What book are you reading?

UCLA recently got a new university librarian, Ginny Steel, who had her first day on Monday.  I appreciated that she had an all-staff meeting that very same day to talk to us about her plans and also to get feedback from us on our thoughts and priorities.  Much of the hour and a half meeting was questions from the staff.  I had one of those “yup, I’m totally in the right profession” moments when one of the questions from the staff was “what’s your favorite book?”  Where else but a library would you hear a question like that at an all-staff meeting with a new leader?  She answered the question in the same way I had when posed the same question a week or two earlier: how can you pick just one?  With all the great books I’ve read, there’s no way I could select one above the others.  When she said as much, the staff person asked her what she was currently reading.  She said a book about Chicago – I believe the title was The Third Coast.

I really like hearing what people are reading.  The only problem is that many times the answer turns out to be something very interesting, and then I look it up and it sounds incredible, so naturally I have to get a copy, and then it gets put on top of my ever-expanding pile of to-be-read treasures.  Nonetheless, I’m curious to know what you, the blog readers, are reading.   If there are still any of you left after my long blog absence!

Currently I’m in the middle of three books:

  • The Gold Bug Variations: I was reading this book while sitting alone in a restaurant for lunch, and the waiter asked me what it was about.  I was fairly certain that he probably didn’t want to hear the 10 minute-long microbiology, music, and literature lecture that it would take to explain the book.  So after a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “it’s about DNA, Bach music, and librarians.”  He said it sounded like something he would like, so I guess the was a good enough description.  I won’t bore any of you readers with the lecture either, but encourage you to check it out of you like fairly intellectual novels and any/all of the three aforementioned items.
  • Van Gogh: The Life: I was so fortunate to get to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam recently, and it was quite an incredible experience, especially in how educational it was.  I obviously had seen pictures of many Van Gogh paintings before, but never so many of the real thing in one place.  I also only knew the broad strokes of his life – crazy, cut off his ear, etc.  The information that went along with the pictures revealed a much more nuanced view of his life.  I left feeling awed by the fact that he hadn’t even started painting until he was almost 30, and even more awed that he generally lacked any sort of innate artistic talent, and only achieved such great success as he did by creating prolifically and doggedly persisting at his craft in the face of constant rejection, even from his own family.  As soon as I left the museum, I got right on Amazon and looked for the best biography I could find, and found this one.  It’s a hefty tome – almost 1000 pages – but really an enjoyable read.  I’m not generally a biography person, but I’m really liking this.
  • Dry Tears: I also had a chance to visit the Anne Frank House when I was in Amsterdam, also a moving experience.  Earlier that year I’d read Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who had survived Auschwitz.  As with Van Gogh’s life, I really only had a general sense of the history surrounding the Holocaust.  One of the things I’ve never understood is how the Nazis ever got so many people to go along with such crazy things.  I stumbled upon an online course on Coursera, called The Holocaust, that includes readings on history and Holocaust literature, as well as movies and documentaries.  The course started Monday and I checked out the first few items from the reading list today.  This is the first of the books, and so far I’m finding it very interesting.  I don’t know if there’s really a good answer for why people did what they did at that time, but I’m hoping I’ll at least learn a little more about what life was like at that time.

So that’s my current reading list.  How about all of you?

Why Data Management is Cool (Sort Of)

“She told me the topic was really boring, but that you made it kind of interesting,” the woman said when I asked her to be honest about what our mutual acquaintance had said after attending a class I’d taught on writing a data management plan.  This is not the first time I’d heard something like this.  The fact is, I’m pretty damn passionate and excited about a topic that most people find slightly less boring than watching paint dry: data.  Now, I’m not going to try to convince you that data is not nerdy.  It is.  Very nerdy.   I have never claimed to be cool, and this is probably one of my least cool interests.  However, I think I have some very good reasons for finding data rather interesting.

