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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. 

The Lost Art of Being Frugal

29 Jan

Worcester, Massachusetts got slammed by a blizzard this week, bringing out the hearty nature in all of us New Englanders. What’s a little (34″) snow to dampen our spirits? I made a big pot of chili, watched a couple of movies, read a little, and hung out with my pets while the snow flew. Then yesterday, I joined everyone else in the neighborhood in the first great dig out of the winter. It’s what you do when you live here. No complaining needed. Born out of the spirit of the Puritans that settled here, New Englanders have a reputation for hard work and frugality. Granted, it’s been some time since the days of the Pilgrims, and regional distinctions fade as we’ve become a much more migratory society over the centuries, but we still think of Southern hospitality, Midwestern friendliness, Western pioneers, and hearty New Englanders. And yesterday, we hearty folks were shoveling. 

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While we praise hard work and frugality, these traits also run counter to much that Americans dream to achieve today. Retiring early, becoming a millionaire overnight, achieving fame and fortune by winning a talent contest … these are the ideas behind bestsellers and top rated television programs. We talk the talk of hard work, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, scraping and scrapping and saving for our dreams; these are the bedrocks upon which America was built and, thus, they remain a part of our societal DNA. As one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said, “The way to wealth depends on just two words, industry and frugality.” In theory. But in reality, for more reasons than we can count, they are less and less the walk of America. 

Economists speak of “frugality fatigue” as a driving force behind folks living in debt. As a species, we aren’t always very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want now and we’ve built a society that feeds this human habit in so many ways. Thus, when we also hear the popular mantra “do more with less” in our workplaces and business, it’s not something that we necessarily want to hear. It becomes a very negative thing. It wears us out, after awhile. We get stretched too thin. We simply cannot do more and more with less and less. In this sense, frugality becomes our enemy.

But is it? Was Mr. Franklin wrong? Or is there a way to look at “do more with less” that prompts something beyond stress?

According to Navi Radjou, an innovation strategist in Silicon Valley, the answer to that question is yes. In his thought-provoking TED Talk, Creative Problem-Solving in the Face of Extreme Limits, he outlines his theory of frugal innovation. In this brief talk, he gives lots of examples of people living in conditions where resources are often extremely limited, yet rather than limiting their ability to solve problems, the situation actually enhances their creativity and results in solutions that they would likely never come up with in a land of plenty. 

They can magically transform adversity into opportunity, and turn something of less value into something of high value. In other words, they mastered the art of doing more with less, which is the essence of frugal innovation.

~ Navi Radjou

We hardly need to live in abject poverty to take advantage of this idea. Librarianship, and any profession struggling with finding its footing and value in tough times, can tap into the one resource that’s common in most every situation, human ingenuity. Radjou calls it our most abundant resource. We need to find ways and create situations that foster our ingenuity. Maybe, the pressure cooker of a “do more and more with less and less” work setting can be the impetus for this. Maybe not knowing what’s coming next, not knowing where we belong, not knowing how to define and/or redefine ourselves is just the environment we need to push us towards creative solutions.

In many ways, I’m glad that I’ve entered my new role as an evaluator without a lot of traditional knowledge and background in the subject. Yes, I’ve been reading and studying up on the basics, but lacking the resource of years of experience and know-how, I find that I’m able to come up with some different thoughts and ideas and solutions that I probably wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. It’s like the team that enters the big game for the first time. They don’t know enough to know to lose.

One of the great things about evaluating the impact of clinical and translational research is that nobody really knows exactly how to do it yet. This is what I tell myself. It helps me put aside any anxiety of knowing that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and sets me free to try all sorts of things in doing my job. It’s my way of making the most out of my limited resources and thus practicing frugal innovation. And that can be downright exciting. 

 

 

Making Mistakes

15 Jan

The button has been pushed and our proposal for a Clinical Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health is out of our hands. Let the review process begin! 

My part of the writing and work has been done for a few days now, so I’ve been spending much of the past week doing many things that I likely would have done when I started this new job, if only I hadn’t jumped into the grant writing fire. I’ve read all of the Center’s newsletters for the past few years, I’ve taken lots of notes and done a bunch of documentation related to who’s who for each of our core components. I’d drawn a lot of pictures and graphs and maps to help me understand the landscape. My informationist role in the Library prepared me well for these latter tasks, as I’d been embedded in projects and made it my job to know what was going on around the University. Still, it’s a lot of putting names to faces to departments to projects. It’s a lot to learn.

