August 29, 2017
When Heather Spencer Lansdell began her externship at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in the Office of Data Science, she didn’t realize the enormity of the project she was about to undertake. Over three months, her charge was to wrangle and manage data to support a greater project, the upcoming NIEHS Data Commons initiative. The results of her findings were shared in her final presentation to complete her Master of Science in Bioinformatics, "NIEHS Metadata Catalog: Developing a foundation for bioinformatic analysis and data management."
Lansdell’s journey into the world of scientific metadata didn’t begin with a background in science – she holds a BA degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from William & Mary with a focus on Literary and Cultural Theory. It was while she was working at the Ellen Shaw de Paredes Institute for Women’s Imaging when a colleague noticed her analytical skills and penchant for working with data. VCU’s bioinformatics program was discovered as a possible pathway to build on that ability, and after taking a few undergraduate prerequisite courses, Lansdell fully entered the Professional Science Master’s program in Bioinfomatics in spring 2015. This degree program features an externship at an industry or government lab, which Lansdell completed this summer.
Once she started to immerse herself in the project, Lansdell quickly found there were some common denominators as to why it can be so difficult to grapple large amounts of data. One of the biggest obstacles continues to be the lack of a common language used for storing data. Metadata is input by individuals and categorized by words, but if there isn’t a universal protocol on how to best use the words for tracking and storing, searching for data can become laborious. This project will allow many different types data, including legacy data, to be easily discoverable through the use of metadata tagging of datasets.
Another challenge is making the data available to all. Presently, Lansdell’s work is a pilot program internal to NIEHS. Lansdell is an advocate for sharing data, and the goal is to make it open source. “The goal is that data ownership remains with researchers and labs, but they participate in collaboration with others,” she said. “We hope to be a resource for the entire environmental health services industry.”
Lansdell’s externship required her to evaluate new technologies for managing metadata, create a prototype tool for implementing the optimal features, and extract and store data from a variety of sources. While these skills aren’t specifically taught in courses, Lansdell’s ability to quickly learn new technologies and approaches and to effectively solve problems led to her success on the project. Lansdell is just one of VCU’s Professional Sciences Master’s candidates that have benefitted from the program’s flexible curriculum that can be customized towards the student’s abilities and interests. Students are closely advised to help chart their educational course, and are asked to complete “bridge courses” to fill in any areas of weakness. Faculty from the program work with students from a variety of STEM backgrounds, as well as other students who might not have the core requirements for immediate entry into the program, but are highly motivated to begin their career in this rapidly growing field.
Learn more about VCU’s undergraduate and graduate bioinformatics program.