I remember pretty much the exact moment when I realized the very interesting potential that lives in data.  I was in library school and taking a class in the biomedical engineering department about medical knowledge representation, and we were spending the whole quarter on talking about the very complicated issue of representing the clinical data around a very specific disease (glioblastoma multiforme or GBM, a type of brain cancer).  It’s very difficult with this disease, as with many others, to arrange and organize the data just about a single patient in such a way that a clinician can make sense of it.  There’s genetic data, vital signs data, drug dosing data, imaging data, lab report data, genetic data, doctor’s subjective notes, patient’s subjective reports of their symptoms, and tons of other stuff, and it all shifts and changes over time as the disease progresses or recedes.  Is there any way to build a system that could present this data in any sort of a manageable way to allow a clinician to view meaningful trends that might provide insight into the course of disease that could help improve treatment?  Disappointingly, at least for now, the answer seems to be no, not really.

But the moment that I really knew that I wanted to work with this stuff was when we were talking about personalized medicine and genetic data.  In the case of GBM, as with many other diseases, certain medicines work very well on some patients, but fail almost completely in others.  Many factors could play into this, but there’s likely a large genetic component for why this should be.  Given enough data about the patients in whom these drugs worked and in whom they didn’t, then, could we potentially figure out in advance which drug could help someone?  Extrapolating from that, if we have enough health data about enough different patients, aren’t there endless puzzles we could solve just by examining the patterns that would emerge by getting enough information into a system that could make it comprehensible?

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying it, but I do think it’s fair to conceive of data as pure, unrefined knowledge.  When I look at a dataset, I don’t see a bunch of numbers or some random collection of information.  I imagine what potential lives within that data just waiting to be uncovered by the careful observation of some astute individual or a program that can pick out the patterns that no human could ever catch.  To me, raw data represents the final frontier of wild, untamed knowledge just waiting to be understood and explained, and to someone like me who is really in love with knowledge above all, that’s a pretty damn cool thing.

Yes, I know that writing a data management plan or figuring out what kind of metadata to use for a dataset is pretty boring.  I’m not denying that.  But sometimes you have to do some boring stuff to make cool things happen.  You have to get your oil changed if you want your Bugatti Veyron to do 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds (I mean, I’m assuming those things have to get oil changes?).  You have to do the math to make sure your flight pattern is right if you want to shoot a rocket into space.  And you can’t find out all the cool secrets that live in your dataset if it’s a messy pile of papers sitting on your desk.  So the way I see it, my job is to make data management as easy and as interesting as possible so that the people who have the data will be able to unlock the secrets that are waiting for them.  So spread the word, my fellow data nerds.  Let’s make data management as cool as regular oral hygiene.  😉

A Week in the Life: Tuesday

Tonight, your friendly research informationist almost didn’t get around to posting a blog because I just now finished getting caught up on some work (but to be fair, there were a lot of interruptions from the resident pup, who never gets tired of playing Squirrelly or chasing the ball, even when mom is working).  However, I promised a full week of updates, and I’m not about to stop after only one day.  So, for those inquiring minds who want to know, here’s what I got up to today.

  1. Attended the weekly meeting for my department, which is called Research, Instruction, and Collection Services.  Basically we catch each other up on the various goings-on in our department.  Though there are only 6 of us, we are all crazy busy fiends, so it’s nice to have an hour a week in which we find out what everyone is up to.
  2. Gave an orientation and overview of library services to first year students in the psychology graduate program.  It was a small group, but they were very interested in what I had to say, which is always nice, and had lots of questions.
  3. Went to a meeting about the UCLA Library’s Affordable Courseware Initiative, which is a program in which we’re offering grants to professors who update their course syllabi to offer free/open access/low cost alternative to textbooks and other paid course materials.  Rather shockingly and disconcertingly, the price of college textbooks has risen 812% since 1978.  By comparison, the consumer price index has risen around 250%.  With tuition also increasing significantly in the last few years, particularly in California, students are being hit pretty hard financially.  This initiative is designed to help mitigate some of those costs.  A similar program at UMass Amherst resulted in $750,000 savings for students from a $20,000 initial investment, which is a pretty good ROI if you ask me.  So it will be interesting to see how this all goes at UCLA.
  4. I’m the chair of the committee for speakers for the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona/Northern California and Nevada Medical Library Group Joint Meeting that is coming up in July, so today I worked on getting together some information and sending some emails for that.
  5. Continued more work on NIH Public Access Policy as described yesterday.  Every time I send an email to the NIH Manuscript Submission System help desk, I feel like starting it “hello, it’s ME AGAIN!!!”  But the nice thing about doing this work is that people are genuinely happy to have the help and the results are pretty immediate.
  6. Continued the work on the NCBI course as described yesterday.
  7. Answered a gazillion more emails.
  8. Finished some ordering for my public health funds (yay!), but I still have a lot to do on my other stuff.
  9. The whole department cornered one of our coworkers who was celebrating a birthday today and sang Happy Birthday to him.  🙂
  10. Filled out paperwork for upcoming travel, of which there is quite a bit.  I never knew librarians traveled so much, but I have been on the road pretty often this year.  I think between September 2012 and August 2013, I will have taken about 12 business trips.  And there is a LOT of paperwork that goes along with all of it.  But I’m super lucky to be able to go to some very interesting meetings and take some very cool courses.

