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Waxing Philosophical

17 Sep
Old Friends

(l-r) The Reverend Donna S. Mote, PhD, The Reverend Kelley Milstead Woggon, yours truly, and The Reverend Dina Carroll

I spent last weekend with old friends; old in the sense that we’ve known each other for a long time, not that we’re old. None of us are ready to admit that (though we did laugh a good bit at some of our creakiness and memory loss). The four of us met 29 years ago when we arrived in Louisville, KY to go to seminary. Four+ years of finding one’s way in that environment can make for long-lasting relationships. That said, we’d not seen one another in forever and thus the weekend was filled with catching up and sharing memories and as mentioned previously, lots and lots of laughs.

While I moved on vocationally to a career in libraries, my three friends have all remained working in ministry. One is a hospital chaplain and administrator, another a hospice chaplain, and the third is an Episcopal priest who works for the diocese of Atlanta in, of all places you might say, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The Vicar of ATL, my friend, Donna, calls herself. (And a reminder to all of my readers, should you ever find yourself in need of a friendly face or helping hand in that airport, look her up.)

Throughout the weekend, as we shared about the work that we each do, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities. I also can’t help but notice that this happens to me often. I have a tendency to look for shared experiences and common ground. I prefer it over differences and, personally, think that while we focus an awful lot in our day-to-day world about our differences and uniqueness, we actually have much more alike with one another than we ever have different. Regardless of what we do or what we believe or how we dress or the color of our skin or the languages that we speak or the … the list goes on, of course.

The Vicar had a tendency to say, “Jesus has left the church,” in reference to her ministry at the airport. The same could be said for my friends who provide comfort at the bedside of sick or dying patients, and their families and loved ones. Each time Donna made this statement, I thought to myself, “How often have I heard, ‘Librarians need to get out of the library’ over the past years?” No matter what you may think of god or religion or Jesus or librarians, the point is the same; when you work with something as ubiquitous as either spirituality or information, or even more, the human needs around such, your ability to do your work becomes pretty limited when you confine it to a particular space.

I’ve written before in this blog about how the conversations and discussions within different labs, research teams, committees, and such that I sit in on around campus so often focus on the same topic – communication. Better put, they focus upon issues related to the difficulties around communication and connectedness. “Nobody knows what we do.” “We need a better website so that people can learn about us.” “We offer so much, yet people don’t know it.” “I need help with (fill in the blank), but don’t know where to begin to figure out how to find the person or place to help me with it.”

Growing up, both of my parents taught school; my mom at the elementary school level, my dad, high school. Since I also went to school and I had teachers, I pretty much knew what my parents did. Yet, whenever I watched television and the TV dads went to the office, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. They put on their suits, picked up their briefcases, and headed out to do something all day. But what? What did “going to the office” mean? It was a big mystery.

And I think it remains that way for a lot of us who work and live in a very silo-ed world, be it academia or research or medicine. We live in our small worlds, often unaware of what’s happening down the hall or on the third floor. But the trend that I see over and over, is that the mystery isn’t very mysterious at all. The basic needs that arise in much of our work are the same for everyone. They’re common ground.

I see this because I’ve been a librarian outside of a library for a bunch of years now. Just like church, people used to bring their troubles to the library. Both were quite central places in people’s lives. But it’s less the case today and while both the library and churches, as places, still have a place in our worlds, the needs that they used to fulfill within their walls are now often (not always, but often) found outside of them. And more, those of us who work to serve and/or meet those needs… we often (not always, but often) will find our patrons or our parishioners beyond them, too.

Out we go!

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.)


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!

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.

Austin Or Bust!

15 May

It’s one of my FAVORITE times of the year, the time to attend the Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association. This year’s meeting is in Austin, Texas and its theme is “Librarians Without Limits.” I can’t wait to visit Austin and I love the theme. As a music lover, particularly Western Swing music, and a librarian who no longer works in a library or even goes by any job title close to “librarian,” the meeting seems to have been made for me! I’ve got a schedule planned out that’s filled with interesting sessions about non-traditional roles, plus a different music venue picked out for each night. Oh, it’s gonna be goooood!!

I’ll be tweeting throughout the meeting (follow along at #mlanet15 and/or @mandosally) and will also be sure to share more than a couple of thoughts and nuggets of inspiration that I experience next week. Until then …

… let’s get to Texas!!

Full Speed Ahead

16 Apr

“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” ~ Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

I came out of an 8 o’clock meeting on Monday morning with the thought, “Well, at least I still have the whole week ahead for things to improve.” They didn’t. Not really. Not until today. It’s been a difficult week.

One of the steepest learning curves of a new job is less often the tasks at hand, but more learning the people. People make life really great, really difficult, and everything in between. That’s pretty much how it goes, unless we live alone on an island. And no one lives alone on an island. Except Tom Hanks in that movie a few years back. Even then, he had Wilson. My work during the earlier part of the week was not critiqued by inanimate objects and/or sporting equipment. It was reviewed and editorialized and shredded to bits before being put back together into something that only marginally resembled what I started off with by people. I admit it … it hurt. And yes, it also made me a little angry.