I also need to learn a lot about the role of an evaluator. I knew enough to get the job, but now that I have it, I know that I need to learn a great deal more before I’m proficient in the task(s). I’ve been reading a lot of articles from evaluation journals. I tracked down several good books on program evaluation, and a couple on evaluating biomedical and health research, in particular. I’ve subscribed to professional listservs, been reading daily blog posts by evaluators, and joined a professional organization to have access to needed resources. Lastly, I’ve been working through a few self-guided mini-courses to make sure I’ve got the basics down pat and that I understand the terminology that I’m reading elsewhere. So far, so good.

And I’m planning. It’s true that I worked with the section writers and leadership of the CCTS to develop evaluation plans for the different components of our proposal. In other words, I’ve already written a whole bunch of plans stating what I’m going to do over the next few years. That said though, there’s planning and then there’s PLANNING. The all-caps version is where I am now. I have plans to collect and track certain metrics to answer certain evaluation questions, but now I really need to plan out how I’m going to do all of that. The logistics. It’s a great challenge. It’s interesting and I’m learning a lot. I cannot complain.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It's hung over my desk ever since.

A torn page from a book. I found this on the sidewalk one day during a walk. It’s hung over my desk ever since.

One clear thing that I’ve read – and thus learned – over and over in my study ’til now is that the practices of measuring and evaluating are continuous. You need to plan for them from the beginning and, depending upon your goal, assess at different points along the way. It’s pretty much like life in general. If you make that New Year’s Resolution to lose weight, you need to make a plan and part of that plan involves devising a means to track your progress along the way. If you want to go on a trip to Europe, you need a plan to save the money and a way to keep track of what you’ve saved, so you’ll know when you’re ready to pack your bags. 

I am a reflective person by nature. I majored in philosophy during my first time through college. I went to seminary where you hone your spiritual reflection skills well. I’ve spent time with therapists, here and there in life. I’ve been writing this blog for the past few years as a way to reflect upon and keep track of my changing roles as a librarian. For me, it’s a really helpful practice because it keeps my awareness of where I am and what I’m doing and what I’m learning at the forefront. Annual evaluations (and/or quarterly reports) don’t work for me without keeping track of things along the way. This blog helps with that.

I recently re-read something that I wrote last fall for a different blog, Hack Library School. I was interviewed, along with several other medical librarians, about our work. One of the questions asked was what advice I’d give to current students studying library science and my answer, in part, was:

Sell yourself! One of the things that I see happening in settings like mine (an academic medical school and research center) is that there is never a shortage of work for a person who can match his/her skill set to existing needs. And there are LOTS of existing needs. The key is to really know what you know how to do, know what you need to learn how to do (and learn it – ESPECIALLY if you’re weak in the sciences), and then know how to show people that what you bring is uniquely useful to them. I don’t necessarily think that this means you wait around and look for job openings in medical libraries, but that you also keep your eye on other parts of the health care system or biomedical research where what you can do fits. People looking for help often don’t think of a librarian as one who could do the job for them, but I think that’s mostly because we haven’t done the best job of selling ourselves. Know yourself, have confidence (even if you have to fake it at first), and put yourself in places that offer you opportunity.

One thing I could add to this is that developing a practice of self-reflection, evaluation, and/or tracking yourself – however you do it – will put you in a much better position to sell yourself and/or match your abilities to opportunities as they arrive. This is exactly what happened to me last November and it landed me in a great new role. My CV didn’t say a thing about being an evaluator, but I was able to map pretty much every aspect of it to the qualifications needed for the person in this post. The discipline of weekly reflection via this blog made that task easy.

We always encounter times in our lives where evaluation is forced upon us, whether it’s that mandatory annual review or a major life event. My mother-in-law is in hospice care now and nearing the end of her life. It’s a time of reflection for her and everyone in the family. “Did I live a good life?” is likely the ultimate evaluation question. You hope for the answer, “Yes” and you hope for lots of reasons to be sure of your answer, since it’s basically too late to change much. Driving home last night after visiting with her, I thought a lot about how all of these things fit together. There’s no need to wait until the program is over, until a career is over, or until a life is over to ask, “Did I do a good job?” When we plan to track, measure, reflect, and evaluate along the way, I’m fairly certain we’re better off in the end. 

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Candy Store

15 Dec

If you’re curious about what happened to the daily candy canes over the past few days, here’s the scoop. Starting TODAY, I’m the new Research Evaluation Analyst for the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Yep, I’ve left my former position in the library and venture off into a new world. Since it’s Day One (officially, though I’ve been doing some work before today, catching up), I have to put my focus here, but I’ll be back very soon (later in the week) with updates on the job and candy canes galore!!