A Week in the Life of a Research Informationist: Monday

So recently my job title changed from Health and Life Sciences Librarian to Research Informationist, which is pretty cool, except that now instead of people assuming I spend my day shelving books and thinking about the Dewey Decimal System, they basically have no idea what it is I do.  I’m pretty sure my friends and family have absolutely no idea what I do for a living.  In fact, I’m not sure my co-workers even really know for sure.  One of my colleagues suggested I ought to write about what a research informationist does, and since I haven’t blogged here in ages, I thought this would be a good time to spread the word of what a research informationist is/does.  Right around the time I thought I should write this blog series, another research informationist, the lovely and talented Sally Gore, beat me to it by writing about it on her blog.   But hey, you can never have too many research informationists talking about their awesome jobs, right?

With that, I give you the activities of my Monday.

  1. I spent a lot of time helping several people trying to figure out the NIH Public Access Policy.  To vastly simplify, I would summarize the policy by saying if you get NIH grant money, you have to make your articles that come out of that funding available in PubMed Central (PMC), the open access repository of the National Library of Medicine.  In truth, the policy and the myriad different things you have to do to comply with it are quite complex.  NIH has recently announced that they would start enforcing the policy by delaying grant renewals to researchers who aren’t in compliance, so this means that I’m getting a lot of calls from people who are having to catch up on five years’ worth of article submissions.  In theory, I like this policy and I think it’s really important in getting medical literature to clinicians and researchers who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise, but in practice, it’s really confusing for people because there are so many different ways you can comply and also lots of ways things can go wrong.  I would like for it to be a lot easier for researchers to get their work into PMC so they and their staff don’t have to spend a lot of time freaking out about this.  However, in the meantime, I help a lot of people who need to figure this stuff out and in so doing have become more of an expert on the policy than I ever wanted to.
  2. I’m working on a couple of search strategies for researchers who are writing systematic reviews.  These are articles that essentially summarizes the body of literature on a particular question.  This is nice because a busy clinician can then just read one article instead of having to go find the hundreds or thousands that are relevant to the question. Plus, when you gather a lot of data and consider it all together, you can get a better sense of what’s really going on than if you just had a small sample.  However, identifying all of the relevant literature is pretty challenging, so it’s useful to have a librarian/research informationist help out as an “expert searcher” or as I like to think of it, a “PubMed whisperer.”  Putting these searches together is pretty time-consuming, plus I help the researchers manage the workflow of analyzing the articles that my searches turn up.  So today I helped out some of the researchers I’m working with on those articles, including getting them set with using Mendeley, a very cool citation management program.
  3. I’m a member of the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona and the chair of their blog committee, so today I had to do some work with getting some entries up on the blog.
  4. Another one of my responsibilities is collection development, or buying stuff for the departments to whom I am the liaison librarian, which include public health, psychology, and some others.  I’ve been so busy that I’ve kind of been putting off my ordering, so I have to find a lot of stuff to buy in the next couple weeks.  You’d think getting to spend lots of money on books would be great, but it is less so when it’s in the context of work.  Plus, I can never find exactly what I want.  For example, my public health students ask a lot of questions about two fairly obscure and relatively specific topics: water consumption and usage in the context of health care, and food deserts (urban areas where it’s hard to find healthy food so people end up eating junk food and whatever they can get at convenience stores).  So I wanted to buy some books that would help them out with this, but it’s harder than you’d think!  This project will be carried over to tomorrow.
  5. I’m taking a very cool online/in-person course called Librarian’s Guide to NCBI.  The course covers some bioinformatics tools that are particularly relevant to people doing work in genetics and molecular biology.  As a research informationist, I think it’s important to be able to provide a high level of specialized assistance to researchers, so learning more about these tools is essentially adding some more stuff to my toolbox. I did the first week’s module today (although it’s the second week, so I’m already behind).  Most of the material in this first lecture was stuff I pretty much already knew, but I played around a little bit with some of the tools and searched around a bit in NLM’s Gene database.
  6. I manage our four library school graduate students who work on our reference desk, and today we had our monthly training session.  There’s really a lot you need to know to work at the reference desk of a busy biomedical library, and these students do a fantastic job, but the learning is never really over.
  7. Email.  I answered a gazillion emails.  The email never ends.

