Archive | April, 2013

Who is your hero? – PART I

25 Apr


The very first tip in Daniel Coyle’s book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, is “Stare at who you want to become.” In her new book, How to be Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps), Jessica Hagy writes, “Find yourself a hero. Seek someone who makes you smile. Someone who lives the way you want to. Someone you admire. Someone real and imperfect. Learn from them two thing: (1) What they do well, and (2) What they do not do so well.” A few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time trying to figure out who and what and how I wanted to be, a really wise person told me, “Find a mentor. Find someone who is like who you want to be.” There must be some truth to it. There must be something about mentors and mentoring, apprenticeship, and/or having someone to watch and model yourself after that helps you to become the person that you envision yourself being.

Do you have a mentor? Do you have someone that you look to – or stare at – so that you can notice those things that they do well and emulate them? When I was growing up, my hero was Billie Jean King. I loved the way she played tennis. I loved the way she spoke up for women’s tennis. I loved the way she beat Bobby Riggs. I must have checked out her autobiography from my public library dozens of times. I knew every part of her story from growing up in a middle class family, learning tennis on the public courts in California, how her brother played baseball in the major leagues. I knew about her struggles with weight, her knee surgeries, and her close companionship with another woman. When the story broke about their relationship, I remember my mom telling me that she was sorry my hero had let me down. I wasn’t of an age or mindset to understand or care about any of that stuff. I said it didn’t matter to me. She was my hero.

Years later, she still is. Whenever any magazine or network or other source attempts to generate a list of the most important sports figures in American history, I always look to see that Billie Jean King’s name is near the top. If it isn’t, then the list means little. She changed women’s sports – and sports in general – in ways few others have ever come close. She is on par with Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali – others who, simply by being themselves, changed their landscape. To me, what makes these people the most special (and the most admirable) is that while they each had flaws, they just could not be anyone other than who they were. Billie Jean King was going to be an outspoken individual who demanded fairness in her sport – equal pay for women – because she was a person who demanded fairness. The same characteristic emerged when she became a spokesperson for Title IX, for the Women’s Sports Foundation, and for the GLBTQ community. It’s always been about demanding fairness.

But how about in work? Particularly when you’re delving into a new area or just trying to survive in a profession that’s quickly changing all around you. Who do you look to for guidance and encouragement and some semblance of what “success” looks like for you? Who do you look to when the very institution that you prepared yourself to work in changes before you even get out of school?

I actually found a really good hero a couple of years ago. I want to write about it and share what I’ve learned and experienced since crossing paths with this person, but first I’d like to hear from others. I’m going to post this and wait for some comments – hoping to hear other’s stories before I tell my own. I hope you’ll share.

There is no “I” in TEAM (But is there a “U”?)

23 Apr

Last Tuesday morning, during the research team’s weekly meeting, a small group of us gathered and joked about how no one had a printout of the agenda. Mary Jo White, our Project Manager, always takes care of this. Mary Jo schedules the meetings, sets the agenda, organizes everything that needs to be organized. With a graduate degree in public health and years of research experience, she knows all of the ins and outs of managing a multi-discipline, multi-person, multi-site team. She keeps everyone on track and moving forward. When my Library Director and I first approached the team to ask if they’d be interested in putting together what ultimately became our successful grant application for an informationist, Mary Jo was integral in making sure everyone completed their part of the application correctly and on time, and she managed all of the communication between the different parties as we tried to make it sound just right.

Last Tuesday, Mary Jo was on vacation. We thought she was on the West Coast, enjoying time with college friends. We laughed at ourselves, for our dependence upon her to manage us. Roger, one of the principal investigators on the study, then took out his iPhone and read overtop of his glasses at the email she’d sent us before leaving; the email that gave us the agenda for the hour.

We’d no sooner begun the meeting when Mary, the other PI, received a voicemail message on her phone. It was from Mary Jo’s youngest son. Mary said, “Oh my god,” and left the room to listen to the message again. When she returned, she told us that the call was from Andy and he’d said that he was in the Emergency Room with Mary Jo. As it turned out, she was not in Oregon, but had been at the finish line of the Boston Marathon the day before.

By now, I’m sure all of my readers know the events that took place in my state last week. It’s been a world news story; a shocking event that the city of Boston, despite being stubborn and strong as nails, is still reeling from. In a world filled with violence, it is still not even fathomable that someone would set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. At least it was until last Monday.

Mary was unable to reach Andy and so we sat in the meeting, somewhat in shock, and tried to accomplish the tasks that Mary Jo had listed for us. Personally, I simply felt sick.

