Get to know Cheryl Thompson, PhD student

Policies and practices in data management—including data preservation and sharing—are increasingly important and complicated aspects of research today. Scientific research and data centers as well as universities and academic libraries are leading the way in developing and implementing best practices in data management. But how do they integrate data management strategies and experts into their workflows?

It is at this intersection of people and institutions that doctoral candidate Cheryl Thompson is conducting her research. Specifically, she explores how organizations develop data expertise and services to support science.

“My research focuses on the role of institutions in data use and access in scientific and research environments. By studying organizations and professions, I investigate the conditions that advance or hinder data-intensive research as well as the emerging data profession and its required expertise,” said Thompson.

“As the need for quality data curation grows in contemporary research, information professionals play an essential role in data infrastructure, standards, and user services in science and scholarship. My primary goal is to promote innovative and responsive data services and the preparation of library and information science students for data work to meet the needs of the workforce,” she explained.

In addition to pursuing these ideas in her doctoral coursework, Thompson has worked as a graduate assistant with faculty in the iSchool's Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. She was a Data Share Fellow of the Research Data Alliance in 2015-2016 and a Data Curation Education in Research Centers (DCERC) fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in 2014. As a DCERC fellow, she and other iSchool students gained hands-on experience in data curation at NCAR.

Thompson has also been a graduate researcher on the Data Stewardship Engineering Team at NCAR, which is managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). In this role, she conducted interviews with lab representatives regarding their data services, the user communities they serve, and the challenges they face. She also assisted in inventorying data assets.

Thompson recently presented some of her research findings at SciDataCon, a conference that addresses emerging issues in the role of data in research. Her poster, “Cultivating Data Expertise in Geoscience Research Centers,” put forth results from an ongoing study she is conducting at NCAR and eighteen other geoscience data centers.

Based on interviews with data professionals at these centers, Thompson has drawn several conclusions about the knowledge and skills required for high-level data management and the roles these professionals play in the large-scale research taking place at their centers.

She has found that many data managers learn their work on the job, rather than through formal training, and have expertise in a science domain. They tend to focus on the needs of the end user, combining domain and data management skills to develop strategies and tools to support user needs.

“Data professionals have the unique ability to organize these data and information into valuable, useful products, collections, or systems for their domain communities . . . . All the interviewees, coming from geoscience backgrounds, described learning how to organize and manage data by doing it,” she said.

Thompson identified four distinct roles for data professionals within large-scale research organizations: data managers or curators, data engineers, data scientists, and data service managers. However, she has observed that these roles are evolving—in part due to external forces impacting research centers—as well as moving from specialist to generalist roles.

Thompson plans to wrap up her studies and complete her dissertation, “Data expertise and service development in data centers and academic libraries,” in 2017. She hopes to work in academia and continue her research and teaching in the areas of data curation and scholarly communication.

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