I did some other random stuff, but that’s the main stuff I did today.  Phew.  🙂

More Neuroscience Awesomeness and A Challenge for Librarians!

In my neuroscience class, we’ve now moved away from developmental neuroscience and into what I find way more interesting and the real reason I wanted to take the course: molecular neuroscience.  For the next three weeks, we’ll be learning how nerves communicate with each other.  Mostly this is through different channels that send stuff like ions and neurotransmitters in and out of cells.  We had a guest speaker who specializes in genetic neurological diseases, and she focused her talk specifically on what are called “channelopathies.”  That is, genetic diseases in which symptoms are caused by problems with these nerve channels.  Some of these problems are common – for example, many types of migraine are caused by channelopathies – but some are rare and super bizarre.

Here’s one of the rare and super bizarre ones the lecturer told us about: periodic paralysis is a condition in which the patient becomes temporarily but completely paralyzed, and then afterwards, they’re totally fine.  The paralysis can be brought on by all different kinds of things – stress, excitement, etc.  The lecturer told us about a really strange case of familial periodic paralysis that was found in a large family in Ireland.  Genetically, it’s autosomal dominant, meaning that if one parent has it, the children have a 50% chance of developing it.  So as one would expect, about half of this family is affected.  The trigger for this particular familial periodic paralysis is overeating.  The lecturer said “think of the gatherings this family must have.  They all get together and eat a big meal, and then half of them are paralyzed!”  Can you imagine, half of a family falling over paralyzed after dinner and then getting up and going home a few hours later like nothing ever happened?  Wouldn’t that make for some awkward family reunions?  Since the condition isn’t dangerous, I think it’s okay if we laugh a little bit at that image, right?  (Obviously familial periodic paralysis is not funny, and I’m definitely not making fun of it.  But don’t you have to admit that you’re wondering how different your family gatherings might have been had half of you been paralyzed for awhile after dinner?)

This family and their condition intrigued me so much that as soon as I got home, I went to PubMed to see if I could find the case in the literature (I really can’t help it…I’m a librarian), but my searching has turned up nothing so far.  Therefore I am challenging the medical librarians out there to find me a case report.  If you find it, you will win….I don’t know, honor and glory.  🙂  So to run down again, here’s what we know:

  • autosomal dominant
  • channelopathy (I think she said on the potassium ion channel, which would make sense because I found lots of cases of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis)
  • familial periodic paralysis
  • overeating
  • probably an Irish family (the lecturer did specify Irish, but as every librarian knows, people often misremember these kinds of details, so probably best not to rely on this particular piece of information)

Alright, go! 🙂

(And by the way, if no one finds this within a week, I’ll email the guest lecturer and ask, but let’s try to save me the embarrassment of having to compose that bizarre email, shall we?)

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.

The Librarian’s Strange Bedfellows

Strange bedfellows

When it comes to books, I’m afraid I must confess to be non-monogamous.  I usually like to be reading some combination of a variety of types of books: fiction, non-fiction, some sort of self-improvement (yoga or philosophy or something), and some sort of textbook.  And now that I have a nice queen size bed as a result of a very nice Christmas gift from my parents last year, the side I don’t sleep on is often full of books (and dog!)  Especially since I’d been sick recently and spent essentially two days in bed, a lot of books piled up there.  So in case you’ve ever wondered who a librarian shares her bed with, they are:

1. Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich: despite its salacious title, this is actually the true tale of the theft of moon rocks, evidently “the most audacious heist in history.”  Haven’t started this one yet.