Later in the day, and in the days that followed, we learned that Mary Jo, her husband Bill, and their oldest son, Kevin, had all been standing within several feet of where one of the bombs exploded. They had each been severely injured. Mary Jo’s arm and wrist were shattered and she endured surgery to remove shrapnel. Kevin had a concussion, busted eardrum, and shrapnel. Bill was in ICU. His leg was damaged beyond repair and had to be amputated.

I resisted sharing this story on my blog for fear of sensationalizing what is already a sensational event, but it has been told in the news already and as I thought of it in the context of work, I realized that in it – even at this very early stage – there’s something to be learned and shared. Before I share that though, I want to say that this morning, as we gathered for our weekly meeting (again with no handouts and a sketchy agenda), the mood lightened considerably when we heard Mary Jo’s voice on the conference call. She’d called in simply to say hi and tell us how grateful she was for all of the thoughts and prayers (and food) sent their way. I surprised myself when I felt a tear well up in my eye. Hearing her voice was the best thing and though we did have other items to cover, none were as significant. She is healing, Kevin is healing, and Bill is healing. They each have a road of recovery ahead, but I’m so grateful that they are with us to travel it.

One of the goals for my being on the research team is to examine how an informationist fits in this environment. As such, I’ve read and thought a lot about how teams work and how individuals fit in them. A lot of what I’ve written over the past months is evidence of this. Anyone who’s visited the business section of a Barnes & Noble (or your local library) knows that there is no shortage of interest in and writing on this topic. There are countless gurus willing to give you a step-by-step approach to either building a successful team or dismantling a dysfunctional one. You can spend a lot of money on common sense packaged in a snazzy cover with a spiffy title. You could make a lot of money if you have the style and flair and hutzpah to pontificate on the subject. But when it comes to learning, the day-to-day experience of being on and working with a team will give you perhaps the greatest insight.

Baseballpositions copy“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so the saying goes. Of course, it’s a saying about love between two people, but it’s true of any sort of relationship. Teams are relationships and, nine times out of ten, well-functioning teams are a sign of healthy relationships. When someone is missing in the relationship, it shows.

I’m a big sports fan and as the sports teams of Boston rally around the city, maybe it’s not so out of place for me to think of my research team in the same way. Going with baseball, Mary Jo is on the disabled list right now. We’re without her. Just as the Yankees are without Derek Jeter, our team is without it’s anchor.

Yes, I know that it borders on anathema to use Jeter and/or the Yankees as my example here, but they DID sing “Sweet Caroline” at their game after the bombings, a display of sportsmanship and humanity that, quite frankly, made me fear the end of the world is near!

The project manager of a research team is akin to the captain. This is the person that knows what’s going on across the board. S/he is the go-between, the person that everyone communicates to and/or through in the process of the work. The project manager gets copied on every email, every memo. As mentioned earlier, s/he calls the team meetings, sets the agenda, keeps us moving in the right direction.

Principal investigators are the managers – sometimes the on-field manager, sometimes the general manager. They keep the big picture in mind, always. They know the bigger goal. They know the details of the day-to-day, too, but always within the context of the research question and how we’re getting to the answer. I’ve noticed that it’s one of our PIs who usually asks the question(s) that bring us back to why this study is being done in the first place. Like the manager of the ball club, the PI always says, “We’re here to win the World Series,” even if the World Series is about answering a question regarding the effectiveness of a particular intervention on getting women to have mammograms.

The analyst is the catcher. The analyst can look at the field and the position of the other players and say, “shift left” or “shift right”. The analyst is the one that the pitcher and the infielders look to when they wonder the history of the next batter or the next question for analysis. They know all of the variables. They know all of the holes. They know how to fix something in a hurry – on the fly – to get the next batter (or problem) out. Without a good catcher, you can get a lousy pitching staff, a bunch of passed balls, and a big ol’ mess of a defense.

On my particular research team, there are other specific players. There’s an individual who trains and manages the people who make the scheduling and intervention calls (instructor). She is like a bench coach; a one-time player who excelled at understanding the process. This skill allows her to create processes and systems that work, and then translate them clearly to the players. She does a lot of tweaking, but not enough to disrupt the mechanics of the whole motion. She works daily to solve the little problems so that none of them become big problems and a 2-game losing streak doesn’t turn into a lost season.

There are others on the team, too. There are equipment managers (IT gurus and programmers), the ones who keep the data and all of the systems that collect it up to speed. They know the nuts and bolts, and they get a lot of the blame when we bring the home uniforms for an away game. It’s a thankless job, for sure, but essential. Without them, we don’t take the field OR gather any data.

