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Where are they now? - Susan Stafford reminisces about her years in LTER

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Spring 2014

Don Henshaw (AND)


Where are they now?

As a means of commemorating the 25th anniversary of the DataBits newsletter, we introduce a new series to remember and reacquaint ourselves with past LTER Information Managers. This new DataBits series is intended to highlight former LTER Information Managers (IMs) by exploring what they recall of LTER meetings, events or other memorable moments during their years of involvement, and update their activities in the following and current years. The intent is to provide an opportunity for any current Information Manager or DataBits reader to contribute profiles of former IMs that they may know and wish to highlight in future DataBits editions.

For this series debut, Susan Stafford graciously agreed to spend an afternoon with Don Henshaw (AND) to reminisce about her years with the Andrews LTER, as Chair of the Information Management Committee (IMC), and succeeding career activities.

Susan Stafford

SusanStaffordLTER Site(s): H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest (AND), 1980-1998; Shortgrass Steppe (SGS), 1998-2002

LTER key role(s): Data Management Committee co-chair with Bill Michener, 1982-1993; IMC Chair, 1994-2003

Current status: Faculty, University of Minnesota

(The following is compiled by Don Henshaw but is based on direct quotes and words from Susan with some reorganization and paraphrasing to provide necessary context)

LTER involvement

Andrews LTER: Susan was hired by the Department of Forest Science, College of Forestry at Oregon State University in 1979 as a tenure-track Assistant Professor and consulting statistician, and her arrival at OSU coincided with the original competition of LTER. Susan, as a newly-minted PhD in applied statistics and quantitative ecology from SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry, became the logical choice for the data management leader as the Andrews was selected in the first cohort of six LTER sites. As the Andrews already possessed an enormous resource of past research data from both USFS research and International Biome Program (IBP) funding, Susan quickly recognized the vast opportunity and the need for bridging to these past collections by reorganizing the existing data and establishing protocols and systems to carry forward to the future.

The Andrews LTER IM “team” included both OSU and USFS PNW Station membership and Susan was able to leverage these partnerships and LTER funding to create and build the Quantitative Sciences Group (QSG). The general premise being that what was good for Andrews LTER would be good for the department and College and also good for USFS PNW. The quantitative sciences team was bigger than any one project and was able to facilitate LTER and other research efforts. A science workflow was implemented in the early 1980’s where a researcher would consult with Susan on statistical design and defining study objectives, and then proceed to work with other team data managers on collection forms and documentation (the 1980’s were the ice-age of data management as the terms “metadata” and “information manager” had not yet been invented).  Susan successfully recruited new talent to the QSG as the LTER project’s needs grew and expanded into new areas.

Network-level LTER:  Susan remembers attending early LTER Data Manager meetings at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1982), Oregon State University (1983) and the Baruch Institute, University of South Carolina (1984). Susan felt a kindred spirit with Walt Conley (one of the JRN lead scientists), Carl Bowser (NTL) and Bill Michener (North Inlet LTER site’s Data Manager), and informally, Bill and Susan assumed roles as co-chairs of these early meetings. There were no real data directives at that time other than to insure that LTER data didn’t suffer the same fate as IBP data. Data managers realized early on that they would be far more successful advocating for “standards” in data collection and documentation than imposing strict “standardization” as not all PIs embraced the idea of data curation and archival. There was a realization that "standardization" would be best accomplished through "standards" of quality, best field practices and good documentation, and not by defining a single way to collect and process data. Sites were concerned about excellence in their site science and were collecting data in each of the six core areas, but were collecting data in their own way. Telling sites that they had to collect data in one specific way would have been “pushing water uphill”. There was a fine balance in getting people to accept that beyond site science there was an added expectation that the sites would need to work together as a “network.” Just being a site with phenomenal science was not enough. There was a certain mindset needed in those early days to make a site flourish. The sites that fostered a spirit of openness and demonstrated a collaborative nature were better positioned to meet this added expectation and those characteristics helped define the early success of LTER sites.

The NSF had vowed to prevent the same problem issues with data curation and archiving that had occurred in the IBP from recurring in LTER. Data management failures of the IBP may have been the best friend of LTER data management. Early LTER data management efforts were watched closely by NSF. That is, NSF indicated they knew the importance of data curation and would provide resources and/or guidance where necessary to make this happen. For example, as a means of being on the forefront of GIS technology, the late Tom Callahan (NSF) held a meeting in Washington, DC in the later 1980s to assure that potential software and hardware needs to accommodate GIS were discussed and well-vetted.

