A boost in lab productivity from STEM librarians

Audrey Bowden, Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow and associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, wanted a better way to manage the work of students in her research lab. Each year, as a new cohort of students joined her lab, information held by graduating students would sometimes get lost or become outdated as technology changed. Motivated to create a better lab experience for her students and better output for her lab, Bowden sought help from campus partners to improve the management of sensitive data in the Bowden Optics Lab.

After meeting with the Stevenson Science and Engineering Library Director Honora Eskridge, the two developed a custom plan to design a system of information organization, storage, access and use that fit the specific needs of Bowden’s lab. Eskridge recalled, “Scientists and engineers do not always think of librarians as having expertise in research data.  But data is information, and librarians are experts at creating systems for the organization and retrieval of information. So, data management is very much in our wheelhouse. And Josh Borycz, with a PhD in chemistry as well as a library science degree, is the most data-savvy librarian on our team. I knew it would be a perfect fit.”

One of a team of three STEM research librarians at the library, Josh Borycz’s own research interests focus on information science and data management. Upon initial introductions, Bowden and Borycz built out a data management program utilizing library expertise and skill sets in a collaborative partnership for the next two years. In comparing the lab environment to walking into a classroom, Borycz noted,

“Labs are focused on producing quality research. This often means that students are intensely focused on their particular projects and become isolated from the broader context of the research process and needs of their lab mates. The nature of research also means that each lab has a unique set of workflows for gathering, sharing, and publishing data that need to be accounted for before suggesting changes. This means that librarians need to put a great deal of effort into fostering discussion and listening to the needs and goals of lab members.”

Bowden and Borycz met weekly to discuss the needs of the Bowden Lab and outline a data management program. Over the next several months, Borycz embedded himself in the Bowden Lab to understand their research, workflows, and data. Through an iterative process they built out a roadmap to match Bowden’s vision. From here, Borycz built out documentation, instructed students and provided the team with guidance on everything from cleaning code to file-naming conventions. Dr. Bowden’s noted that document retention has improved,

“The work Josh has done in our lab has improved every process that interacts with the life cycle of personnel in the group – from on-boarding to off-boarding. Importantly, Josh worked to help craft a process that integrated with the things we were already doing well, so as to reduce the overhead in learning new workflows.”

Bowden’s lab now has procedures in place to ease the transfer of research between group members, including checklists and documentation templates for onboarding and off-boarding. On a day-to-day-basis, the lab keeps strict rules about file names and file locations, to simplify the process of finding information. In addition, the lab has developed new code standards and expectations for clean code and is working toward implementing a code review process using Git, a piece of software designed to track changes in
code and manage projects. Before results are shared with other scientists, data is now rigorously cleaned, and code is triple checked. This kind of attention to detail makes a significant difference when submitting a manuscript for publication. The students feel comfortable asking Josh for assistance with their data and research issues, which is helping to make sure the process is sustainable.

Borycz’s work has created useful opportunities for the Science & Engineering Library to scale its support for faculty research. While creating data management practices that met the specific needs of the Bowden Lab, the Science & Engineering Library was able to formalize recommendations that will be useful to other research groups on campus. Eskridge noted,

“Libraries are incredibly effective about thinking in terms of scale. A single partnership can result in new areas of support that meet faculty at their point-of-need. It is how we flourish as an organization.”

Regarding the librarian’s unique role, University Librarian Jon Shaw noted it as being a matter of knowledge and commitment: “As information professionals, we are keen to foster substantive partnerships with faculty in research labs. By integrating our librarians upstream, we can streamline work processes that lead to better overall lab efficacy. We are committed to aiding our faculty in propelling their research in the Vanderbilt Way.”