There are also several other coaches, managers, and front office staff (research directors, coordinators, and assistants) who oversee particular aspects of our team. They make sure that we have enough fans (subjects) coming through the gates. They insure quality customer service. They know all of the rules and are careful that we play by them, going back to the IRB whenever necessary. Their names are in the program, though few people know who they actually are or what they actually do. Until they aren’t there to do it.

And then there is me, the informationist. What’s my role on the team? Well, I’m still figuring that out. Am I like the designated hitter, a position introduced later in the game (actually, 40 years ago this season) that people still argue about in terms of its relevance to the game? Am I a late-season call-up, the player that gets added to an expanded roster? Maybe I get in for a pinch-hit, now and then. Maybe I get to pinch-run for the slow power hitter.

Ideally, I hope that in time I become the utility player; the invaluable player that can fill-in at multiple positions because s/he has multiple skills. The utility player is rarely an all-star, an MVP, or even a starter. But the utility player is the one who can be called on any day, in a variety of situations, to provide what is needed for the team. I like to think that a skilled informationist is one who knows the research process well enough to understand what’s going on where. S/he knows statistics well enough to understand the questions being asked and the discussion going on. S/he knows information management, information organization, information flow – s/he knows how pieces best fit together to form a knowledge base. Maybe s/he can’t throw a strike to third base from right field, but s/he knows when to cut the ball off and throw home, nailing the runner at the plate. And lastly, the informationist doesn’t mind sitting out a game. S/he doesn’t have the ego that gets bent out of shape when the team meeting goes long and s/he doesn’t get to have an at-bat, or give an update. S/he is ready next time. S/he is a supporting player, but one with a specific purpose and specific skill set, and thus, part of the team.

In all honesty, a team manages okay a lot longer without a utility player than without its captain. We’re going to flounder a little until Mary Jo gets back on the field with us, but we have a good team and we’ll stay afloat in the standings. I don’t doubt this. And as for this utility player, playing on a team with such a captain only makes me want to play harder.

Get well soon, Mary Jo!

TEDMED at Home

17 Apr

My workplace is live streaming the terrific annual event, TEDMED, this week. Many of the talks eventually become available through the TED website, so if you’re not able to watch now, do check in at a later date to see what gets posted. In particular, you might want to watch Larry Smarr describe his hard-to-imagine quest for gathering, tracking, and analyzing every kind of microbe living in his colon. Perhaps it sounds a bit dry, but trust me, it was a fascinating talk.

If you’re interested in mobile health, don’t miss Deborah Estrin’s talk on the work she is doing at Cornell towards an “Open mHealth” movement. Assessing our “social pulse,” she argues, can tell as much about our health as anything, and doing such a thing is becoming more and more possible with the advent of so many tools and apps available for mobile devices. (Visit Small Data to use/see your own small data.)

EVERY academic librarian, along with every single person who utilizes the resources of an academic library, needs to watch Elizabeth Marincola speak on, “What happens when science, money, and freedom of information collide?”  Marincola is a business person and a publisher… and a VERY strong advocate for making published scientific research available to all. “I don’t know anyone who believes that the mission of science is the comodification of data.” GREAT quote!

Max Little spoke of the role of applied mathematics and “prediction competitions” to drive science forward. Amy Abernathy proposes the wonderful idea of Info Data Drives, based on the model of blood drives, where individuals can donate their health data to build the kind of data sets needed to solve complex medical mysteries. Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, talked about how his city redesigned itself for people, as opposed to automobiles, and in doing so went from being on the list of “Most Obese Cities” to “Most Fit Cities” in a matter of a couple of years. Even more, building infrastructure that focuses on community, recreation, and other healthy social activities has made Oklahoma City a destination for many young adults and families, bringing with them the talent and skills needed to keep a city thriving. Sally Okun is the first nurse to grace the TEDMED stage and, not surprisingly to me, she was the one speaker so far who hit home the importance of listening to what patients say. She’s involved in some really interesting contextual language research, trying to develop a lexicon of patient language. I’ve made a note to follow-up on it.

The morning also brought a couple of terrific interludes; Jill Sobule (I loved her already, but now that I know she’s the TEDMED troubadour…) sang a song with fantastic lyrics that I’m afraid I can’t provide here on this family/work-oriented blog. Let’s just say, in the wake of bombs going off at the Boston Marathon, politicians arguing over gun control, and every eye focused on immigration reform, Sobule gives me a nice little refrain to sing over and over again in my head (“When they say, ‘We want our America back’…). Thank you, Jill. And if you’ve never seen Zubin Damania’s alter ego, “ZDoggMD” and his PSAs for different health issues, well you’ve just never seen an internist rapper before, have you? Check him out!

