Wisdom from an Open-Source Scientist

A community spotlight on Danielle Robinson

Many women become empowered in STEM thanks to dedicated people who teach, support and encourage digital inclusion, web literacy and digital equity around the world. As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day this month, we want to raise up more influential women in STEM across the globe who are passionate about what they do.

Danielle Robinson inspires us to work hard, work open, and teach the web — and we’re thrilled to feature her in our community spotlight this month.

Danielle is a 2016 Mozilla Fellows for Science, a cell biologist and Neuroscience PhD candidate at Oregon Health and Science University passionate about improving reproducibility and digital literacy in the sciences. She also co-organizes Science Hack Day Portland, and Open Insight PDX.

Danielle Robinson

Here’s what she had to share:

How did you become involved in science?

I came to science in a roundabout way. I didn’t consider myself “good” at science as a young person, so I studied painting and spent my early 20s doing all kinds of jobs (mural artist, woodshop teacher, personal assistant, fancy coffee barista, baker’s assistant). Then I had a mid-twenties crisis about my career and went back to school at community college but I couldn’t get into the nutrition class I wanted, so I took Human Anatomy and Physiology instead. It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken and totally changed the direction of my life. I became fascinated with neuroscience and cell biology and thus began my journey. I then went on to work as a research technician at the University of Vermont, and again at Weil Cornell Medical College. I eventually decided to pursue my PhD training in Neuroscience in 2011 at Oregon Health and Science University.

We’re celebrating Ada Lovelace Day this month. What advice would you share with young girls interested in pursuing scientific fields?

Being a scientist can be the most amazing job in the world — it’s an incredible mix of creativity, problem solving, reading, and communication. My advice is this: Learn to advocate for yourself. Form a network of support outside your lab, because you will need the perspective of others. Develop good mentors when you find them, even/especially mentors in other scientific fields. You can’t usually get all the the professional mentorship you need from one person. So, when you meet someone that you connect with, don’t be shy about asking them to have a coffee and talk about their career. Most people love to talk about themselves, and you might find an additional mentor. Start or join a supportive interest group at your institution or online (@STEMWomen, @BLACKandSTEM, @DiversifyEEB). Stay focused on your scientific and professional goals. Allow those goals to evolve. Take care of yourself through hobbies, relationships, exercise, and mental health care.

Is there a particular inspirational female scientist role-model you look up to?

When I was a technician, I worked for two years in a lab where the PI’s motto was “Let’s get a lot done and have a lot of fun” (said in a southern accent, because even after 30 years in NYC she never lost her Tennessee roots). She was a successful scientist and she knew how to run a lab. She knew how to motivate different types of people, how to encourage group cohesion, and how to deal with conflict. She had run her lab for 30 years and had great stories of how she dealt with the blatant sexism of early days. Usually these stories involved people asking her to do extra work for other people, and her hanging up the phone on them or just saying “I don’t have time for that” and walking away. I will always be inspired by her curiosity, and admire her management skills and ruthless practicality. Cultural norms still need to be changed to make science more inclusive, and it’s the job of our generation of researchers to do it.

What’s your most noteworthy accomplishment related to science and the web?

In the last year, I have worked hard to bring basic coding literacy to basic science “small data” researchers. I partnered with librarians and other students to develop a series of workshops called Open Insight. So, this is less of a thing that lives on the web, and more of a series designed to help early career researchers manage their data and develop the confidence make a web app. In the next year I’d like to build on this series and work on developing aspects of it that can be disseminated online.

How do you work “open” and what challenges has that presented, if any?

In my field, this is difficult right now. Most working in the cell biology end of neuroscience do not share data until it’s published. Incentives are structured so that scientists don’t want to work openly and share data because of the perception that it will impact their job security. I don’t agree, but I try to be sensitive to this perspective and focus on discussing data management, skill building using open tools, and other neutral entry points with senior researchers. Junior people are generally more receptive to the idea of working open, however our apprenticeship-style training model tends to indoctrinate trainees with their mentor’s views and doesn’t prioritize the adoption of new tools. I try to design educational programs that will reach out to students/post-docs with skill-building opportunities and concrete examples of how working openly can help them succeed scientifically and build transferable skills. I think it’s important that the open community remain connected to our colleagues who aren’t on board, even as we are enticing their students to come talk about the future of publishing with free food.

I do share my general-audience talks, code, and educational projects on GitHub, — but I like my boss and I respect his perspective — so I can’t share our research data or unpublished results.

Tell us more about the Science Hack Day you co-organize. How do you incorporate web literacy and hands-on making?

My goal at Science Hack Day PDX is to get scientists working in interdisciplinary teams and expose them to open source community and resources for sharing information. Scientists have a lot to learn form the open source movement, both philosophically and practically. Some teams will make something. Everyone will be encouraged to share their project openly.

How can others get involved or connected with your work?

I’d love to connect with other cell biologists and “small data” scientists to talk about what works for them (or doesn’t) to get their research online, share their data, submit to preprint servers, or anything else! Check out Science Hack Day PDX, Open Insight, and follow me on twitter @wispdx and @daniellecrobins

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