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!
How did you come to your current position?
How far back should I go?! I was trained as a plant pathologist, so I’ve always had ties to science. When I was looking for a career change, I thought – who was the group that I liked working with the most outside of my science colleagues? – and it was the librarians at the schools that I attended. I knew that I wanted to do science librarianship. My first full-time academic librarian position was at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, initially as a science and engineering librarian. After about a year, I asked for a lateral transfer into the agriculture librarian position – loved that job, loved the programs I worked with and my colleagues there. My interest in research data, from a librarian’s viewpoint rather than a scientist’s, actually started there. The U of M Libraries were doing a study looking at the information behaviors of scientists, and among the themes was research data. I ended up writing up the section on research data for the final white paper.
In 2010, I returned to UNL in a Libraries’ faculty position, working primarily with departments and programs on our East Campus. Research data work was underway, led by Elaine Westbrooks (now the University Librarian at Cornell University), then an associate dean at UNL. Very early on, we established a locally grown data repository and I was part of a data curation working group trying to assess what kind of demand or need there might be. Not surprisingly, there really wasn’t a huge demand at first, as this preceded NSF’s requirement for a data management plan. Fast forward to 2019: Claire Stewart came from Minnesota (where she helped initiate the DCN) to UNL, with a very strong commitment to open data and to supporting researchers with their data needs. As a part of our reorganization, I had the opportunity to transition from a ‘traditional’ liaison role to concentrate on data curation and a fuller suite of support for our researchers. In 2019, I participated in the CURATE(D) workshop in Saint Louis, right before the world shut down because of the pandemic. UNL became a DCN member institution in 2021.
It’s been quite a journey, and it must be pretty fulfilling, seeing the growth of UNL’s research data services since 2010.
Yes! I’ve been kind of ahead of the curve at times. When I was a plant pathologist, there were areas of research that I remember discussing with my advisor and saying, ‘one of these days we’re going to be able to do this’. And he’d reply, ‘no, never going to happen’. And of course, it did, it’s happening now. Same thing with research data – I always felt strongly that we were going to have a role in this as librarians, as a natural outgrowth of our support for researchers. It just took a while for training to be available and for programs to grow.
Right, and as you pointed out that there are policies kind of contributing to this culture change.
And maybe you see this with the researchers you work with. There have always been ‘older’ scientists with a commitment to open data and open science. But I’m certainly seeing in the newer generations of scientists that it’s just normal for them. I don’t have to convince them that ‘yes, you really do have to share what you collect’.
With the newer generation, it seems we approach it from the reproducibility angle, with emphasis on contributing to the larger research community and interoperability to be able to reuse data.
Right. And if you are in a situation with the researcher, you can remind them that they have reused other peoples’ data. So you know, contribute to the crowd, that other people may stand to benefit. People are recognizing that the data are part of their work that they’re putting out there, not just publications.
Could you describe your day-to-day: what do you do and how much of your job involves data curation?
I’m sure most of us don’t really have a typical day! Today has been just about all Data Curation Network – started with a DCN Executive Committee meeting, then we had the repository readiness event. Now I’m talking to you about data curation and the DCN. And after this I’ll talk with a researcher about his USDA data management plan.
I don’t have a good way to describe what I do every day because it varies a lot. I don’t see data sets to curate every day, yet I hope that time will come. We’re seeing a modest increase in submissions to our local repository. I’ve curated maybe six different data sets for the DCN since coming back from sabbatical in July of 2022. So I’m getting good practice and am very happy to work on DCN data sets; it keeps me thinking clearly about curation practices and improving.
But to qualify my answer: I am doing data curation on a semi-regular basis through a special project with a UNL nematologist and his lab. Nematodes are microscopic roundworms; some are agricultural pests or human/animal parasites. This is a poster for an art gallery show that opened last week here in Lincoln, combining above-ground shots of locations where the nematodes were found and scanning electron micrographs or light photomicrographs of the organisms, to increase people’s awareness that there are many creatures “unseen and underfoot”. We’re working on a very concentrated program of curation, preservation, and dissemination of these images. There’s so much here that would be eye opening for people, if we could just make sure that it’s accessible beyond traditional journal articles.
Why is data curation important to you?
Well, there is a selfish reason: It’s really fun to do (most of the time)! But the other reason comes from reflecting on when I was doing science. The research I did underpinned somebody else’s research and was underpinned by the research of those before me. It always struck me as a little weird and frustrating that we didn’t have easy access to the lab’s raw data. We had a thesis or dissertation that we could maybe extract data from. There’s the element of reproducibility, of wanting to say ‘OK, am I seeing same things that they saw?’ I don’t remember any of my advisors ever going back and looking stuff up in the lab notebooks stored in their offices. I think it was the attitude, ‘we’ll hang on to it in case there’s a problem or a question or a challenge to our publication’. And then after five years it goes away.