Please stay tuned. “A Librarian by Any Other Name” remains the name of this blog for good reason. This librarian is now going by the name, “Evaluator.” :)

New Digs

New Digs

Teaching Like a Ninja!

1 Oct

Massachusetts Health Sciences Library (1)I attended a really terrific continuing education event last Friday, co-hosted by the Massachusetts Health Sciences Library Network (MAHSLIN) and the Western Massachusetts Health Information Consortium (WHMIC). It featured two excellent speakers and a “sold-out” crowd.

First, Rebecca Blanchard, PhD, MEd, from Baystate Health, Academic Affairs Division, led us through a session focusing on the idea of “stealth teaching,” i.e. teaching people without them knowing that they are being taught. This is a great approach to education and one particularly suited for those of us who work in harried environments and with people who generally have little time or attention to give towards learning something new. From one-on-one encounters to small group instruction to formal classroom teaching, we learned and practiced ways of moving people from the place where they don’t know and/or don’t even know that they don’t know, to a place of knowledge, all by ways that facilitate learning. Dr. Blanchard has coined her approach, “ninja teaching” and by the time the session was over, we’d all earned our white belts in ninja school! 

After learning about teaching, we enjoyed a time of stress reduction – a perfect thing for a Friday! Donna Zucker, RN, PhD, FAAN, from University of Massachusetts, School of Nursing taught us all about the use of labyrinths in stress reduction. We learned about the very long history of labyrinths and the practice of walking them, including their modern day use in clinical settings, health care, and rehabilitation. We got to see a short video about a project that Dr. Zucker is involved with at a county correctional facility, where the inmates built a labyrinth and use it for improving their own stress management skills, something that benefits them greatly when they return to society.

Perhaps the coolest thing … We learned about the use of labyrinths in libraries! Sparq Meditation Labyrinth is a portable, projected labyrinth that was developed by Matt Cook who works at the University of Oklahoma’s library. His project has been installed in his library, as well as at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst’s, W.E.B. DuBois Library. I found this FASCINATING! The science behind labyrinth walking and stress reduction abounds and it was really great to see libraries and librarians aware of the anxieties students face and using this incredibly unique tool to help them manage their stress. I’m going to keep up with this project. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to install it in my own library one day.

Big thanks to Margot Malachowski of Bay State Hospital’s (Springfield, MA) library for arranging this event for her colleagues, and to MAHSLIN and WMHIC for supporting it!

Here are my sketchnotes from the day:

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Old Brains, New Tricks

5 Sep

ShallowsI recently had a very odd health scare that landed me in the hospital for a couple of days. That was a first. Lots of tests later, I’m pronounced A-OK. Hooray! One of the tests I had was an MRI of my brain. In his notes back to me via my health record, my doc told me that I have a very young brain for my age and ever since, my mantra has been, “I’m young at brain.”

Our brains are fascinating things, aren’t they? I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, this week. A neuroscience page-turner, I tell you, as well as a great social critique of our techno-centric world. Our brains’ feature of plasticity is amazing. It ability to change and adapt and mold its neural pathways into all sorts of routes is amazing. I highlighted the following passage, thinking of how true it is both literally and metaphorically:

The adult brain, it turns out, is not just plastic but, as James Olds, a professor or neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, put it, “very plastic.” Or, as Merzenich himself says, “massively plastic.” The plasticity diminishes as we get older – brains do get stuck in their ways – but it never goes away. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. “The brain,” observes Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

It seems like we’re hardwired for flexibility and change, despite how much we tend to not like it. Sometimes I reflect on a decade of being a librarian and it seems like one big change. Very little has stayed constant, aside from my physical location. I’ve remained in my same cubicle since the day that I arrived here, not something that everyone in my Library can say. But my job, focus, skill set, projects, responsibilities, colleagues… these have all changed, and generally more than once. Being a librarian is, in some ways, like being a brain. And plasticity best be a part of it. We’d better be able to reprogram and alter ourselves on the fly, too, if we want to be successful and/or remain relevant. 

Yesterday, I went to a lunchtime talk on campus. It was in the Faculty Conference Room, a large room with many round tables set up around the room. I saw a table of my colleagues across the way, but after I picked up my lunch, I sat the table next to them. I didn’t really even think about it. It’s become my “neural pathway” to mix and mingle at these events. It’s become my habit to meet new people and strike up conversations with them about what they do, wherever I go on campus. My empty table soon became filled up with 7 people that I’d never met before. They included the Associate Vice Chancellor for HR Diversity Management, someone from our Office of Communications, a recruiter for a research study, two lab researchers, and a student. I learned that our Associate Vice Chancellor studied engineering, of all things. “How did you get from engineering to human resources and diversity?” I asked her. “It’s all about solving problems,” she replied. 