Finally, our very own Myrna Morales, Technology Coordinator for the NN/LM NER, worked with the students organizing today’s streaming to make it possible for a few of us to give our own TED Talks during the breaks! I’m really pleased and honored to work in a library where six people stepped up to the plate and spoke. I captured them on video and after editing (and if I receive permission from the individual speakers), I’ll share their talks on my blog. In the meantime, here is my own and very first TED Talk. Not quite ready for the big leagues, but it was awfully fun to do. Hope you enjoy it!

What did you say?!

10 Apr

You might recall a post that I did back in January where I shared my sketch notes from a lecture on team science. I went to another lecture in this series today called, Communications 2:0: Strategies for Effectively Selling and Telling Your Story,” delivered by Edward Keohane, our Vice Chancellor of Communications. I drew sketch notes during it, too. My colleague, Michelle Eberle, was sitting next to me and when the session was over, she asked me about the notes and if I’d put them on my blog. So here goes… the notes, plus some words to recap the lecture:


It was a terrific session, geared towards teaching faculty members, physicians, and scientists how to get the message of their work out to the public in a way that people will understand. Three main points that Ed hit at the very beginning:

  • Be CLEAR
  • Be CRISP

He also noted some trends in the media’s coverage of science over the past few decades (it’s declined) and the fact that science, alone, rarely gets coverage. For reporting health science, you’ve got to have science that you can connect with people, then you’ve got something that they care about. Other things to remember and/or consider are your audience (gear your talk to them, taking into account who they are), stress the big picture, stick to main points, avoid jargon and qualifiers, and use language that is both colorful and words that people understand (or at least analogies that make sense). You can learn a number of good techniques for presenting science by listening to NPR’s science correspondent, Joe Palca. Ed made us listen to a few of his stories and indeed, Joe is very good at what he does.

Finally, Ed reminded us of the effectiveness of using your own story when trying to explain something. He suggested crafting a few sound bites about your work (or any topic that you want to share clearly with others) and practicing your elevator speech. And one that I thought was great… make up your own TED Talk! I liked this one a lot because I love TED Talks, but also because next week we’ll be showing part of the annual TEDMed event here at my workplace, including some time in the Library. And better yet, a few of us have signed on to give a TED Talk as intros to the session. I can’t wait for that (and thought it pretty timely, considering Ed’s recommendation).

Lastly, I made the comment from the audience that too often we forget one of the most important aspects of communication – PRACTICE! Speaking before people, giving a lecture, or being interviewed on the radio or television, these are all performances. To do it well, think of them as such and then remind yourself what it is that performers do to become good at their craft. They practice. A lot. People who are great at communicating have some talent, for sure, but they’ve also practiced their craft a lot. I guarantee it.

(The Leadership Series is sponsored by the UMMS Faculty Affairs Department.)


Data Hoarder

10 Apr

Next time you have to teach data management to a group of researchers or students, here’s a very funny piece you can share (with the right audience, of course). Thanks to my colleague, Katie Houk, at Tufts Medical School for bringing it to my attention. Enjoy! 🙂

ROI: What’s Yours?

8 Apr

In my reply to a comment made by Regina Raboin, a colleague at Tufts University, I wrote:

One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is while it’s acceptable (even exciting) to be a life-long learner and seek professional development/continuing ed opportunities in our work, why do we find that more and more we need to start doing this from the get-go? It seems to me that our degrees are the equivalent of automobiles, nowadays; they depreciate in value as soon as you walk off the campus.

What do you think? What’s the return on investment of your graduate degree in library and/or information science? Are you prepared for the workforce or do you find you need additional skills before you even begin? I’m curious about this for any number of reasons, but wonder more what my readers think. Please share your comments here. Thanks!

Car Lot

Image from the U.S. National Archives. Unrestricted.

If You Insist…

5 Apr

… or, my case against being a data curator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012.  Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Pastor Shep © Susan Mattinson, 2012. Reproduction permitted with permission of creator.

Perhaps it is because I am married to an artist. Maybe it’s the fact that I have a sorority sister from my college days who has her doctorate in art history. Maybe it’s because before I became an exercise physiologist and a librarian, I was a member of the clergy, the profession from which the word “curate” originates. Maybe I’m nothing more than a real stickler for people using the correct word to describe what they do. But regardless of the reason, I simply cannot stand how my profession has co-opted the word “curate,” and worse, morphed it into a noun by calling it “curation.” If I had a dollar for every time the word was used at this week’s eScience Symposium, I’d be on vacation today.

