thoughts, ideas, and insights shared in this episode.

The first segment begins, “One thing you might notice about the job titles for both of our guests is that they do not have the word ‘librarian’ in them, however, both have degrees in library science.” I could offer you a nice summary of what Elizabeth and Nisa had to say about their jobs, their work, their titles, and their salaries, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to tell you to seek it out and listen. It’s a wonderfully optimistic – and very true – view of a profession that opens so many doors to so many fascinating careers, if one wants them.

With other episodes in their archive like Beach Libraries, The DC Punk Archive, and Avoiding Dead Air, you can bet that Lost in the Stacks is going to easily find its place on my Friday afternoon playlist from now on. Thanks, Kate! And thanks to those bringing us this show.

Summer Reading Time

1 Jul

My favorite advice columnist, Amy Dickinson, recently posted the question on her Facebook page, “Do you have a favorite summer read? Want to recommend one?” But of course I do! This librarian by any other name can always offer up advice on a good book or two. Here are a few on my summer reading list:

Sue_Grafton_-_W_Is_For_Wasted

I actually just finished “W” yesterday. I have read Sue Grafton’s, Kinsey Millhone’s alphabet series from A to W, and will surely make it to Z (and then have a good, long cry once I finish it and think about the series ending). I love these books – the characters, the settings, the mysteries. Perhaps what I like most about them, though, is that Kinsey came to life in “A is for Alibi,” all the way back in 1982. While we’ve aged to 2015, Grafton chose to let Kinsey age at the speed of the stories. In other words, Kinsey is still in the 80s, still doing private detective work using index cards, a typewriter, and pay phones – AND the occasional microfilm/microfiche and reference librarian. I love it! “X” is coming out in August. My summer reading will be bookended by Kinsey, thanks to Sue Grafton!

penguinAlong with a good murder mystery, I’ve also been reading Yochai Benkler’s, The Penguin and the Leviathan. This title was referenced in an article that I was reading about team science and Clinical Translational Science Centers. It’s thesis, that cooperation between competing parties leads to better results than self-interest, intrigued me and just a few chapters into it, my interest has been met. I’m enjoying it.

proust-195x300

I also recently came across a reference to Maryanne Wolf’s, Proust and the Squid. Anyone who’s read my blog and the books that I mention on it knows of my fascination with neuroscience, the effects of today’s technology and media on our brains, and the habit of reading. How could I not read this? It’s up next, after I finish the penguin tale.

rebanksI began James Rebanks’ memoir, The Shepherd’s Life, just last night. I’ll be finished with it before the weekend. It is beautiful! Beautiful writing, beautiful landscape, beautiful living. A bonus, if you enjoy his tales of life with the sheep, you can follow Rebanks on Twitter, @herdyshepherd1.

creativity-challenge

I just came across Tanner Christensen’s, The Creativity Challenge, this morning. I can’t resist books like this, i.e. ones that offer up new information about creativity along with a daily activity to spur on my personal quest to be more creative. No doubt, this book will be in my possession within days.

Jacket Board - Analytics Press

Finally, the 2nd edition of Stephen Few’s, Show Me the Numbers has lived on my work desk since June. It’s a summer companion. Few is the founder of Perceptual Edge, a consulting firm dedicated to information design, knowledge management, and visual communication. He has authored seminal papers and books on the subjects, this particular book being among them. It’s a terrific reference for me and the work that I do, and I imagine of interest and help to more than a few of my readers, too.

That’s it for my reading this summer. What are you picking up? Feel free to share in the comments section.

Translating “Translational”

16 Jun

UMCCTS LogoYesterday marked my six month anniversary working for the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. It’s been six months of challenges and opportunities, lots of learning and adjustments, and many experiences that I both expected and didn’t. All in all, a good, positive change.

Since moving from the UMass Med School’s library to the UMCCTS, lots of people have asked me, “What are you doing now?” Truth be told, many of these same people had no idea what I was doing before, but at least they think that they know what librarians do and I let it go at that. But since becoming an evaluator for the UMCCTS, I find I have to explain two concepts; (1) the role of an evaluator and (2) translational science.

