A favorite thing

NOTE:  This post was mysteriously not published back in March, 2014 (when I was still at Michigan).  So, here you go!  Enjoy!


One of the things I love most about living in this University town for a number of years is attending the dissertation defenses of my dear friends.  It fills me with a special kind of joy to watch people I know in one capacity present some overview of all that they have accomplished in their work from the last four to eight years.  Woah.  Serious stuff!

It’s fascinating to see the difference of styles between departments, the different presentation choices different people make, and the truly vast range of topics covered – really, it’s humbling and inspiring.

Inspiring this post, I’ve just attended a defense talk by a friend about the genes and proteins involved in a blood disorder (something akin to hemophilia but not quite).  Important work and a job incredibly well done.  I may not have understood most of the talk, but I think it speaks well to the speaker that I understood the major issues and major conclusions (and their implications).  Go Lesley!

But, I’ve been to quite a range of these talks – which is just the best!  Many that I’ve been going to recently are for folks getting MD/PhD’s (in that category, my husband’s was obviously a highlight; especially after hearing five practice talks…)!  I’ve enjoyed going to the defense talks of others from his lab, too, though.  One recent defense talk from his lab started in a lovely way: “This could be a story of two loves, but the story of meeting my wife will take too long so I shall only be able to cover my love of science.”    Well played, Alejandro, well played indeed.

One memorable talk I remember just might have been my first dissertation defense talk I had ever been to outside of the department I was in at the time (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology):  Leo’s math talk!  He literally gave a chalk talk (the only defense talk I have been to that used no computer, no slides, no projector… just chalk and the board).  Leo started off with, “So Euclid said…”  After those words I was lost, but it was amazing to watch him give this lecture summarizing his whole PhD using the board.  Math.  That is one incredible field of study.

Another friend, Katie, defended her dissertation in Classics last year – but I wasn’t allowed to attend!  They were not public!  I was so distraught – tracking down friends who are defending is really my thing and I was very sad to miss this one.  Luckily, I helped her with her (ultimately highly successful!) job talk and that sufficed as a defense talk.  Heracles had quite the wild ride, I learned.

A few former housemates were in the Astrophysics department and I went to about three defenses for that program covering the formation of stars, the formation of galaxies, and the formation of the universe.  Those made me feel quite small!  Mark, another former housemate, defended an applied physics dissertation wherein he looked at how we could image breast cancers more effectively.  Turns out it’s quite a challenge to capture a picture of a cancerous mass in some squishy tissues.

Finally, I have loved attending a number of defenses from folks in the Ecology department – particularly those in my original cohort who went on to get PhD’s.  I’ve heard about plant farts (just kidding, plants don’t fart – but they do produce chemicals that can hint to predators of their herbivores that there might be tasty snacks for them), earthworm impacts on forest litter dynamics, predator effects on tadpole communities, complex food web dynamics, community ecology of agroecosystems, aquatic microbiology, and… so much more.

I think what I love most about attending these events is that it’s clearly a time to pause and say, “Gosh, I have done a lot.  Some of what I’ve done makes the world a better place.  Some of what I’ve done really furthers my field and opens up new avenues for research.  And I’m proud of that.”  I don’t know that we do that “pause” in the working world enough.  Preparing for a defense takes a certain amount of effort – and sometimes, it seems to me, the defender feels like they’re on mile 25 of a marathon and is running on fumes.  But, I think it’s valuable to reflect on what one’s research amounted to (even if some projects didn’t work out or failed outright).  In doing that reflection, I think the defender can come out of what, at times, may have been a truly harrowing experience with some down-in-the-dumps time and realize all that they have accomplished, all that they can do, all that they have learned how to do, etc.

In the question period of Lesley’s defense, one astute audience member asked about the ratio of effort to data in this defense.  The audience member speculated that that ratio might have been high (as in, over the course of a PhD, one puts in a lot of effort pursuing one project after another – or many at the same time – and not all yield fruit).  Lesley had a very gracious answer in response, but I find this question to be highly apt for many PhD’s.  It seems to me that in doing such an endeavor, one DOES put in a lot of effort going down paths that aren’t fruitful (on the face of them).  But that exercise is the process of learning to do science.  Sometimes things don’t work out!

Other insights from this exposure?


In college, I remember passing a table in our campus center advertising the work of a student that intrigued me immediately.  I got on his mailing list (very infrequent, always interesting) then and have been receiving updates on projects ever since.

