How I Work Open: Sarah Nelson

Photo of Sarah Nelson

Sarah Nelson
PhD Student
Public Health Genomics

Spotlight on: Public Scholarship

What kind of open work do you do?
I wear two hats–one as a graduate student in the public health genomics program and one as a staff scientist in biostatistics department. My dissertation focuses on the use of genetic information.  As a scientist, I do data analysis and look at ethical and policy issues in research.

Are there differences in how do you describe your work to your family vs. your colleagues?
Definitely.  My research is a little more approachable compared to other areas. There are lots of technical terms and biases in the professional genetics community.  They can be dismissive of consumer genomics like 23andMe.

How do you work openly?
I do it on the cheap!  I use mixed methods.  I did interviews with an MP3 recorder and there was no compensation for participants.  I used Atlas.ti for the textual analysis.  My dissertation isn’t technical so I can use my own laptop and software.

I’ve developed a few hacks to work more efficiently.  I use Mendeley and dropbox to track my reading and Microsoft OneDrive to store sensitive information.  I use a Slack channel devoted to academic writing, which has been hugely helpful during the dissertation writing process.  The channel has people from all over the world doing academic writing and most are trainees.  

I started a blog two years ago when I began my dissertation research.  Academic papers are so linear and condensed and that is not an accurate representation of the work that was done.  The blog posts are a record of things going on in my research, an “under the hood” approach—I just have to make sure I’m not scooping myself.  I might wait to write about some things until a preprint is coming out in hopes of boosting awareness of the preprint.  

I’ve also presented at conferences.  I did a poster at the American Society of Human Genetics and will talk at the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Congress.  Earlier, I got involved in STEAM-vent, a social sciences meet-up where I moderated a session on consumer genomics.  They found me because I was involved in the Northwest Association of Biomedical Research community conversation groups.  I co-led a community conversation about consumer genomics a few years ago.  On campus, I’ve presented twice at the Genomics Salon, which is funded by the Simpson Center.  I like talking to and with general audience members.  I’ve also participated in the UW Libraries’ Scholars Studio and the Three Minute Thesis event this past spring.

I have a management plan to share data.  I’ve de-identified my transcripts but am still reluctant to make my interview data publicly available.  I want to include my survey data into ICPSR but wonder how to frame my intent on deposit in a way that won’t scare potential participants.  You want to be responsible to your participants but also be transparent in research methods and engage in data sharing.

What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
In public health genetics, funding is a big issue.  It isn’t like other departments where you’re guaranteed a certain amount.  Since my work is interdisciplinary, it fits everywhere and nowhere.   

I would love to publish in open access journals but I have no idea where funding for article processing charges would come from.  Younger investigators are less likely to have the funding to publish in open access journals.  Some grants don’t let you use funds for article processing charges either.  The National Institute of Health is changing their approach to prioritize early career investigators for funding.  

I have the advantage of being able to define my projects.  It can be challenging, though, as I have to define what I want to do and find mentors.  I’m lucky to have an advisor who is really supportive.

What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
I had never done qualitative analysis so I took classes in that.  Learning how to interview was a challenge, and I learned through practice.  I’m an introvert and still get nervous before interviews.

I’ve learned soft skills, too, like writing succinctly for different audiences. Prioritization, time management, and managing are really important.  I keep coming back to what Kelly Edwards (Associate Dean of the Graduate School) said about doing things that are “good enough.”  Sometimes you just have to stop and be okay with that.

Another soft skill was learning to develop a professional voice on social media.  I joined Twitter when I started the blog.  I’ve tried to establish a presence there, and I’ve thought about Internet hygiene and how best to interact with others senior to me.  I’ll use Twitter to recruit for my survey once it is ready.

Why do you work openly?
Honestly, it is more fun to write the blog.  I can hunker down and work on a paper for a year and share little bits along the way.  I can have a conversation with others about my work.  I get ideas that will make the work better as well.

What opportunities does working openly offer that traditional scholarship does not?
It is more likely that you’ll be heard and seen.  I wrote a white paper for my work and posted it on bioRxiv.  Within hours, a prominent geneticist tweeted about it and thousands of people had seen it.  It probably would have taken six months to publish an article on the topic.  Sometimes it’s a negative if someone finds a mistake, but if you want to advance knowledge, you might lose face a little bit but it’s good to have errors corrected.  The people I follow get more attention and more eyes on their work.

What do you think is the future of open scholarship in your field?
It is important in explaining why public health genetics is relevant for people.  Think about the Precision Medicine Initiative with a million person cohort sharing biomedical research.  People doing academic research should make their work public-facing.  People joining research studies or doing consumer testing need good guidance.  Instead of ignoring online interpretation tools for consumer health genetics because you think they’re stupid, you should try to intervene if you think genetic information is being use in problematic ways.

At a Baltimore Ravens game, a sports genetics company tried to offer free kits to fans.  There were questions about the legality of collecting DNA samples at a public event, and the event was ultimately canceled.  If people knew more about the genetics field, they could better figure out if companies doing this work are legitimate.  Preprint servers are changing things in the scholarly community.  We need to talk with the media to publicize research.

What’s the vision we should be working towards as an open community?
Be careful about pushing things out too fast.  If you go through the publishing process and the painful peer review process, it takes a long time, but it’s beneficial.  Maybe we need a faster peer review process.  In an era of fake news when people may think science isn’t reliable, it might not be good to let the public see all of the real-time work of science.  We need to balance open scholarship with concerns about bad or premature science getting out there.

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