This post is part of our Curators’ Corner series. Every so often we’ll feature a different DCN Curator. The series grew out of a community-building activity wherein curators at our partner organizations interview each other “chain-letter style” in order to get to know each other and their work outside of the DCN better. We hope you enjoy these posts!

Joanna Thielen

Joanna Thielen is a Data Curation Specialist for Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan. Joanna was interviewed by Briana Ezray Wham in October 2022.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to your current position?

I have a background in chemistry. So, I did a Master’s degree in Chemistry and when I was doing that, I realized that I didn’t want to work in a lab doing benchtop research for the rest of my life as it was not my forte or passion. While I was in that program, I realized there was such a thing as science librarians. So, after completing my Master’s, I went on to study Library and Information Science at University of Michigan. During that program, I had a graduate fellowship at the University of Michigan Library which really exposed me to the depth and breadth of the library profession. As part of that fellowship, I actually worked with my current supervisor as he was my mentor for my second-year capstone project. And while I knew I was always interested in going into STEM librarianship, I realized there was this whole other area around research data and it was just a growing area and because of that, I wanted to do my second-year project in this area. 

So, after I graduated with my library degree, I worked at another local, smaller university in Southeast Michigan for three years as a science and data librarian and then about two and a half years ago, I came back to University of Michigan as an engineering librarian working with the College of Engineering students, staff, and faculty. Engineering is a gigantic college at University of Michigan so there was a huge depth and breadth of research going on. Also, we actually taught a credit bearing course within one of the engineering departments on research data management. It was actually in the Climate and Space science department, which is really cool because now that department is one of the biggest depositors into our data repository. They are a department which have gigantic datasets, so it is really cool, but also kinda challenging in a good way. 

I then actually started this position three months ago [as of October], so I am relatively new to it. When the posting came up, I thought this sounds like something that I’m interested in doing and I applied and here I am.

What do you do?

My title is Data Curation Specialist for Science and Engineering. So, breaking that down, it basically means I help the science and engineering researchers make the outputs of their research and teaching publicly available. While I focus on science and engineering, one of my other colleagues focuses on humanities and the arts, social sciences, and health sciences. So essentially, we’ve decided to break it down by discipline so that we can help people both get things into our institutional repository, which is called Deep Blue Documents, and our data repository, which is called Deep Blue Data. So, we are helping researchers across both platforms and helping them make the connections as opposed to having people focused on one repository or the other, which is what we had initially done as a holdover since the institutional repository was around for about a decade before the data repository came around. Focusing on disciplines in this way has been a big change within our department that’s happened recently, since I came on board. So, my boss and our department has really been emphasizing creating and maintaining relationships with researchers rather than just focusing on the technical repository stuff.

How much of your job involves data curation?

I’d say it’s about 30-40% of my job. Of course, it ebbs and flows. Some months are busier than others. It seems like the end of the semester gets a little bit busier because people aren’t as focused on classwork and August is always busy as people realize they need to get this done before the semester starts. But that’s one thing I really like about my job is you don’t know what’s going to pop into your inbox every single day and each day is different. Each day brings new challenges and opportunities. Once you feel like you’ve mastered something, there’s always something else that you can work on. So it really varies. I can see some weeks how I might be doing a ton of data curation and other weeks might be less, but also, I’m still relatively new in this position, so I’m still just learning how to do my job.

Why is data curation important to you?

I think as data curators we provide human touch in what can be a very confusing and overwhelming area. We’re here to teach the researchers. I don’t feel our role is to be gatekeepers, rather that we’re facilitators. Especially within science and engineering and academia, I feel there’s still this prevailing attitude, especially at the graduate level, that you have to figure it out by yourself and that I’ve suffered through this, so you have to do it too. And that is one of the things that really turned me off from doing academic research and I feel that attitude really unjustly burdens underrepresented groups and there is still a huge lack of diversity within science and engineering. So, I want to help provide that human touch to make things maybe just a little bit easier for a researcher by saying to them I’m here to help you. And that’s something I remember from my chemistry degree, I can count on one hand the number of times somebody offered to help me like that and then when they did it was shocking, and I don’t feel it should be that way. 

So, I feel like for data curation, we have these altruistic motives of making things open is good for academia, and the entire world as a whole. For example, with our institutional repository, we get emails almost every single day from international researchers asking for access to documents in our institutional repository. So, having that stuff be open really does have a benefit to the world as a whole.

Overall, I think I’m here to help support and teach researchers and hopefully make their day a little bit better.

Why is the Data Curation Network important?

I find the Data Curation Network to be a group of like-minded people who are doing similar things at similar size and scope institutions. And it’s growing to incorporate more universities, which I think is fantastic. I have found the curators to be willing to provide support and advice quite a bit. They are willing to commiserate with you when things may not have gone so well. So, it’s really just this community where you feel like you can ask for things that might be a little bit sticky or tricky and know that you’ll be getting advice from somebody who’s been through something the same or similar.

I also think with the DCN, we’re all working towards these common goals so having us work together means we can make faster progress towards these goals than if we were doing it individually. 

I’m also really looking forward to the professional development opportunities available through the network too.

If you weren’t doing data curation what would you be doing?

I’d probably still be a STEM librarian, either science or engineering. That’s the whole reason I went into academic librarianship to begin with. I think there’s such a need for people with this sort of science background. 

Thinking a little bit more broadly, if I wasn’t a librarian, I feel like I could have been a really good home organizer, like the show The Home Edit. I love to organize things which I think also goes back to data really well, you know, organizing, putting things in a system, making it make sense for you and for other people. That’s one of my fortes, I think.

What is your favorite cuisine?

I’m a Midwesterner at heart so my comfort food always has and probably always will be mac and cheese. It’s not exactly a cuisine, but it’s my favorite food. My grandma always made macaroni and cheese for us growing up and she was an excellent cook and baker. I learned some tips from her like she always put peas into the mac and cheese which is a game changer. It makes you feel like it’s maybe a little bit healthy. She would also just use out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese, but she would actually make it and then bake it in the oven for a little bit to make it less liquidity and a bit more solid. It just reminds me of my childhood and brings back lots of good memories. Now, I like experimenting with grown-up mac and cheese recipes where you use a little bit more exotic cheeses than the Velveeta that comes out of the packet.

What do you like to do outside of work?

So I’m a librarian, so I like to read. I always have and always will. There’s just something comforting about it. I typically read before I go to sleep at night and it helps me calm down and relax. And that’s what my family does on vacation too. We go to someplace warm and we all sit by the pool and read a book.

What is your favorite city?

This isn’t going to come as a surprise, it’s Minneapolis. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis and I went to college in St. Paul, which is the neighboring city. My family lives there. It’s just a really nice place to live and have a really nice quality of life. There’s this amazing chain of lakes where there’s beautiful walking and biking paths around. There’s been a lot of focus on biking and making the city more pedestrian friendly. And of course, the winters are harsh, I’m not going to lie, so that can be challenging, but it means you gotta be hardy to survive living in Minnesota.

Where would you most like to travel to next?

So, my sister is having a milestone birthday next year, so she got to pick where the family vacation is going to be. In the summer of next year, we will be taking a cruise up the coast of France, hitting some of the smaller cities and some big places too like Mont-Saint-Michel. I’m looking forward to the delicious French food, the beautiful coastline, and architecture and history. I took French for four years in high school so I can kinda read and understand a little bit of it, but some of that will come back when exposed to it. The French know how to live life well so I am looking forward to that.

To learn more about Joanna, and the datasets he has curated for the DCN, see her curator page!

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