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!
Jenny Coffman is a Science and Engineering Research Librarian at UVA specializing in Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and Materials Science. Jenny’s position is part of our Research Data Services and Social, Natural and Engineering Sciences team. Jenny was interviewed by Sarah Wright in June 2023.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to your current position?
I’m pretty early-career, so I don’t have a lot of background yet. I was in a Chemistry Ph.D. Program for several years and realized that the lab life wasn’t for me. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life after that and had a friend who was in an information science program. I thought it sounded cool, so I did more research, and I realized that this could be a great way to stay in higher education, keep my interest and expertise in science, and use all the work that I had put into it already. So I got my Master of Information at Rutgers and this is my first job out of grad school. Now I’m 2 years in!
What do you do at UVA?
It’s such a hard question as a liaison, we do so many different things, and I work on so many different programs and projects. But if I had to define the core of my position, it comes down to helping students and researchers develop information and data skills so that they can develop a reliable, high-quality research workflow customized to them. Sometimes it’s practical, sometimes it’s psychological. Sometimes it’s about productivity, sometimes it’s about ethics, sometimes it’s about critical thinking, sometimes it’s something else. But I work outside my core responsibilities a lot! It can be all sorts of different things because I work on programs across the university. For example, I’m the Career Chair for our Women’s Maker Program, which is totally different from what people expect a librarian to be doing. But because of my background, and all of my expertise coming together, I get to do it, and that’s one of my favorite things that I do for my job.
How much of your job involves curation?
This is different from some of the other curators, because I don’t actually do a ton of data curation yet in my job. Part of the reason our institution joined the DCN is that currently we don’t curate any of the datasets that go into our repository, but it’s something that we would like to do so we’re trying to get trained up to prepare for this. That said, I feel like I have this untapped expertise because of all of the work that I did as a researcher, and all of the work that I do with data management, which is a component of data curation. I’m excited I get to use that to curate for the DCN. In my job I do a lot more on the side of preparing researchers and teaching them data management skills so that, hopefully, when you get to data curation, it all comes together, and it’s so much easier.
Why is data curation so important to you?
When I was a grad student, this is something that I really struggled with, and data management was not even on my radar as a formal concept. You get tunnel vision and I just had my experiments and my data, and I was trying to analyze it and do stuff with it. And looking back, I had all these struggles, and so much of it came down to poor data management. So there’s that personal experience of struggling and not having support and resources. On top of that (and I think a lot of people that have dropped out of PhD programs might relate to this) I think data curation is an important part of exploring what a healthy research ecosystem looks like and discovering how to build a better environment for grad students. Beyond curation, there’s so many pieces to a healthy research ecosystem in terms of lab safety practices, mental health, research ethics etc. And on the surface it may seem like data curation is removed from that. But I actually think it’s a really important part. My philosophy is if we teach grad students, particularly from the beginning, about data management and support them and give them resources for how to curate and manage their data, it sets a standard for them and shows them a process towards healthy functional research. Yes, it’s just one piece of how the research environment can be healthier, more inclusive, and sustainable. Still, that’s why data curation is really important to me: teaching grad students (and all researchers) how to build good quality, functional, and inclusive scholarship.
Why is the Data Curation Network important?
This is the perfect example of building a community that’s trying to foster and build a healthy research ecosystem. The ethical and quality standards are there, and it’s well organized! Mikala just does such a good job. It’s such a thoughtful community. And it’s so functional, it seems like such a basic word to use, but it’s amazing how functional it really is. I love that it’s just a community of people providing expertise and guidance, enabling growth, and providing emotional support. It’s really unique and wonderful.
If you weren’t doing data curation what would you be doing?
This is what got me really caught up when I was thinking through this a little bit this morning. And it depends on if the current economic system exists in this alternative universe. If we took away the need for money, stability, health, etc. I would probably be teaching dance and helping run a dance studio, because I have danced throughout my life. Or reading and writing in a house on a lake. Or studying virology. Not doing real research in virology, just learning about it. Basically following any and every whim that I want to pursue!
What is your favorite cuisine?
I don’t have one, but I’m trying to go vegetarian, and it’s been really hard. There’s been ups and downs. I get good at it, and then I go on vacation with my family, and I’m like, “Okay, I can’t be vegetarian here,” and then I don’t know it takes me a month to get back on the wagon. So I’m trying to find good vegetarian and vegan dishes to help me persevere.
What do you like to do outside of work?
In general, I’m a cozy hobbies person. I’m a homebody, I like to read and crochet and that type of stuff. Right now I’m obsessively playing the new Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom video game. I’m loving that right now, so I’m spending way too much of my time on that. Other than video games, pretty much 9 times out of 10 you’ll find me outside walking my dog. Those are my two things right now.
What is your favorite city?
I am not a city girl, but I love lakes, and one of my favorites is Lake Champlain, so I would say– I don’t know if this counts as a city – but Burlington, Vermont is probably my favorite, just because it’s so close to Lake Champlain. Also, the vibe is just really fun.
Where would you most like to travel to next (state/country/continent/city)?
I was gonna say, my parents in Greenville, South Carolina. But now, after talking about lakes, I don’t know. Maybe Chicago to visit my sister and see the lake. Somewhere to see family.
To learn more about Jenny, and the datasets she has curated for the DCN, see her curator page!