I learned that we have a relatively new Vice Chancellor of Communications. I learned that one of our large, multi-site research studies that I know about is drawing to a close. I learned that people are curious about social media and how to use it in their jobs. All at my one table. And… everyone at my table met a librarian that they didn’t know before that lunch. And they learned a bit about the Library, too. We all made connections. 

This isn’t the way that I used to do my job. It’s not how I used to view and think about people throughout the Medical School, i.e. constantly making connections, both in my mind and in person. My “young for my age” brain has changed over time and I’ve learned to do these things almost second nature. And I’m sure that over more time, I’ll continue to let the plasticity of my brain do it’s thing. I’m willing to bet that old brains doing new tricks will keep ourselves, and our profession, healthy.

Postscript: After publishing this, I happened to see a tweet that said Nicholas Carr will  be a speaker at this year’s Boston Book Festival. I’ll be sure to try and catch him, if I’m not dressed up as a book character when he’s speaking!

All of the Data that’s Fit to Collect

28 Jul

My graduate thesis in exercise physiology involved answering a research question that required collecting an awful lot of data before I had enough for analysis. I was comparing muscle fatigue in males and females, and in order to do this I had to find enough male-female pairs that matched for muscle volume. I took skin fold measurements and calculated the muscle volume of about 150 thighs belonging to men and women on the crew teams of Ithaca College. Out of all of that, I found 8 pairs that matched. It was hardly enough for grand findings, but it was enough to do the analysis, write my thesis, successfully defend it, and earn my degree. After all, that’s what research at this level is all about, i.e. learning how to put together a study and carry it all the way through to completion.

During my defense, one of my advisers asked, “With all of that data, you could have answered ___, too. Why didn’t you?” I hemmed and hawed for a bit, before finally answering, “Because that’s not what I said that I was going to do,” an answer that my statistics professor, also in attendance, said was the right answer. Was my adviser trying to trick me? I’m not sure, but it’s an experience that I remember often today when I read and talk and work in a field obsessed with the “data deluge.”

The temptation to do more than what you set out to do is ever present, maybe even more today than ever before. We have years worth of data – a lot of data – for the mammography study. When the grant proposal was written and funded, it laid out specifics regarding what analysis would be done; what questions would be answered. Five years down the road, it’s easy to see lots of other questions that can be answered with the same data. A common statement made in the team meetings is, “I think people want to know Y” or “Z is really important to find out.” The problem, however, is that we set out to answer X. While Y and Z may well be valuable, X is what the study was designed to answer.

LOD_Cloud_Diagram_as_of_September_2011

“LOD Cloud Diagram as of September 2011″ by Anja Jentzsch – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I see a couple of issues with this scenario. First, grant money is a finite resource. In a time when practically all research operates under this funding model, people have a certain amount of time dedicated, i.e. paid for, by a grant. If that time gets used up answering peripheral questions or going down interesting, but unplanned, rabbit holes, the chances of completing the initial work on time is jeopardized. As one who has seen my original funded aims change over time, this can be frustrating. And don’t hear me saying that it’s all frustrating. On the contrary, along with the frustration can come some pretty cool work. The mini-symposium on data management that I described in earlier posts was a HUGE success for my work, but it’s not what we originally set out to do. The ends justified the means, in that case, but this isn’t always what happens.

The second issue I see is one that I hear many researchers express when the topics of data sharing and data reuse are raised, i.e. data is collected a certain way to answer a certain question. Likewise, it’s managed under the same auspices. Being concerned about what another researcher will do with data that was collected for another reason is legitimate. It’s not a concern that can’t be addressed, but it’s certainly worth noting. When I was finished with my thesis data, a couple of faculty members offered to take it and do some further research with it. There were some different questions that could be answered using the larger data set, but not without taking into account the original research question and the methods I used to collect all of it. Anonymous data sharing and reuse, without such context, doesn’t always afford such, at least not in the current climate where data citation and identification is still evolving. (All the more reason to keep working in this area.)

We have so many tools today that allow faster and more efficient data collection. We have grant projects that go on for years, making it difficult to say “no” to ask new questions of the same project that come up along the way. We are inundated with data and information and resources that make it virtually impossible to focus on any one thing for any length of time.

The possibilities of science in a data-driven environment seem limitless. It’s easy to forget that some limits do, in fact, exist.

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