To get to the point of why it’s important—a little example from the field work during my Master’s program. Those particular field studies were unique in time and space and will never truly be replicated again. Not having those older data creates an information vacuum on the conditions in the fields that I was working in, for example. That’s a little tiny example, but reflecting on that experience as a librarian, I’m like, ‘holy heck we should have at least been scanning and OCR-ing lab notebooks’. I think that the opportunity to reduce redundancy to allow scientific discoveries to move forward quickly is terrific. And I think yes, the reproducibility element is keenly important. And I’m only speaking from my science standpoint. Obviously, social sciences have a set of challenges too. But science right now is being challenged on so many fronts and if there is anything we can do to support the veracity of what we’re doing… No, the public might not understand all the details. But if a researcher makes a commitment to make their data open, they’re saying, ‘I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of somebody else seeing this and maybe doing something different with it’.
That’s a really thoughtful response coming out of your own observations and background. I do not have a MLIS, but an MPH myself, and worked in clinical research. Your example made me think of my own observations, of what seemed like decades of physical study binders with handwritten data, that may not have been digitized, locked in storage rooms. The data may only exist publicly in publications as summary data or tables.
Or worse yet, like an appendix somewhere, right? I can recommend to you, if you didn’t see the announcement, former colleagues at Minnesota are doing an interesting study on analog data. And there was a DCN webinar on that earlier this month.
Moving on to the next question, why is the DCN important?
Once I started working more in matters of research data, this idea of a collective of expertise makes a lot of sense. I am very encouraged to see the DCN growing. It provides an opportunity not only for continuing education and better training, but the reassurance that there’s probably somebody in our network that can help us out. I think that growing a cohort of people who are comfortable working with both small-tail agricultural data and big data may be important.
So now we’re getting to some of the more fun questions. If you weren’t doing data curation, what would you be doing?
I enjoy working with graduate students in research consultations, sometimes even writing with them. If I wasn’t doing data curation, I would definitely, work-wise, continue to support graduate students. And if I wasn’t working in librarianship, I would be tempted to go back to school for culinary arts; our younger son recently received a diploma in culinary arts, and we have learned so much from him. I love to cook, so anything that helps me do a better job is appreciated.
The next question actually happens to be ‘what is your favorite cuisine?’ This could be cuisine that you enjoy cooking or eating.
I enjoy so many different ones. I grew up cooking Italian because that’s the main heritage on my father’s side of the family – not American-Italian, but Italian-Italian cuisine and recipes. But I enjoy many styles of cuisine. I’m not very fussy when we go out to eat, because I usually find something I like!
Just a couple more questions left. What do you like to do outside of work? You did mention cooking, for one.
I like to ride my bicycle. Love to read. Definitely like to cook. I enjoy volunteering with Meals on Wheels, delivering a hot meal to folks that are either shut-in or unable to cook for themselves. Once a month, my husband and I also work with a program associated with Meals on Wheels, where we pack and deliver bags of food to help certain clients get through the month. I like to make music, so I play guitar in a klezmer band with some friends.
No way! That’s neat.
Two of our friends started a bimah band years ago. My husband is the drummer. So yeah, making music is a lot of fun. I enjoy watching movies with my adult children – that’s the only way I learn about popular culture!
I like being outside in nature as much as I can be. It’s really important for me to be around plants and trees and birds and insects. Right now, we’re naturalizing our front yard into essentially a prairie, a front-yard prairie. I need to study what different plants I have out there now. Here’s one plant I can show you, called sideoats grama, which is a very pretty native plant (https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=BOCU).
If you use Facebook, there may be a Facebook group for that, identifying natives. I’m actually somewhat aware of the movement because I came across a group that’s Northeast based and it’s been really interesting learning about the native wildlife they support, like monarch butterflies.
Yeah. We’re kind of big on that here. We don’t do pesticides on our lawn or even fertilize it. The other side of our driveway from the lawn is a pollinator strip.
You have a very rich life outside of work. And you’re in a klezmer band!
I’m not saying I’m a good guitarist, but I’m a guitarist. I also play piano, but not in our band because we already have a keyboardist.
Alright, two more questions left. What is your favorite city?
Well, here’s the thing – I’ve lived in a lot of places. I love Ithaca, NY. I was at Cornell for my doctoral program. We then moved to Seattle. You know, great city and environs in the mid-1990s. We moved to Lincoln, which I liked. People were friendly. We could afford to live here on a graduate student stipend and part-time income. Then we moved to Maynooth, Ireland, a charming little town in County Kildare. You could walk anywhere you needed to go. We were 5 minutes from the train station. We could go into Dublin, see museums, art galleries. Then we moved to Minnesota and lived near Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, and I liked that, too. We had wonderful neighbors. We were a few blocks from the lake where we took walks and bike rides and the kids could swim. And then we moved back to Lincoln. I’ve been lucky. I have found enjoyable things in every place I’ve ever lived. And for the most part, I’ve always had great neighbors.
Final question! You have done a lot of traveling. Where would you most like to travel to next?
Most immediately, Pittsburgh (PA) and environs to see family. I’m fascinated by communities along the coasts of the Adriatic and the Black Sea. I would like to go back to Ireland; there was a lot I didn’t get to see of the island. And it would be fun to go to Italy someday.
To learn more about Leslie, and the datasets she has curated for the DCN, see her curator page!