Last night, I attended Science Cafe Woo, a monthly gathering of folks in Worcester where local scientists can talk to the public about what they research. I’ve written about Science Cafe Woo here a couple of times before (An Infectious Dialogue; Sustainability: It Mean’s More than “Tit for Tat”) because it’s always a highlight of my month in terms of learning interesting science, plus I’m a strong advocate for science communication and the promotion of scientific literacy. As noted in an excellent article by Boston Globe reporter, Sacha Pfeiffer, over the past decades, government funding for scientific research and development has steadily fallen from 9.1% in the late 1960s to a paltry 3.6% today. Efforts like Science Cafe Woo, the Science Cafe movement overall, and programs like the one at my own institution that help scientists deliver a comprehensible message to different stakeholders, from corporate donors to the public tax payer, are essential if we are to be successful in our efforts to advance science, eradicate diseases, and reach our fullest potential as human beings.

And thus, there I was at last night’s Science Cafe Woo, ready to learn about the work of Glenn Gaudette, PhD, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Gaudette’s talk entitled, How Science Can Mend a Broken Heart, was a fascinating mini-lecture on the anatomy of the heart, cardiology, pluripotent stem cells, and … TRANSLATIONAL SCIENCE. It’s the latter that made me say to my spouse when I got home, “I wish everyone who wonders what that term, translational science, means had been at Science Cafe tonight.”

Dr. Gaudette talked about his research in the Myocardial Regeneration Lab at WPI. There, he and his students discover ways to get stem cells to become myocardial (heart) cells and then how to implant these cells into damaged heart muscle, encouraging new growth and healing that without such a treatment, is impossible. In other words, when a person suffers a heart attack, some portion of their heart muscle is damaged. It eventually scars over and the heart as a whole is less efficient in its business of pumping blood throughout the body. Myocardial muscle cells don’t regenerate on their own, thus the damage remains. The theory behind Dr. Gaudette’s work, then, is if we can learn how to induce the growth of new cells in the heart, we can help a damaged heart heal, not just scar.

The exercise physiologist in me LOVED this talk. I’ve studied the heart and cardiac rehabilitation enough to understand how monumental such a new treatment could be for the millions of Americans who suffer from heart disease. It’s such a cool idea and if/when it reaches its fullest potential, becoming a clinical procedure, it will be truly amazing.

And this, in a nutshell, is translational science:

  • Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues have an idea; if we can get stem cells to become myocardial cells and deliver them into damaged heart muscle, they’ll grow into new, healthy heart muscle.
  • They work in their respective labs to figure out the problems; growing the cells, delivering the cells to the tissue, seeing if the delivered cells actually grow into new cells.
  • They come up with a novel concept to more effectively get the cells to the heart muscle; the VitaSuture.
  • They go out and talk about their ideas and findings to investors, funding agencies, and the like, trying to secure the money needed to manufacture and test this product. (There is no money in academia.)
  • They talk to regulatory agencies like the FDA about their idea, about their product, and about how to actually test it in human beings.
  • They get squashed. Stem cells are SUCH a red flag, they’re told, especially when you’re talking about putting them on a person’s heart.
  • They get back up. They think of ways to lower the risk. They make other proposals. How about regenerating ligaments?
  • They test this idea out on animals and find some success.
  • They go back to the regulatory agency with their new proposal.
  • Squashed again.
  • They get back up again. Other ideas. Even less risky.
  • And on it goes… (Read a TERRIFIC piece on this process in WPI’s spring issue of Research.)

That, my readers, is translational science. It’s getting from an idea, to success in non-human models, to successful testing in humans, to what ultimately becomes clinical practice. Translational science centers, like UMCCTS, exist to help identify and remove the barriers in this lengthy, winding, often inefficient process.

And my job … it’s to evaluate the different programs and core research centers we sponsor, so that we can determine how well we’re doing towards bringing down some of those barriers and hurdles. It’s also to disseminate the findings and the work of translational scientists at UMMS, so that our stakeholders better know and understand what we’re doing.

This morning when I came into work and told my boss all about last night’s talk, he immediately asked, “Is he working with anyone here?” and we began to talk about clinical researchers doing science here that might collaborate really well with Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues across town. Surely, there’s some follow-up to be done.

To me, these are the most interesting, exciting, and fulfilling aspects about working in a scientific research environment. There are just so many fascinating stories and I get to hear them, share them, and sometimes be part of them. Translating translation. Everyone should be so fortunate in his or her work.

Thanks to Science Cafe Woo for continuing to encourage scientists to talk to the public about their work, to Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues and students at WPI for the work they’re doing, and to the UMCCTS and all of our members who keep striving to bring the breakthroughs of science and medicine to the world.

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