Jonathan Harris plays around with information organization, display, mining, visualizations, and storytelling.  I highly recommend sifting through his projects here.  I particularly like the Phylotaxislove-lines, and We Feel Fine projects.  Wordcount is also fascinating.  I was having trouble opening some of these though just now, but maybe you will have more luck.  (Ahem, note the difficulties around digital preservation of these amazing projects & the fragile nature of the digital??)

Anyways, the reason I’m posting here and now is that I just got one of the email updates from Harris announcing a bit he did in the NYTimes.  This simple block of text pairs the truly awe-inspiring opportunities afforded by “data” and also flips each of those opportunities with a more pertinent, more important point.  For example:  “Data…It will help educators make excellent standardized tests, but will it help us embrace different standards of excellence?”  Now, in some cases, the answers to these redirects are obvious.  But, some are not.  And, put together I think it helps remind us, remind our policy-makers, remind our do-ers who are involved in this world that data is one tool to tackle big, connected, hard, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary social, economic, political, etc. problems in our society.

Data by Jonathan Harris

Data, by Jonathan Harris. Featured in the NYTimes: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/an-online-meter-reader/

Maybe something to bring my book club for busy people

CHI 2013 – Best Paper Honorable Mention!

Well – what a fun experience working for Steve Jackson is.  He is great.  A wonderful mentor, a truly clever researcher and all around nice guy.  Since January 2010, I have been a research assistant for him on a grant (as part of an NSF “CAREER” award) to study patterns of collaboration and governance of large ecological projects and programs.  There’s a lot to that, and we’ve collected a ton of data through dozens of interviews and site visits.  From this really rich data set, we’ve started to pull together a few papers on a variety of fairly different topics.

Happy news on that front:  we submitted a paper to the annual CHI conference this year and it was accepted!  Hooray!  Not only that, but look:   

CHI 2013 Best of CHI ListSee that little award medal on the right side?  Yeah that means we’re on this list of “Best of CHI” for which we earned an honorable mention.  Wahoo!

The conference is in late April (in PARIS! – I have demanded Steve bring back some chocolate… that’s okay right?), so I’ll post an update when the article is available on the ACM database (sorry, it’s behind a paywall; my one huge regret about this that it’s not OA).

Now that I’m working full time for the UM Library, I only have time to devote a few hours weekly on the weekends to this – but it is still completely worth it!  I have found the paper writing process (really, more than just the writing but all aspects of data analysis, analysis of emerging themes, writing, the dreaded formatting, etc.) all fairly overwhelming, but quite interesting too.  I think if I help him eek out a few more papers, I’ll be fairly comfortable and confident leading such a project in the future.  I’ve already started to map out a paper (or poster or something) about some library work I do, so perhaps I’ll use this blog in the future to explore that a bit further.

Big Data? How about Long Data…

Apologies for the hiatus.  Things (life, holidays, work, travel, library books, book club, making delicious dinners, etc.) got… hectic.  I should know better than to promise upcoming posts, but here I go anyways:  today I had a fascinating and enlightening discussion with some librarians taking a Coursera MOOC on e-learning & digital cultures.  Definitely going to brain-dump some of that discussion here later.  Very promising course.

But, what have I really come to break my long silence here for?  I saw an article today on the ol’ interwebs on Big Data.  Really it was about why we should be hyping up “long data,” though.

Arbesman prefaces his piece by acknowledging that the trend of collecting, analyzing, visualizing and thinking about “big data” brings some amount of value to our society.  (Though, I think it can also be used for negative purposes… just think about all the data Facebook, Amazon, Google and whomever else has on all of us.  What might they do with that?)  But, his main point is that we’re missing an opportunity by only looking at a “snapshot” in time.  Enter “long data,” which does not as of yet have a wikipedia page.

By “long” data, I mean datasets that have massive historical sweep — taking you from the dawn of civilization to the present day.

He does a lovely job offering a picture of what a world of long data might look like – it might enable a much richer and deeper interpretation of how things are and have been.  It’s a very nice concept!  But I particularly like how he calls for an even more forward-thinking approach to data analysis at the end of his piece.

If we’re going to move beyond long data as a mindset, however — and treat it as a serious application — we need to connect these intellectual approaches across fields. We need to connect professional and academic disciplines, ranging from data scientists and researchers to business leaders and policy makers.

Again, I think this is a nice concept and I hope this vision is realized.

Now, I realize that this is a very vision-y piece, with a high-level call and a re-framing of something people are buzzing about at the moment.  But, I think that there are some nitty-gritty aspects to fulfilling this vision that could have been raised.  Most importantly:  to use data effectively and have it be interoperable, metadata (information about the data you’re interested in) must be correct and relevant and there must be enough of it.

