Talking the Talk: Why Research Informationists Should Go to Class!

On a recent evening, I found myself wondering about neurotransmitters (like you do).  I had sort of a vague idea of how they worked, but It occurred to me that, as the liaison librarian to the departments of all brain-y things at UCLA (neurology, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, etc), I’d probably be doing myself a favor if I learned a little bit more about these areas.  Thus it was that I came to enroll in Neuroscience 101B, an undergrad course in developmental and molecular neuroscience – that is, how the nervous system is formed during gestation, and how neurotransmitters and other molecular signalling methods work in the adult.  I had to contact the professor to get special permission to join the course, and he said I was welcome to freely attend the lectures if I wanted (as it’s huge and they don’t take roll), but I could also officially enroll, which would require that I take the three exams and complete weekly, page-long critical responses to recent articles in the field.  I thought to myself, “if I just audit this class, things will get busy during the quarter like they always do, and I’ll stop going.  But if I actually enroll and have to earn a grade, I have real incentive to learn this.”  So I decided to actually enroll, and I’m so glad I did – I’m only two and a half weeks in, but I can already see how taking this class is going to be so helpful to me as a librarian and research informationist.  Already I have started to get some benefits:

  1. Learn their language.  A mere sampling of the words and phrases that have entered my vocabulary in just two and a half weeks: ligand, rostral/caudal, filopodia, membrane diffusible, notochord, presynaptic compartment.  No, I did not make any of that up, and yes, I can define all of it.  In short, I am learning to speak the language of neuroscience.
  2. Learn their experimental methods: Thanks to this class, I now know what two-photon microscopy is.  I know the exact procedure by which one creates a cranial window for imaging neurons via a craniotomy (don’t look it up.  Trust me. It involves dental adhesive and super glue and it’s not at all pleasant).  I can explain several different experimental methods for examining neuronal activity, as well as various reasons why one would want to examine neuronal activity in the first place. Understanding the how and why of the science makes such a huge difference in being able to understand the how and why of their research methods.  Obviously, for a research informationist, this is key.
  3. Learn the big names in the field.  Though I live in LA, I’m not one to name drop. 🙂  However, I will say this about neuroscience, in my experience of it: you are going to learn to recognize the people who did the big experiments (and it’s probably true of other fields as well).  For one thing, you can’t help but know them because there’s stuff named after them (see for example the Cajal-Retzius cell and the interstitial cell of Cajal, both named for an evidently reclusive Spanish Nobel prize winner who spent hours and hours of his life dyeing nerves to study them and thus ended up discovering tons of stuff).  But even when there’s not something named after the researcher, you still learn who did the experiment, and I get the feeling this kind of thing might even be on the exam.  I appreciate that about the field – credit where credit is due, right?  More importantly, it’s interesting to learn the big names who are currently doing research in the field, particularly when those big names happen to be on my campus and publishing in Nature and such.  When I hear those things in lecture, that is something I definitely file away for later.
  4. Learn about the department (and have them learn about me).  When I contacted the professor to ask to take the course and told him why, I have a feeling that was probably the first time he even knew he had a liaison librarian.  Now, not only do he and the other two class professors know I’m here, but they also know that I’m interested in what they do.  Plus, I’m learning all sorts of things about the department (such as the fact that they have TONS of seminars and lectures I’d never heard about) as well as things about the student experience, so I have more of a context in which to understand the kind of research assistance these students might need.
  5. Learn fantastic trivia for more interesting conversations.  Okay, not an entirely serious reason, but a nice side effect of the course.  For example, did you know that in a rat, each whisker is connected to a single neuron?  I assume the same is true for dogs, so now I like to bug Ophelia by touching a single whisker and wondering which neuron it’s setting off.  (I explained to her that it’s for science, but she still seems annoyed by it.)  Or how about that there are proteins and neurotransmitters with names like Sonic hedgehog, Dickkopf (means big head in German!), and Frizzled?

All of this is important to me because I love working with researchers and I feel like I can more legitimately sit at the table now, so to speak.  Obviously the knowledge I’m getting from one undergrad survey class is hardly enough to get me up to speed on something so complex as the nervous system, but at least now I feel like I understand all of those brain-y departments better, especially in terms of the research they’re conducting.

I do want to emphasize that I don’t think a degree in a science field is necessary for a research informationist or other librarian who is interested in working with clinical or basic science researchers.  Some of the best science/medical librarians I know have liberal arts degrees: political science, English, philosophy, etc.  Regardless of your educational background, though, I think the best science librarians are those who are able to learn how to adapt to the field and learn the language and culture of the science they work with.  Like different regions of the United States, each scientific field has their own dialect and “regional” traditions and practices.  If you don’t know how to operate in that language and tradition, you are pretty obviously an outsider.  But…if you want to slip in amongst them…it’s easy enough to do so if you have a little knowledge.  Taking a class is not necessarily for everyone.  I don’t know many adult professional people who would voluntarily spend their weekend studying for a neuroscience exam (I’m lame, I know, but look, I really want an A), but for those librarians who can manage it, I can’t speak highly enough of the experience.  Fortunately for those who are not quite as insane ambitious as I am, there are other ways of gaining knowledge too, like checking out Data Curation Profiles, going to open lectures and grand rounds, talking to researchers about their work, and, erm, reading Wikipedia.  🙂

Of course I say all this now, but I might be singing a different tune after my first exam this Monday. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go remind myself about the three different mechanisms by which synaptic topography is modeled in the developing nervous system.

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