I had to do a lot of self-talk to keep going. I said to myself, “If someone you know came to you and expressed to you what you’re feeling right now, you would tell them without hesitation that it takes a lot of courage to take chances, to try new things, to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone.” But if you’re like me, you probably find it much easier to encourage others than to do the same for yourself.

There was, of course, nothing personal in the assessment of the work that I’d done. I had to speak before the Committee on Scientific Research Affairs to explain the findings of a user survey that I carried out for a core service recently. I was representing my department in what I was saying and those who are responsible for it just wanted to make sure that I said the right things, in the right way, to highlight the right points. Still, while it may not have been intentional, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being spoken to like I was a complete newcomer to this business, as if I had never presented anything to any audience ever before.

I walked into my house on Monday night and shouted to my animals, “DON’T THEY KNOW WHO I AM?!?!?!” (It’s good to have animals during moments like this. They never judge you for any angst-ridden, bruised-ego-induced outbursts.)

As I talked about it more with my spouse later that evening and then I paid attention to it more during meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, I realized a couple of things. First, the folks that I work for and with now DON’T know who I am. I get invited to speak at conferences, be on task forces, elected to offices in the world of libraries because my peers in these organizations do know me. They know what I do well. They know how I say things, how I do things, how I believe certain things and express them. And yes, it is a nice ego boost when people like you and respect you for those very things; when they like you and respect you for yourself. But it takes awhile for people to get to know you. It takes work and efforts and showing up and volunteering and writing a blog post week after week.

I have none of this going for myself right now and let me tell you, it’s hard. It’s harder than I thought it would be.

But I also noticed a second thing about my new environs this week and that’s that there is a tendency for people to work collaboratively in a way that is more critical than perhaps I’m used to. On Tuesday morning, I worked for two and a half hours with a couple of docs (an MD and a PhD) on the same presentation. We talked through everything. Every piece – not just what I’d put together, but what they’d put together, too – was up for critique. Everything got moved around and rearranged. Parts got lopped off. I was struggling again to hear people telling me that I needed to say something this way, not that way.

Again, I wanted to shout, “I know how to talk to people, for <expletive> sake!!” But along the way somewhere, I was able to step back from my frustrations and hurt feelings a moment to realize we were all in this together. The process that I was a part of was simply the process that’s the norm for these people. The people who I don’t know and who don’t know me, but yet we work together now.

Yes, I do think that the steepest learning curve involves learning the new people. Coming out of yesterday morning’s presentation, one of my new co-workers said to me, “You’re pretty good at that.” I replied, “Yes, I know. And thanks for saying so.”

We’re getting to know each other. Full speed ahead!

Damn the torpedoes!

Damn the torpedoes!

Do you REALLY want it all?

10 Apr
Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

Feeling the Big Squeeze? Remember that even a squeeze box can make a pretty song.

There’s a billboard across the street from my office building, promoting the hospital that’s affiliated with the medical school where I work. It features a friendly looking young woman with the words above her head, “I want it all.” The implication, of course, is that the medical center can meet all of the health needs of this person, indeed of anyone who uses the hospital and its network of health care providers.

This isn’t a criticism of their advertising campaign, but more just a few thoughts that come to my mind every time that I drive past that sign. Wanting it all is pretty much the American dream, is it not? Maybe it’s the dream of all people, everywhere. We all want whatever it is that we want, whether we necessarily need it or not. You may not subscribe to this belief personally, but you have to admit that it’s an awfully loud societal message.

From the perspective of a provider, be one a provider of health care services or a provider of information services, we want it all, too. We want to say that we can provide anything and everything to anyone and everyone who comes through our doors. Libraries, especially, have this idea deeply ingrained in their DNA. They exist for everyone.

But as we have become such a specialized world, I think we’d do well to face the facts that our ability to meet that mission anymore is dwindling, if not altogether extinct. I’ve been working on an evaluation of one of the research cores for the CCTS and in talking to those involved with it, I can’t help but notice they speak many of the same concerns that I long heard in my former home in the library; a handful of people simply cannot meet the needs and demands of everyone.

This imbalance causes us to rethink much of what we do, how we measure our success, and how we plan for the future. The reality of health care is that you really cannot have it all. A few weeks back, I was feeling really miserable and went to the walk-in clinic of the hospital next door only to learn that it’s really not a walk-in clinic, but rather a place for patients who see a certain group of doctors there. These patients can walk in for a last-minute appointment. If one is available. My doctor is a doctor within the same system, but while he has an office a few floors above the very clinic where I was seeking treatment, his clinical office is in another location, thus I wasn’t able to use the services provided there. Again, not a criticism of the provider network (though I am a big critic of the messed-up system that dictates these type decisions), but I share the story as an example of how claiming all can be provided to everyone ought to be a statement with an asterisk after it. Some restrictions DO apply.