Whenever I get on my soapbox about this, people remind me that the meanings of words change all of the time. Similarly, we create new words quite often, our attempt to get at what we really mean. To these comments I say, “I agree, but that’s not the point.”

“So, what is the point?”, you may ask. The point is this – I am bothered by why we feel the need to attach this word to what we are doing. In case you haven’t noticed, curate and curation are two of the hottest, trendiest little words today. Suddenly, everyone is a curator, from boutique store owners to night club promoters to everyone and her sister who slaps a picture of a wonderfully decorated cake on their Pinterest site. Maria Popova, the “curator” behind the delightful website, Brain Pickings, is an absolute darling of the New York Times; their very favorite curator.

First, this clamoring for my profession to be hip bothers me because I fear it’s a reaction to something bigger. As John H. McWhorter, a linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute points out, “It’s an innocent form of self-inflation. You’re implying that there is some similarity between what you do and what someone with an advanced degree who works at a museum does.” (This quote is found in one of my favorite pieces on the subject by Alex Williams of the New York Times.) It’s true that there are archivists in the mix of librarians doing this curation stuff, and it’s true that they have advanced degrees in archival work, and it’s true that there is a great deal of overlap between archives and museums. But archivists are archivists, and curators are curators. They do actually have different educational and practice backgrounds.

Further, librarians in particular have a short fuse when it comes to non-professionals, i.e. those without the essential ALA-accredited MLS degree, calling themselves librarians. The battle cry in my profession of medical librarianship has been, for years now, a call to take back our profession. A hospital needs a medical librarian, we say, not simply someone who can oversee a room filled with journals and computers. We have a special role, a certain expertise. THIS is what we keep claiming.

So…  Why then are we being quick to take on the moniker of another profession? I think it’s a question worth asking or at least one to think about.

Secondly, I return to the fact that if we do really want to call ourselves curators, then we need to practice curation, and I do not believe that this is what we are doing at all. As mentioned previously, the word originated during medieval times when members of the clergy in Europe were entrusted with the “cure of souls.” (WikipediaLater, the Church of England used the term as a description for the ministers who took care of a parish. From this, then, we get the aspect of the museum curator, the one charged with the care of a collection. In this sense, librarians have always been curators, though interestingly, we chose to call ourselves a particular kind of curator, i.e. a librarian, entrusted with the care of a collection of books.

Taking care of a collection is very much part of the role of a curator, however it is not the only role. A curator is also assigned the task of selecting the materials to be in a collection. When we say that an art show has been curated, we mean that an individual(s) has looked at each piece of work submitted and made a judgement, based upon some theme or idea or standard, of whether or not it fits. This involves a particular relationship with the art, the artist, and the public and/or the institution that one serves.

In an interview for Art Journal, Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston says,

Don’t pause in front of weak work. Just keep moving, pause in front of strong work even if you don’t like it, even if you don’t understand it, even if it’s not to your taste, even if it’s not going to work in any of the rooms that you have to fill, stop in front of the strong stuff and walk by the weak stuff. And that is harsh. I don’t stop. Now, how I figure out what is weak and what is strong, that is a harder question. Because your question really goes to: What are the criteria, how do I ascribe value? … It’s a poetic and nice way of asking the hard question, which is, How do you end up making the choices to show what you show? (Art Journal)

Librarians, or more to the point, those librarians (and computer scientists and engineers and information technologists) calling themselves data curators, are not, by and large, doing much of anything along the lines of selection. If anything, subject specialist librarians who practice collection development, these individuals are doing the curatorial work described by Molesworth. They are the ones who look through a large pool of content and select, based upon certain criteria, what they deem important for their collections.

I have yet to hear anyone practicing data curation touch on this aspect. To the contrary, the conversation usually revolves around how to save and preserve everything, how to make everything accessible. This quest is, to me personally, ludicrous, not to mention fraught with countless problems in regards to infrastructure, workload, ethics, and more.

And so, a curator, in the purest sense, both selects and cares for a collection. You need to do both. And you need a certain level of education and a certain set of skills to do both. As long as librarians are content to pass along the task of selection to others, be it of data sets or the list of citations generated in a systematic review, we are not acting as curators. Our role is important. Collecting, storing, preserving, and making materials accessible is not something to snuff at, but it is not curation (if you insist upon using that word).