Science Boot Camp West

Last week Stanford Libraries hosted the third annual Science Boot Camp West (SBCW 2015),

“… building on the great Science Boot Camp events held at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2013 and at the University of Washington, Seattle in 2014. Started in Massachusetts and spreading throughout the USA, science boot camps for librarians are 2.5 day events featuring workshops and educational presentations delivered by scientists with time for discussion and information sharing among all the participants. Most of the attendees are librarians involved in supporting research in the sciences, engineering, medicine or technology although anybody with an interest in science research is welcome.”

As a former researcher and newcomer to the library and research data management (RDM) scenes, I was already familiar with many of the considerable challenges on both sides of the equation (Jake Carlson recently summarized the plight of data librarians). What made SBCW 2015 such an excellent event is that it brought researchers and librarians together to identify immediate opportunities for collaboration. It also showcased examples of Stanford libraries and librarians directly facilitating the research process, from the full-service Stanford Geospatial Center to organizing Software and Data Carpentry workshops (more on this below, and from an earlier post).

Collaboration: Not just a fancy buzzword

The mostly Stanford-based researchers were generous with their time, introducing us to high-level concerns (e.g., why electrons do what they do in condensed matter) as well as more practical matters (e.g., shopping for alternatives to Evernote—yikes—for electronic lab notebooks [ELNs]). They revealed the intimate details of their workflows and data practices (Dr. Audrey Ellerbee admitted that it felt like letting guests into her home to find dirty laundry strewn everywhere, a common anxiety among researchers that in her case was unwarranted), flagged the roadblocks, and presented a constant stream of ideas for building relationships across disciplines and between librarians and researchers.

From the myriad opportunities for library involvement, here are some of the highlights:

  • Facilitate community discussions of best practices, especially for RDM issues such as programming, digital archiving, and data sharing
  • Consult with researchers about available software solutions (e.g., ELNs such as Labguru and LabArchives; note: representatives from both of these companies gave presentations and demonstrations at SBCW 2015), connect them with other users on campus, and provide help with licensing
  • Provide local/basic IT support for students and researchers using commercial products such as ELNs (e.g., maintain FAQ lists to field common questions)
  • Leverage experience with searching databases to improve delivery of informatics content to researchers (e.g., chemical safety data)
  • Provide training in and access to GIS and other data visualization tools

A winning model

The final half-day was dedicated to computer science-y issues. Following a trio of presentations involving computational workflows and accompanying challenges (the most common: members of the same research group writing the same pieces of code over and over with scant documentation and zero version control), Tracy Teal (Executive Director of Data Carpentry) and Amy Hodge (Science Data Librarian at Stanford) introduced a winning model for improving everyone’s research lives.

Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry are extremely affordable 2-day workshops that present basic concepts and tools for more effective programming and data handling, respectively. Training materials are openly licensed (CC-BY) and workshops are led by practitioners for practitioners allowing them to be tailored to specific domains (genomics, geosciences, etc.). At present the demand for these (international) workshops exceeds the capacity to meet it … except at Stanford. With local, library-based coordination, Amy has brokered (and in some cases taught) five workshops for individual departments or research groups (who covered the costs themselves). This is the very thing I wished for as a graduate student—muddling through databases and programming in R on my own—and I think it should be replicated at every research institution. Better yet, workshops aren’t restricted to the sciences; Data Carpentry is developing training materials for techniques used in the digital humanities such as text mining.

Learning to live outside of the academic bubble

Another, subtler theme that ran throughout the program was the need/desire to strengthen connections between the academy and industry. Efforts along these lines stand to improve the science underlying matters of public policy (e.g., water management in California) and public health (e.g., new drug development). They also address the mounting pressure placed on researchers to turn knowledge into products. Mark Smith addressed this topic directly during his presentation on ChEM-H: a new Stanford initiative for supporting research across Chemistry, Engineering, and Medicine to understand and advance Human Health. I appreciated that Mark—a medicinal chemist with extensive experience in both sectors—and others emphasized the responsibility to prepare students for jobs in a rapidly shifting landscape with increasing demand for technical skills.

Over the course of SBCW 2015 I met engaged librarians, data managers, researchers, and product managers, including some repeat attendees who raved about the previous two SBCW events; the consensus seemed to be that the third was another smashing success. Helen Josephine (Head of the Engineering Library at Stanford who chaired the organizing committee) is already busy gathering feedback for next year.

SBCW 2015 at Stanford included researchers from:

Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco

ChEM-H Stanford’s lab for Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health

Water in the West Institute at Stanford

NSF Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt)


Special project topics on Software and Data Carpentry with Physics and BioPhysics faculty and Tracy Teal from Software Carpentry.

Many thanks to:

Helen Josephine, Suzanne Rose Bennett, and the rest of the Local Organizing Committee at Stanford. Sponsored by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine – Pacific Southwest Region, Greater Western Library Alliance, Stanford University Libraries, SPIE, IEEE, Springer Science+Business Media, Annual Reviews, Elsevier.

From Flickr by Paula Fisher (It was just like this, but indoors, with coffee, and powerpoints.)

From Flickr by Paula Fisher (It was just like this, but indoors, with coffee, and powerpoints.)

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One thought on “Science Boot Camp West

  1. Molly Engelbrecht, UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory says:

    Many thanks, Stephanie, for summarizing our excellent experience and articulating the conference benefits, and especially for your presence representing the CDL, and your generous sharing of your experience and ideas!

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