One of the reasons that I chose to leave the library and work for the CCTS is that I felt the expectations in this new role were somewhat more realistic. Here was a defined group of programs and research cores for me to evaluate. It’s a lot, but still seems a manageable number. It allows me the ability to focus more, to feel less scattered, to feel less pulled, to feel less like I’m always falling short of meeting my goals, not because I’m not trying hard or working hard, but because I am only one person and trying to give time to everyone feels like a losing proposition. To me.

Sustainability is a key issue as we continue to work in institutions and businesses and governments that are constantly under the pressures of too little resources to meet all of the required needs. We are limited in people, certainly. Positions are cut or people leave posts and are never replaced. Everyone feels overworked as we try to fill holes and do more.

But we’re also limited by our current service models. Yesterday, I was able to attend the annual eScience Symposium hosted by the NN/LM NER. The afternoon session featured two speakers from different universities who described their particular programs for data services. Regarding their data repositories, one school allows self-deposit while the other offers a mediated service, i.e. researchers send their data to the library and then staff their deposit on their behalf, adding all of the proper metadata, annotation, etc. necessary in order for people to search and find the data sets in the said repository. During the Q&A, I asked the speakers about the differences between their models. I asked them some of the same questions that are asked in the process of evaluating research cores and programs:

How did you decide which path to follow? How did you decide which aspect of your repository to sacrifice; the quality of the content (enhanced by the mediation) or the ability to be a bigger service (because you’re not limited by the time/efforts of staff in the library)?

As one speaker said, “It’s a balancing act.” Indeed. And it’s also a clear example of how believing we can be all for all is misguided. It’s just not possible. We have to set priorities and make choices.

For good and bad, though, these are the realities of academic institutions, health care providers, research centers, and libraries. The one thing that we all really do have is the challenge to face these limitations, all the while trying to come up with the solutions for providing the best of whatever we can offer to as many as possible. Whether it’s what we really want or not, THAT is the “all” that we have.

In the Bleak Midwinter

12 Feb

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Worcester, Massachusetts. If you’re not up-to-speed on the “Golden Snow Globe National Snow Contest Snowiest U.S. Cities” rankings, you’ve missed out on the story about my snowy city’s great claim to fame this season… We’re Number 1! 92+ inches and counting. Many folks are tired of it, but not me. I love the snow. I love winter. And I’m loving being in first place! Midwinter

Perhaps the thing that I love best about a snowy winter is that it forces upon us the time to sit still. Stay home. Be quiet. When I’m stuck at home during a blizzard, once I get past the elation that the Medical School is closed for the day and I don’t have to go to work, I hunker in on the couch with a blanket, my dog, something to drink, and either a good movie or a good book, and I revel in the fact that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself. I get this strange feeling that in another life, I must have been some woodland animal; not the kind that hibernates, but the kind that just knows how to hunker in for a day or two. I can do it, no problem at all. 

 For the record, in my 10+ years working at UMass Medical School, this is the first and only time that the school has closed. Twice now. I’m telling you, we’ve had some snow!

I remember reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s memoir, The Good Life, years ago and being struck by their choice of living. In spring, they planted. In summer, they tended to all of the many chores around the homestead. In fall, they harvested and prepared for the winter. And in the winter, they rested. They read and they wrote and they studied. It was the quiet time of year to do those very things.

Funny thing, though, is that while I love hunkering in at home on a snow day, I struggle with it at work on a work day. 

One thing about a new job is the requirement that it can put upon you to be quiet, to pay attention, and to read to learn a lot of new stuff. You know the joke about how librarians do nothing but read all day? Well, I’ve read more in my new role as an evaluator in two months than I likely read as a librarian in the past two years! And the strangest thing about that is how I’ve noticed I have to fight the urge to think that I’m not doing anything. Not being busy attending meetings and troubleshooting problems and answering questions and teaching classes and bouncing from thing to thing to thing … well, sometimes I feel downright guilty just sitting here in my office reading! Reading and planning – two things that I never had enough time to do in my previous job. Never. And now that I have the luxury to do so, I feel a little off my game.

But maybe that’s it. Maybe the fact that it’s ingrained into our workaday mindset and values that busy-ness means a jam-packed schedule is why I feel off. We measure productivity more by a full calendar than anything else. We measure our value in accomplishing stuff. Replying, “I’m free all day on Thursday and Friday,” meaning I don’t have any meetings on Thursday and Friday, makes me feel weird. Lazy. Guilty! I’ve realized that it really is a luxury, in this day and age, to sit and think and read and plan. On work time. 

Now that I’ve begun to plan out some projects, to schedule some meetings, to get out and DO something, I’m feeling better. More balanced.

And the fact that I’ve been doing just what I needed to do until now … that’s buried in the snow. 


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