Do what interests you and the success (if not the money) will follow

25 Oct

I donned both my librarian and exercise physiologist hats when I stopped off at the Worcester Public Library on my way home from work last night to pick up copies of Gary Taubes ‘ books, Why We Get Fat (2011) and Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007). Taubes is one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming annual meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries, Inc. (NAHSL), the regional organization of the Medical Library Association that I’m a member. I admit from the outset that I am not a fan of his writing in this area. I disagree with his theory that obesity has become an epidemic in our country because we fell, as a society, for the “myth” propagated by the medical, public health, and health fitness/exercise communities; namely that a high carbohydrate, low fat diet is beneficial for our health AND promotes weight loss.

Like most others in the popular diet press, he generally proposes that a single factor is to blame for one of the most multi-factoral and complex health problems imaginable. Such writing is popular and it gains a following. It lands authors on the NY Times bestseller lists and makes “fitness gurus” quite wealthy. And despite the millions who read and follow and praise, the problem of obesity in our country (and the world) continues. Why? Because it’s based on bad science.

I will resist making this an exercise physiology post and elaborating on the bad science part, because that’s not the purpose of this blog. The purpose of this blog is to reflect upon and recount my experience and role as an informationist. From that end, my experience last night is relevant. Here’s why…

I stopped at the WPL and picked up the books, flipped through them and took notes, spent a couple of hours on PubMed searching the literature for the best evidence, organized my findings into a new folder in “My NCBI” that I named “Energy Intake & Fad(t) Diets,” and then read several articles before I went to bed AND then again first thing this morning. Stepping back and looking at this behavior, I realized something about it that may well prove as important, if not more, than the discussion of skill sets that we often focus on as we’re talking about what’s needed for an informationist to find success in his/her work. That something, I’m going to call passion.

When I was in high school, the professional women’s tennis tour had a regular stop at the University of Richmond. I saved money from my job at the local Rite Aid and during the summers between both my sophomore and junior years, bought tickets for the entire tournament, driving myself to the West End each morning and staying until the last match ended that night. To this day, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade and Rosie Casals and the awesome doubles-pair of Ann Smith and Kathy Jordan, stick with me as my favorites. What also happened during those weeks was that I became enamored with the idea of becoming an athletic trainer. I thought that the woman who came out and taped the ankles, brought ice packs and heat rubs, took care of these incredible athletes had the BEST JOB IN THE WORLD! I wanted to grow up to do the same.

I studied up on sports medicine programs (it was very early in the history of this profession) and identified colleges with accredited programs. I applied to the three closest and ended up at one of them. For a whole host of reasons that I’ll not go into, I switched my major several times during my years at JMU and, it goes without saying, never landed that “best job”. Funny though, after a stroll down a different career path for a decade and a half, and facing the realization that I wanted to do something else, a series of events helped me to see that the passion of that 17 year old had not ever really been extinguished. I went back to school and earned two degrees in exercise physiology – studying the very subject, though from a different perspective, that I’d come to be fascinated with some 20 years earlier.

Passion drives interest. And interest takes us a really long way in terms of helping us stick with something, dig for answers, go after the new knowledge that we need. Passion and interest bring us something in our work that nothing else can. Mary Costanza, one of the co-PIs on the study where I’m an informationist, is passionate about breast cancer prevention. PASSIONATE. Women need to take advantage of the technologies of medicine that we have; they need to get regular mammograms. Early detection saves lives. She believes this fully. You can tell when you talk to her, when you sit in meetings with her. Even though my primary care doc tells me that I don’t need regular mammograms yet, being around Mary makes me start thinking that I better go sign up today! She is not a co-PI on this study simply because it’s a good thing or a good study. She is much more invested than that. She has passion for it.

