Data managers: The unsung heroes and heroines of science

February 12, 2024

Written by Melinda Schuman, Biologist IV

We all love the stories about the team of biologists trudging miles through the swamplands only to walk out a few hours later with a 150 lb. invasive Burmese python on their backs. Another invasive predator removed, another win for native wildlife. Impressive. How about the crew of young interns who dedicate a summer of their lives to monitor the beach for nesting threatened loggerhead sea turtles and protect the nests from predators? They endure swarms of biting insects, hellacious humidity, electrified thunderstorms, and a sleep schedule that is completely turned on its head. Lesser known are the stories from the mangroves. Is any other organism so worthy of biologist’s fascination and attention as a forest that literally protects our coasts from some of the most powerful shaping forces (i.e. hurricanes) that our planet has to offer? Last fall at one such mangrove site, as hurricane Idalia churned offshore, we finished up our sampling for fish and aquatic invertebrates and returned to town just as a tornado-spawning feeder band roared ashore. Always expect the unexpected.

But how do all these experiences translate to scientific literature, the ultimate goal of these efforts? What happens after the measurements have been taken, the long nights are over, and the aroma of bug spray and sunscreen has worn off? Where do all the reams of collected data go?

The job of data entry and management may be less exciting than the adventures mentioned above, but no less vital to the ultimate success of a project. These days technology allows some data to be entered into a device right in the field, sometimes completely removing the need for writing down data and entering it into a computer. However, this is not always the case, and when paper datasheets are still used there is the need for a person to enter all data manually. This can be hundreds, if not thousands of individual entries. It is a time-consuming process to ensure data are entered correctly, checked for mistakes, and then set up for statistical analysis. These are all steps where errors can occur and valuable information can be lost. The main tools involved are patience, attention to detail… and caffeine.

In some ways, fieldwork remains merely an exciting story unless it can be turned into scientific knowledge that contributes to our understanding of that which is being studied. The point at which data are entered and collated into a usable format is the juncture where all that hard-earned information is turned into something useful for scientific analyses. Many years’ worth of data can often be summarized into a chart, a table, and/or a statistical test that tells the story of the work that has been done. This may seem like a lot of effort for such a small return. However, when combined with a thorough review of the literature on the same topic, and with the help of peer review, a publication can be produced, and the knowledge of a species can grow. Future biologists can then build on the information provided in the publication, or perhaps refute the findings with their own stories to tell.

This is how biologists can take data they record in the field and translate it into understanding things like the impact an invasive species is having, or how better to protect our native animal and plant species. It starts with an exciting story and typically ends with a different kind of fortitude, aimed at a targeted audience, which requires the no-less important and unsung skill of data management.