Susan believes the solidarity and blossoming of LTER data management was due largely to the annual meetings. She remembers writing a proposal with Bill Michener, early in the history of LTER, which provided funds for the annual meeting of the data managers and which have now become institutionalized.These yearly meetings were critically important because, unfortunately, in the early days of LTER, some of the Data Managers were not recognized as an important member of their respective research teams. The role of the data manager was sometimes marginalized at their own site. The annual meetings helped address this by creating both a sense of community within the data managers (later known as Information Managers) as well as a community of talented and dedicated individuals who were all concerned about the same things – the plots were different but the themes were the same. Focusing on this thematic overlay allowed the data managers to become the poster child for how the network fostered collaboration. The data managers represented a critical mass of talented people with diverse skills, including PhD scientists, professionals and field technicians, which made this community work. This organization of data managers gave a legitimacy to work that we knew was important, but had largely heretofore been seen as merely custodial. The early mini-sabbaticals at LNO were also useful in increasing the visibility of and adding legitimacy to information management work. Susan is gratified that today, data management is taken very seriously and plays a very significant role within the LTER Network and all NSF proposals.

The collegiality of the group was also a key part of its success. Susan remembers a meeting in the mid-1990s where a new participant in the group became aggressively argumentative and took Susan on because he felt he knew better about an issue and Eda Melendez (LUQ) “practically grew out of her skin to exclaim to the participant ‘Let me explain to you how we work…’. Everybody became advocates for each other and it was authentic”. People shared how similar issues were resolved at other sites and IMs became aware of the issues and were given tools to address them. The meetings were a safe environment where folks could "let their hair down" and ask for help without worry of embarassment. Susan remembers John Porter (VCR) in 1987 introducing himself at his very first meeting and proclaiming ‘I’m proud to announce that we have one megabyte of data!’   In a meeting at Archbold Biological Field Station in 1996, Susan remembers Jim Gosz (LTER Chair) warning the data managers saying ‘the one thing the IMs need to be aware of – you’re all very nice to each other and you may even be too polite to each other…’.  Even Susan’s parents upon hearing mention of ‘LTER’ (until their dying day) would remember ‘those are the nice people that looked out after you’.  (This was a reference from Orlando 2002 where John Porter and a group of IMs stayed in the lobby with Susan after the meeting so she wouldn’t be waiting alone.)

In 1992, Susan along with Bill Michener, James Brunt, and Tom Kirchner (SGS then CPER) traveled to Beijing, China (recall that this was shortly after the Tiananmen  Square protest in 1989) to work with members of the Chinese Ecological Research Network (CERN) to help them organize their information management network.Susan Stafford in the Forbidden City, Beijing

Bill Michener, James Brunt and Susan teamed up again in 1994 in organizing and producing a Taylor and Francis volume for an international symposium in Albuquerque, “Environmental Information Management and Analysis: Ecosystem to Global Scales”, and with John Porter in 1998 for the DIMES conference in Albuquerque, “Data and information management in the ecological sciences: a resource guide”. Susan was a coauthor with Bill, James, John Helly, and Tom Kirchner on the seminal Ecological Applications paper,"Nongeospatial metadata for the ecological sciences” in 1997.

Susan also remembers working collaboratively with James Brunt and John Porter at the SEV to help design and participate in the original training sessions for our counterpart IMs from the ILTER, setting the stage for the very successful eco-informatics training sessions we have today.  These courses have been offered globally and very ably taught by Kristin Vanderbilt, John Porter, Wade Sheldon, Don Henshaw, Peter McCartney and many, many other LTER IMs. It is interesting to note that Peter McCartney is now a Program Officer at NSF directing, among other things, the bio-informatics program.  LTER Information Management has indeed been a successful launching pad for many of our colleagues!

Susan developed a unique professional identity through her leadership of the LTER IM Committee, and this experience likely led to her later posts. Susan spent one year at NSF in 1994 as Director of the then Division of Biological Instrumentation and Resources (now known as the Division of Biological Infrastructure) and chaired the LTER IMC until Barbara Benson was elected chair in 2003. Susan ran very punctual meetings and was amazed how exhausting it was simply to listen carefully! Susan honed her skills as the Committee Chair and could recognize where people’s strengths were and led them into positions where they would succeed. Susan’s polite and respectful manner was helpful and enabled people to work effectively together. The professional relationships that grew from her work and long-time association with the LTER IM community are some of the strongest, most professional and most enduring that Susan enjoys to this day!

Beyond LTER

In 1998 Susan left OSU to be Department Head of Forest Sciences at Colorado State University. Susan worked with the Shortgrass Steppe LTER site during this period and greatly enjoyed working with Nicole Kaplan. In 2002 Susan left for the Twin Cities of Minnesota to be the Dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Minnesota (UM) and continues at Minnesota as a faculty member.Susan Stafford (2001)

Susan remains active as:

  • a member of the LTER National Advisory Board
  • past-president and current Board member of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, Chair of the Leadership in Biology initiative and member of the Long Range Planning Committee
  • a member of the NEON Board and Chair of the NEON Communication Committee
  • collaborating scientist with Judy Cushing (The Evergreen State College) on an NSF–funded interdisciplinary VISTAS visualization project

Susan lives in Veneta, Oregon, with her husband Buster Davis and has a son and two grandchildren.