These are exciting times in the world of data – we have the NSF and other federal agencies requiring (or strongly suggesting) data management plans in grant proposals, libraries are getting into the mix and figuring out their role in the process of data curation, and individual researchers spinning on their wheels to pump out publications as fast as possible often with little regard to data management at all.  Metadata!  Gotta have it.  And it’s gotta be (reasonably) good.

I’m particularly interested in what librarians are going to do in this sphere moving forward.  I know of data curation specialists, data visualization librarians, and other roles in the library that are starting to interface with these kinds of research.  It’ll be fascinating to see where this goes in the future!

Mid-semester reflections: Model Thinking Coursera Course

Well, I’m just about to listen to the last two lectures before the mid-term exam for Scott Page‘s Model Thinking course on Coursera.  This course has far exceeded my expectations (thankfully)!

I feel that I am more engaged than in the first two courses I took – I sit there with pen and paper as he goes through different models.  Pausing the videos after he beings a model, I try to puzzle it out first.  I also feel as though the assessment quizes are much better designed than in the other courses I’ve taken.  For example, the midterm (which I have yet to take) will have questions and if you don’t like your score you can re-take it but the questions will be slightly different.  Finally, in general, I really feel I have a new appreciation for models, their goals, what they can and cannot do, the patterns they can generate, and a sense of several classes of models that can be applied to a range of different problems.  It’s quite exciting to be in an everyday conversation or experience and to think “oh!  this relates to the standing ovation model!” or “oh!  the cellular automata model could predict this pattern!”  It’s nice.  Here’s an incredibly well-done re-cap of the course that you can peruse if you’re interested in the substance of what we’re learning.

I also really enjoy Scott Page’s straightforward and direct style.  It’s very sweet too that at the beginning and end of each sub-lecture (they range from 3-20 minutes), Scott laughs in this very unassuming “I’m feeling a little awkward talking to a camera” way.  I love that.  It’s this tacit acknowledgement that he really is talking to several tens of thousands of students but he has no sense of that reach physically right there and then.

In closing this little reflections piece, I would just say that this has made me feel that my forays into Coursera have been worth it!  I just wish I could freeze time and really take “History of the World since 1300,” “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” “Securing our Digital Democracy,” “Introduction to Operations Management” and about five other courses I signed up for as I was shopping around…

Tweeting Conferences

Tweeting conferences is quite a thing.  One blogger exhaustively breaks down just how to do it well.  After attending two conferences this summer, I can now reflect on the use of Twitter at each.  At ESA 2012, a conference of several thousand ecologists, there were quite a few active tweeters.  Just take a peak at the hashtags “#esasocial” or “esa2012.”

Twitter Fail

Hope the LOC is having success with their whole archiving Twitter project…

Just kidding!  Darn!  I tried to go back to find a tweet that had a link to an infographic compiling all the tweets, but alas and alack, I couldn’t access old tweets.  More on this in a moment.

At the second conference I went to, attended by a few hundred ecologists, tweeters were very few and very far between.  While I did tweet a few things at ESA, I did not tweet at the second conference in part because the silence in the twitterverse for #lterasm was intimidating and in part because I was there to observe the ecologists and not really be a communicator of what I was experiencing.

It is curious to me that among seemingly similar groups of people (ecologists!) there can be such a difference on Twitter.  There are probably a few reasons for this.  One is that there was a workshop early on at ESA on social media and people were actively encouraged to tweet the sessions (and it was explained what that even meant), while there was no such emphasis at the LTER conference.

But a second reason could tie in most wonderfully with something I actually learned via my Model Thinking coursera course!  Ah worlds connecting!  How I love that!  So, one of the models our instructor incorporated into this curriculum is called “the standing ovation” model.  So, people have different thresholds of needs for standing after a performance which depend on the quality of the show and the number of other people they see standing… it occurs to me the same processes could have been at work on Twitter.  I saw many many tweeters, and they made the atmosphere a more welcoming one for me.  But also, I went to some really great sessions that made me want to communicate that out to the wider twitterverse.

For me though, I find live-tweeting conferences ultimately hugely distracting.  How  can I pay attention or take notes (though, maybe tweeting is taking notes?  … not the kind of notes I take, I assure you) while tweeting AND paying attention to other tweeters?  I definitely see the value, but it is hard for me to juggle the information coming and going and being produced.  Maybe this all comes with practice though!