2.  When She Woke by Hillary Jordan: only just started this one too, but it takes place in a dystopian future in which people’s skin is dyed a color to match the crime they’ve committed.  Bought this one at the Tattered Cover when I was in Denver – love that place!

3.  The third book in the stack is actually my journal, but it was in the bed so I tossed it in the stack so it wouldn’t feel left out. 😉

4.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche: a good friend is always quoting Nietzsche to me so I decided to give it a try, and so far I love it.  Going all former-English major and highlighting my favorite passages.  This is why I can’t generally check out library books!

5.  Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd: this is very science-y and probably wouldn’t appeal to your average foodie, but for the nerdiest of foodies, it is quite fascinating.  It’s very complicated, but the way I’d very briefly summarize it is to say that flavor is actually mostly neurologically occurring in the nose, though we perceive taste as being in the mouth.  It’s complicated but very interesting.

6.  Basic Neurochemistry by Siegel et al: well, you know, a girl needs a little light reading too. 🙂  In my work as a medical librarian I’ve become very interested in neurotransmitters and am learning all sorts of interesting things about research going on in this area, so I figured why not see what I can find out for myself.  So far some of it is over my head and I skip it, but I’ve learned some interesting things about how neurotransmitters work.

So that’s what I’m reading!  What are you Internet folks enjoying these days?  I’m always looking for a good book to add to the list!

The Librarian’s First Dataset: A Treatise on Incredible Nerdiness

I must preface this post by saying that, if you didn’t know already, I’m a huge herd.  The biggest.  There’s nothing I’m more passionate about than knowledge and learning, and this has often earned me very perplexed looks from people who probably think I’m crazy.  In this post, I’m going to wax poetic about knowledge and reveal the depths of my geekiness.  However, I’m guessing if you’re here reading this blog, this is probably not going to come as any sort of a surprise to you.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on planning a research data management class.  Working with researchers on their data is hands-down my favorite part of my job.  I adore science and the best part of being a medical librarian/research informationist is that I get to work with all different researchers and hear about all sorts of fascinating things.  Sometimes I regret that I didn’t get a science degree, but mostly I’m okay with it because this job allows me to get my hands into all sorts of different things and never have to choose a specialty. Talking to researchers is fascinating.  However, the more I talk to them, the more I realize that a lot of them really have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to data management.  These are brilliant people, to be sure, but the way they handle their data makes me cringe.  They’ve never been trained to do it properly, but as a librarian, I have that training.  Part of what I do is helping people with their data, but I also believe in the adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.  I’m one librarian in a huge research enterprise.  As much as I’d like to, there’s no way I could possibly reach everyone to personally help them figure out their data.  So one of the things I decided to do to help mitigate the fact that I can’t be in eight million places at once is to offer a class on research data management.

Because I work in the field of medicine, in which everything must be evidence-based, of course I wasn’t satisfied just to offer a class and hope people liked it.  I am a data librarian, so I decided that I should probably gather some data!  My plan was to devise a pre-test that people would take before the class, then a follow-up post test.  Obviously the goal was that they wouldn’t know the answers to the questions on the pre-test, and then they would after the class. I spent weeks agonizing over how best to assess this. I’ve had very, very preliminary training in devising assessment instruments, but mostly I was just kind of taking a shot in the dark when I came up with my pre-test. I changed the questions a million times, but I finally came up with something that I thought would probably work.

Today, our office manager sent out the reminder email about tomorrow’s class to those who had RSVP’d.  The email contained a link to the survey and a brief explanation of why I was asking people to complete it.  It was a short survey, took only a couple minutes to complete, but I had this sinking feeling that everyone would ignore it.  Because of IRB (Institutional Research Board) requirements, I had emphasized in the email that people weren’t required to take the survey if they wanted to do the class.  I figured people would see that and just ignore the survey, but I was keeping my fingers crossed.  I was on the train to the airport in San Francisco on my way back to Los Angeles when I saw that the email had gone out.

