Advice to Emerging Professionals in an Emerging Field

Guest post by Laura Brenskelle

We’re all emerging professionals here. Have you ever thought about being an emerging professional in a new field? This poses a unique set of challenges. I completed my M.S. in Geological Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin in December 2015. For all intents and purposes, I was part of the paleontology research group at UT. However, I can honestly say that I don’t know an awful lot about geology, and my Master’s thesis wasn’t exactly about paleontology. My research interests are focused in the area of biological informatics. If you’re not familiar, biological informatics is the use and management of biological data in order to better understand the Earth’s flora, fauna, and their interactions. I would like to differentiate my use of the term ‘biological informatics’ from ‘bioinformatics’ because, in general, when someone says ‘bioinformatics’, they are referring to data from molecular biology. Biological informatics utilizes data about biodiversity, ecology, and phylogenetic relationships of organisms.

12313799_10205625252416044_7449098115071000989_n

Laura pictured with Dr. Chris Bell, a member of her Master’s committee.

If I am interested in biological informatics, how did I end up in a geology program? As an undergraduate interested in becoming a natural history museum professional, I faced the same problem all young professionals face – where on Earth do you go to graduate school? There is no easy answer. You can go into a museum studies program, but most of these are heavily focused on art or history museums. You can go into a biology/paleontology/botany/etc. program and do ‘traditional’ research on evolution, or systematics, or what have you. But if you’re like me, and your interests are more related to digitization of specimens or management of specimen data, this makes finding the right program a bit harder.

I firmly believe that biological informatics requires knowledge not only in information and computer science, but also biology. Knowing how to write code or how to properly manage data is important, but having an in-depth understanding of the importance and potential research applications of data is also a valuable foundation. This applies to all scientific informatics fields, not just biology. Each domain of science has its own flavors of ‘big data,’ but without background knowledge of why this data matters and how specialists can use it, it’s hard to properly harness its power. For my thesis research, I visited natural history collections to interview and observe collection managers working with collection databases. I took into account how data entry and management occurs in the real world in the context of natural history collections. The organizational systems and the limitations of these systems have an impact on the future of biological informatics and the usability of the data we’re amassing from natural history collections. I could expand on this topic (and I did within my thesis), but the point I would like to make here is this – as of now, there are no educational pathways for people with these interests. This is a huge problem for the future of all scientific informatics endeavors. People love to throw around the term ‘big data,’ and they love to talk about how data is changing science. But without proper training for data curators/data managers, how do we know that we are properly archiving important data? How do we build new tools to use this data in innovative ways? How do we build a new social system that motivates scientists to share their data? Without dedicated programs where people can address these very important questions, how will progress be made?

That is not to say that things are currently hopeless. I’m here, aren’t I? If you are an emerging professional like me who is interested in these questions, I urge you to stick with it. The world needs more of us because these problems are real, and the answer is to form a new kind of professional who deals with the management and sharing of data. This niche can’t be filled if we settle for the current, available educational pathways. So I would like to encourage you to push the envelope. At this stage in the game when this field is still so new, it isn’t terribly important what kind of program you’re in, but I can offer you the best advice I’ve got. I suppose my advice could apply to any graduate school experience, but I think these points are particularly important if you’re interested in biological informatics or any other kind of upcoming field.

  • Remain true to your interests. I realized through my own personal experiences that this is not always easy. However, just because a few people might not see the value in what you want to do does not mean it isn’t valuable. If this means building your own research project from the ground up, do it. It will make you a better scientist in the long run if you take full responsibility for the kind of research you want to pursue.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people. This is an extremely important piece of advice for both your mental health and your development as an emerging professional. When you’re building a Master’s or doctoral committee, choose people who see value in what you are doing, even if they might view your interests from a different perspective than you do. A different perspective isn’t a bad thing; it can help you see new dimensions of how your research can be applied. But this advice is not limited to your committee or professors. It is equally, or possibly even more, important to surround yourself with supportive peers, whether they are fellow graduate students, family, or friends. You will need people to listen to you vent, to bounce ideas off of, and just to help you forget about the stresses of school in general.
  • Present at conferences. This point is related to the previous, but I think it is important enough that it warrants its own emphasis. As someone is trying to build professionalism and research ideas in biological informatics, there might not always be obvious answers to the questions of where to publish or where to present your work. I found a lot of support at the 2015 SPNHC meeting and iDigBio workshops, and I am sure there are other appropriate venues as well. What really matters is going to a conference and putting your ideas out there, and talking to people about the things that interest you, people who don’t see you regularly in the halls of your university. Everyone stresses that networking is important in graduate school, but I cannot even tell you how relieving it was to present at conferences and have people approach me after my talks to discuss my ideas further. Receiving validation from other people in the community for all of your hard work is a great feeling.
  • Advocate for change. In order for biological informatics to become an established field, we need programs to train professionals. We need academic journals and professional societies dedicated to biological informatics. I have personally decided to continue on to a Ph.D. program because I would like to be an advocate for these changes. While I suppose I am proof that it is possible to become a biological informatics professional without having a dedicated educational pathway, I also know that my path has not been easy, and I want things to be easier for a newer generation of biological informaticians to follow their interests. This field holds a lot of potential not only for biological research, but also for conservation and policy applications. Governments around the world are spending millions of dollars to amass data about the Earth’s biota, and in order to make the best use possible of these resources, biological informatics needs to be supported as a career path for future biologists or computer scientists. By sticking to your interests, you are helping to advocate for this field, but this is also the time to help shape the future of how biological informatics will work in the future. On December 8, 2015, the American Institute of Biological Sciences held a Council Meeting specifically to discuss the training needs to expand the workforce in biological informatics. These problems are relevant and timely. We are in the midst of a data revolution of sorts, and despite all of the challenges, now is a great time to be a young professional in any field of scientific informatics.

Trust me, I know it is hard to find a niche for yourself in an up and coming field. The jobs I want don’t even technically exist yet. It’s a risk you have to be willing to take, I suppose. I honestly don’t know how many young professionals there are in biological informatics; I have only met a few on my conference travels. All of us here know that jobs as collection managers, curators, or even collection assistants are hard to come by, but there is room for a new type of natural history museum professional. I think many young people might be well poised to fit into this niche – all you really need is an interest in biology and some technological savvy. I hope that if biological informatics is something that even remotely interests you, you will look into it. If you find that biological informatics is something you want to pursue, feel free to reach out to me or someone else who is working on establishing the field. It’s always nice to meet another trailblazer!

Laura Brenskelle graduated with her Bachelor’s in biological sciences from Clemson University, and completed her M.S. in geological sciences at The University of Texas at Austin in December 2015. She plans to continue on to pursue a PhD in biological informatics in the fall of 2016. Laura can be reached at lbrensk@gmail.com.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

February 10 – Kari Harris discusses the development and use of natural history collections clubs on university campuses.

Advertisements