Professor Carole Palmer: Advancing discovery through data curation

Carole PalmerHer name is often associated with “big data.” Carole Palmer doesn’t like to use the term. What interests her are “deep data,” “rich data,” collective “high-impact data” that, with expert curation, can lead to new insights and discovery. “I am focused on how we promote getting all kinds of data for use in new purposes, get public access to it, and also make it highly functional,” says the new iSchool professor.

Her promise of a new data curation curriculum at the school has already created a buzz on campus. ”We’re working on a series of courses that we hope to begin this year,” she says. “I’ve already heard from a number of interested students who are waiting in the wings.”

Data curation is emerging as an essential field in an explosive information age. Curators amass a body of problem-focused information, sift it, vet it, manage it, find the connections in it, and help researchers put it to use.  “It’s fascinating for me, the potential in the landscape of information out there and how we harness it,” says Palmer.

Practitioners in data curation are in high demand in both private and public sectors. “Whether you’re using data for business intelligence or scientific inquiry and discovery, unless that data has been curated extremely well, the decisions you make are going to be essentially based on inaccurate and improperly structured and managed data,” says iSchool Dean Harry Bruce.

He describes Palmer as the world’s leading expert in the field. “I have no doubt she will be a key player in campus initiatives around data science, and that is tremendously vital to our Information School.”

Palmer came to the iSchool in August from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where she directed the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. “I like to say I left a great school for an extraordinary school,” she says.

At the U of I, she was instrumental in shaping a highly successful research data curation graduate program, the first of its kind in the country. She also instituted internships for masters and doctoral students at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and other scientific institutes.

“Our students go in to institutions with very mature data operations and learn what it means to serve research communities,” says Palmer. “What students from our field  contribute to these organizations is a more global point of view on what is happening with data resources at institutions and universities across disciplines, as well as the user community point of view—how to make data more useable for the broader community. There is a nice complementarity.”

Her work in data curation education and other academic innovations helped earn her a coveted Thomson Reuters Outstanding Teacher award from the Association for Information Science and Technology in 2013. “Carole has always had her eyes on the future of information science and its potential for addressing the great challenges of the twenty-first century,” said Allen Renear, dean of the U of I’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, after announcement of the award.

Developing a professional workforce in data curation has been a top priority for Palmer, who is seeing program graduates take positions that didn’t exist five years ago. They are hired as data science and informatics librarians, data management consultants, research data librarians, data service librarians. They’re taking positions in data stewardship, data governance. “Everybody realizes now that data are an asset,” she says. “It gives a competitive advantage, to marshal and invest in all these resources.”

Palmer became enamored with the scientific process as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, where she worked in a physiological psychology lab examining the parts of the brain that regulate pain. “I was intrigued by the whole process of science: the pieces that had to be in place for a project to happen, how the data are interpreted, how that eventually becomes robust science.”

She realized, however, that she did not want to spend the rest of her life in a lab. She had worked in libraries as a student in a cataloguing unit and as a pre-professional in a law library and humanities library before earning her MLS in 1986 from Vanderbilt University. After working as a professional in humanities reference and as head of an access services unit, she became hooked on the holistic idea of fostering research across disciplinary boundaries.

Palmer is now a national champion for advancing scientific understanding through collective, shared, information resources within and across disciplines. “As we open up data resources, more innovation can happen.”

But sharing your data or re-using someone else’s has not been the traditional m.o. for many researchers. “It can be difficult to get people to understand why you would invest in making your data available to someone else,” says Palmer, who is principal investigator on the Site-Based Data Curation project, an effort to develop a framework for curation of data generated at scientifically significant research sites.

The project is currently focused on Yellowstone National Park, where geologists, microbiologists, geobiologists, and other scientists explore everything from origins of life on earth to the possibility of life on other planets, individually generating volumes of complex data. “The scientists we are working with now understand how everyone’s small data can be hugely influential and high-impact as aggregate data,” says Palmer.

Helping the scientists see that took some work. “You have to build a culture of letting go of data,” says Palmer.

She recalls a workshop where scientists conducting research at Yellowstone started out by saying they would never use anyone else’s data. They’d go out and collect it themselves. As the conversation progressed, they remembered: “Oh, I guess I did use so and so’s data, and, oh, that was really important.” In the end, the research team began to hear excitement building around sharing data: “If I could only get at this other data, it could show me a completely new dimension.”

It’s a progression Palmer knows well. “Scientists of all generations are starting to buy into the potential for scientific breakthroughs by really exploiting data resources,” says the professor, whose team is now designing a prototype that allows Yellowstone researchers to contribute their data to an open-access base of valuable and reusable information.

This fall quarter, as she settles in at the iSchool and prepares the new data curation curriculum, Palmer is teaching a graduate seminar course on “The Question of Information,” on-site and online. “It is a delight and luxury for me to revisit some of the canonical works in the field.”

Palmer says she has been impressed with the diversity of programs and people at the school, including non-faculty members who contribute to the educational community. “It takes all kinds to make a school run, but most schools aren’t good at having all kinds. Seeing how that takes shape here is really great.”

She is also impressed by the intellectual rigor. “The school here has made very strong hires in the data science area, with a strong emphasis on data analytics. And they have really strong students.

“All indicators are that there is exciting work to be done here and the right partners are in place to do it.”