So now, allow me to set the scene for one of the nerdiest moments of my life.  I had gotten to the airport and had some time to kill before my flight, so I was sitting in a wine bar getting something to eat (and drink of course).  I ordered a glass of Champagne (yeah, that’s how I roll) and pulled out my laptop.  I was logging on when the Champagne arrived.  I pulled up the survey site.  The email had only gone out maybe an hour or so earlier, so I wasn’t expecting any responses yet.  But when I logged on, you know what I found?  Almost EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has registered for the class had taken the survey!  When I saw the number of responses, I made an audible, astonished gasp, and several people in the restaurant turned and looked at me.  I refrained from getting up from my seat and jumping up and down in excitement, though this is what I would have done if I had been alone. 🙂

Not only did people respond to my survey, but they responded exactly as I hoped they would.  I won’t go into detail here, since obviously I’m going to attempt to publish all of this in a peer-reviewed journal.  🙂  But essentially, these pre-test results reveal that, as I had suspected, these people really need a lot of help with this stuff and don’t have a lot of knowledge of the many awesome resources out there.  Hopefully that will all change tomorrow when I teach this class.

So that is the story of how I came to have my very own research dataset.  This is incredibly heartening for me.  For one thing, I’ve always felt like I really ought to have more hands-on experience working with data if I’m going to teach it.  My dataset is super tiny compared to the datasets I help researchers with, but this is a good start.  More importantly, I am so excited that this actually worked.  I’ve been wanting to move forward with additional research in this area, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it was worthwhile, since I basically only had anecdotal evidence to suggest this kind of thing was needed, and there have been a few naysayers whose words weighed heavily on my mind.  I’ve worked really hard on all of this, and it’s been exhausting, especially with having to work around sort of a crazy travel schedule.  But now it feels like things are all falling into place.  All those little ideas I’ve had floating around in my mind about additional research I’d like to do feel a little more feasible now.  So it’s an exciting time for me career-wise.  Now that I’m a little more assured that I know what I’m doing, I have some good ideas about how to move forward. I’ve got a hunger for data and research now and I need more. 🙂

So yeah, again, probably news to no one, but I’m a huge nerd.  Now, in celebration, I’m going to order a second glass of Champagne to enjoy in the hour before I have to catch my flight.  Cheers!

Friday Fun Paper: Down the Dark Road of Carrot Addiction

Be careful – your next salad might be the one that starts you down the dark path of carrot addiction. (By Kander, via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week there was no Friday Fun Paper because I was off in Cape Cod gallivanting as well as attending the National Library of Medicine Bioinformatics course at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.  I met some very interesting people and learned a ton, and I can highly recommend this experience to anyone interested in applying technology to medicine.

At the end of the week, I boarded the plane back to Los Angeles, and found myself seated next to a woman who was probably in her mid-60s.  About halfway through the flight, she pulled a small bag of baby carrots out of the back of her seat pocket, set them on her tray table, looked at them for several minutes, and then put them away again.  I did not subsequently see the carrots, and I’m fairly certain that she did not eat them at any point in the flight.  This was strange enough in itself, but it also struck me because it reminded me of a very strange and fascinating article I read several years ago by Mary Roach, one of my favorite science writers.

Published several years ago in Salon, Roach’s article “Turning Orange” elucidates the curious phenomenon of carrot addiction.  Yes, this is a real thing.  Roach interviewed several carrot addicts, including one who had not been able to travel for many years because of her carrot addiction – she had to have her carrots cooked in a special way and eat them immediately after they were cooked, so she couldn’t go on a long flight or road trip because she wouldn’t have access to the carrots.  When her out-of-state daughter was going to get married, she braved the flight, but had to have her daughter waiting at the airport with the carrots as soon as she got off the flight.  It occurred to me that I might be sitting next to this woman, but since her carrots were raw in their original packaging and she never ate them, I think it’s unlikely.