Similarly, the “obesity doc” that I mentioned in my post last week, Sherry Pagoto, is passionate about helping people adopt healthy lifestyles. PASSIONATE. She lives and breathes and tweets and blogs about it. She designs studies and secures funding to carry out research that will hopefully provide the answers we need to solve the epidemic of obesity that we face in our society. I feel really fortunate to work with her as as exercise physiologist, not just because she’s fun to work with and her passion is infectious, but because of this…

… it is my interest, too.

And that’s the thought that occurred to me last night as I found myself spending my off-hours searching PubMed. I was searching it because I was looking for something that interested me. We have debated whether or not subject-specialty is a necessity for success in this new role. Law librarians have law degrees. Music librarians have music degrees. Do biomedical librarians, in particular, informationists, need biomedical degrees to be successful in this realm? The jury is still out, but here’s the bit of evidence that I want to present to it as it deliberates – knowledge is important, but maybe what’s equally important about the subject specialty is the interest that the person perhaps has in it. (I say “perhaps” because too many people major in subjects that they could care less about. They think about hire-ability. I’ll not fault them that, but just note it here.)

As we looked for a study where an informationist from our library would fit well, I immediately looked to those in preventive medicine, epidemiology, public health, in other words, applied research. Knowing that I was likely going to be the informationist, I hoped we could find something in an area of research in which I felt somewhat comfortable. I’m not a bench top scientist. I have no experience there. I also have little interest in areas like bioinformatics and sequence-heavy data. It’s just not my thing. And I have no doubt whatsoever that a lack of interest coupled with a lack of experience would have been the perfect recipe for failure for me (and ultimately, my library and our goals here) had we gone that route.

Fortunately, we found a study that did, to a better degree, fit my research experience. It also interests me. I admit that I’ve not spent my after-hours searching for articles on mammography yet. I’m curious about different approaches to helping people adhere to screening tests. I’m enjoying learning about motivational interviewing techniques and how they might (or might not) prove effective in interventions. I’m challenged and satisfied by the work of organizing all of the information we’re creating and data we’re collecting. It’s fulfilling work. I’m not passionate about it, but I don’t need to be. I’m interested enough – and interest is more than enough to generate success.

Discovering how far we can go with interest is … pardon me for saying it … interesting. It’s not a total substitute for subject knowledge, but I do believe it is helpful to any librarian who is wondering how s/he can become more involved in the research process. Think about what interests you. Take note of it. And then start looking for people at your institutions or on your campuses who are working in that area. Match your interests with theirs. It will show when you talk to them and it will make them much more likely to welcome you into their working circle(s). I don’t yet have the evidence to prove this, but it’s a theory that I think might bare out in time.

Now for lunch and more reading about energy balance. That Gary Taubes… I’m gonna have some questions for him during the Q&A of his talk.


2 Responses to “Do what interests you and the success (if not the money) will follow”

  1. Brandy King October 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Yes yes YES! I often tell people that one of the reasons I chose to become a librarian and one of the things I like best about this career is that the MLIS degree gave me the skills to apply to any topic which interested me. That I DONT have to specialize is the reason I became a librarian instead of continuing my love affair with academia by pursuing a PhD.

    I can work in any number of fields and positions using only my MLIS and my passion for a certain topic. I do not have to go back to school to specialize in a topic in order to contribute to the collection, organization and dissemination of information in that field. I might even argue that because I am NOT a specialist, I am able to bring a useful objectivity to these activities that someone inside the field would not have.

  2. salgore October 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    Ah, but your INTEREST in librarianship lies in its relation / fit to almost any area. I’d dare to say (and because I kind of know you) that you have the kind of mind that is open to a lot of different things. You get interested in lots of things. I do think that there’s real value in that. I think it may well be a trait that we need to identify and foster in those currently and/or looking to become librarians. I’m not ready to throw out the subject knowledge entirely just yet. There really is value there – a LOT of value. But as I wrote, I think having a genuinely inquisitive nature about the area in which you work can help compensate for knowledge you lack (or at least help you get your foot in the door where, once in the room, your interest will help you learn a lot faster).

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