As a child, I enjoyed discovering how objects are put together and how they work. Four-color pens or music boxes never sat in one piece for long in my hands. Understanding the role of each little part helped put them back together. Needless to say, a large number of objects remained in pieces. I am now a data explorer and develop algorithms to uncover the stories behind data. Each story depends on the perspective. For example, when looking at how the subsurface temperature changes with depth, we can choose to focus on the geothermal gradient to determine the amount of heat coming from the Earth’s mantle and ignore any other variation and call it noise. But, in turn, that noise contains information about how much heat is transmitted to the ground from the air and tells a story about past climate changes. The story we find depends on what we consider to be of interest.
At Fluxlab, we have tons of measurements of atmospheric gases from our mobile surveys. We can choose to look at how they vary with season, location, or hour of the day to discover stories about the geospatial variation of soil and vegetation respiration, for example. Or we can focus on one particular anomaly signature and trace how legislation and better practices have effectively reduced industry emissions. I often say that Fluxlab is like a candy store, there are more data flavours than you can imagine.
I believe the key to be a good data storyteller is curiosity. Exploring data is a quest. Be inquisitive about why data was obtained and how it was measured so you can find clues that lead to answers. Be investigative and discover new perspectives; question data to improve the way it is measured and explored. Unimportant details or failures could be clues. In real data sciences and sciences in general, it is better to be curious and learn from mistakes than keep doing things the same “correct” way.
Be a “Sherlock Holmes” scientist.
I have read that intellectual curiosity keeps you young and your mind sharp. Practicing it every day keeps things fresh; life is boring if we remain passive to our surroundings and keep the same routine. Being hosted at a university, Fluxlab is perfect for practicing curiosity. You can easily find a fellow working on something you never noticed before, an unfamiliar piece of equipment or coding language, or coffee brewing like you’ve never seen! We have time to explore and improve ourselves. And we are surrounded by other scientists from whom we can learn more about their field and methods.
Do as the great Katherine Johnson said, and, “Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!”
Katherine Johnson with an adding machine and a ‘celestial training device’ at her desk at Nasa’s Langley research centre in 1962.
Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images