A quick search of the medical literature1 reveals that the subject of carrot addiction has been explored by one R. Kaplan in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (30.5) in an article titled simply “Carrot Addiction.”  The mechanism by which people become addicted to carrots, as far as I’m aware, remains unknown, though there are two theories.  First, some carrot addicts develop their carrot addiction while they’re quitting smoking, suggesting that it’s sort of an oral fixation substitute.  Secondly, some people may actually become physically addicted to the beta carotene in carrots. Some people end up eating so many carrots that their skin actually turns orange from the beta carotene.  Not even kidding.

So now, next time you see someone eating carrots, I bet you’re going to wonder, aren’t you?  Is this just a casual carrot eater, or are you dealing with a full-on carrot addict?

1.  In case you’re interested, after some playing around, my PubMed search string was

(“Behavior, Addictive”[Mesh] OR addict*) AND (“Daucus carota”[Mesh] OR “carrot” NOT “Card Arranging Reward Responsivity Objective Test”)

The bit on the end about the card arranging test is because I was getting lots of articles about this test (abbreviated CARROT) being used with people who had other addiction issues.

Friday Fun Paper: Two Words You Do Not Want to Hear Together

Personally, I can now never look at salami the same way again. (Image by André Karwath, CC-BY-SA-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)

So this is my second Friday Fun Paper post, in which I present to you a odd, amusing, surprising, or otherwise attention-grabbing articles that I stumble upon in my work as a medical librarian.  Today’s article is a case study that pretty much says it all in its direct, but concise, title “Rectal Salami.”  I think that’s really all I need to say about the article, other than that it’s from the International Journal of Clinical Practice by Shah, Majed, and Rosin.  I don’t remember how on earth I stumbled upon this particular article – I have not done any similar searches that I can recall recently – but I had the foresight to save it on my “to read” list and sort of did a double take when I found it again in the list.  However, I will admit I did not actually read the article – the abstract was more than adequate for me.  Still, three thoughts came to mind, one flippant, and two related to librarian work.

First, I would like to have been there during the brainstorming session for the title.  Did they float other names?  Did anyone feel tempted to make a bad pun?  Were there suggestions put forth about how to maybe be a little more tactful about it, a little less blunt?  How many ideas did they go through before one of them just said, “I don’t know – should we just call it ‘Recal Salami?'”  And everyone kind of shrugged, and no one could really think of anything better, so now they all get to put an article called “Rectal Salami” on their publication lists.

Second, and more seriously, my colleague and I have gotten to do something pretty cool recently – we go to morning report once a month to teach the residents at our hospital about literature searching. In case you’re not familiar with medical education, residents are the people who have graduated with their MD, but are doing additional training in a medical specialty.  Part of their training is going to these morning reports, which involve one of the residents presenting the case of an unusual or challenge patient they’ve taken care of recently.  The resident presenting the case goes through the patient’s history and symptoms, and then everyone brainstorms about what they think the problem could be.  Then the resident presents what he or she found when they examined the patient, and the others suggest tests they would want to order if this were their patient.  The presenter gives the numbers on how those tests turned out (with some numbers occasionally garnering soft sounds of surprise and awe among the others in attendance for their being so off-the-charts out of the norm) and shows any images they have.  By then everyone’s got a good guess about what’s wrong with the patient and they talk about treatment and how the patient ended up doing. Finally the librarians (us!) talk about how you could use appropriate resources to quickly find the answer to clinical questions that might be relevant to the diagnosis or treatment of the disease.  It’s very cool.  Since we’re a pretty major medical center and one of the best in the country, we do get some really unusual and challenging cases.  The kind you might actually write a paper about.  Something that not many people had written about before.  Something like, you know…well, I’m not going to repeat it again, but you know.

Third and finally, when I read articles, I always sort of “file them away” so that I can suggest them to patrons I work with – surprisingly often, I’ll read something and then the next day someone will come and ask me a question that can totally be answered by the random thing I just read.  So when I read this abstract, I thought to myself, well, if a patron ever comes up to me and says something like, “so I need help finding article about how to treat a patient…see, this guy…he put a…well, I mean, he had this salami,” I will be able to smile and nod gently and reply, “say no more.  I have just the article for you.”

Hmm…now anyone who Googles “rectal salami” is going to potentially end up on my website.