One giant leap: For space librarians & accessible data

When it comes to data archiving, Michele Thornton has you covered. As a Geospatial Data Professional for ORNL-DAAC, Michele ensures that NASA funded research is accessible not only to researchers out in the field but to a larger user community – archival work that is vital for future researchers. She talks with us about how Jacques-Yves Cousteau inspired her love of science and how her field work as a graduate student has influenced her appreciation of the field data she works with daily.

This episode was produced by Zoe Swiss and Shane M Hanlon, and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Karen Romano Young. Interview conducted by Ashely Hamer.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:00                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:03                Are you a reader? Do you read? Is reading a thing you do?

Vicky Thompson:           00:07                Reading is a thing I do. Yes. Yeah, I’m actually, right now … Yes. I’m super into reading right now, actually.

Shane Hanlon:              00:15                Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           00:16                I’m excited.

Shane Hanlon:              00:18                Do you like physical books? Well, I know we talked about an e-reader but, no, I mean, do you like owning books or are you more of a library person?

Vicky Thompson:           00:30                Oh, interesting. So I’m somewhere in between. This is terrible. Don’t-

Shane Hanlon:              00:36                No judgment here.

Vicky Thompson:           00:38                Everybody close their ears. Nobody listen to this, but I think I forget libraries exist every once in a while and then I find them again, and I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing.” I’m just so in tune sometimes to just like, “I want this book. I’m going to buy this book. I want this book. I’m going to buy this book,” that it doesn’t occur to me to-

Shane Hanlon:              00:58                Do you have a card to your local library?

Vicky Thompson:           01:00                Yes.

Shane Hanlon:              01:00                Oh, okay. Okay.

Vicky Thompson:           01:02                I do, and actually probably illegally, I also have a … I share my mom’s card to the New York Library.

Shane Hanlon:              01:09                Oh, sure. Well, yeah, you can get stuff virtually, or not virtually. You can get e-versions now, so that’s super helpful.

Vicky Thompson:           01:17                Exactly. It’s really awesome.

Shane Hanlon:              01:21                My partner actually dislikes that I don’t utilize libraries. I very much appreciate having… She has a card and uses it, especially the e-version. I like physical media and I like owning said media specifically in the form of books. I like owning books. Good books, bad books like crime, garbage trash to really good works of art. I just want all the books. Though, I will say I do have a special place. Libraries do have a special place in my heart because, growing up, my mom actually worked at our school library when I was in, well, many grades, but specifically when I was in high school.

Vicky Thompson:           02:06                That sounds so fun.

Shane Hanlon:              02:07                It was awesome. I have to say, I really enjoyed having a parent in a school system who was not one of my teachers. I knew kids who had that, and that was awful.

Vicky Thompson:           02:19                Oh, sure.

Shane Hanlon:              02:19                This was more just, my buddy and I would go to the library and we’d walk in and her colleague, who was the head library would look at us and go, “Hi, Shane, hi Alex.” And then just walk away because she knew that we were going to hang out with my mom and not actually do anything. It was just accepted that this is what we did.

Vicky Thompson:           02:45                Yeah, I love that. And I like that maybe that’s where, “Hi, Shane” originates.

Shane Hanlon:              02:52                Oh, maybe.

Vicky Thompson:           02:52                Did we just find it?

Shane Hanlon:              02:54                Oh, I like that.

                                    03:00                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists or everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           03:10                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              03:11                And this is Third Pod from The Sun.

                                    03:17                While I love talking about my youth and, I guess, myself and will always use an opportunity to say nice things about my mom, I of course, asked you about libraries for a reason.

Vicky Thompson:           03:33                A reason other than just making me super jealous that your mom worked at your school.

Shane Hanlon:              03:38                It was pretty great, and my goal was, not to make you jealous, but if it did, that’s just a bonus for me. No, no. In this specific instance, not the explicit purpose of making you jealous. Today we’re talking with someone, hearing from someone who isn’t necessarily a librarian, but does work with and curates data at NASA to assist in some really important research there.

Vicky Thompson:           04:06                Okay. So I’m imagining NASA has a… Does NASA have a library you could walk through and peruse?

Shane Hanlon:              04:14                Oh, that’s a really great question.

Vicky Thompson:           04:15                [inaudible 00:04:16] library. That would be so cool, but I bet this is much more electronic.

Shane Hanlon:              04:19                This is a little bit different, and maybe even library might be a little bit of a misnomer. So before I completely misrepresent everything we’re going to hear from today, let’s get into it. Our interviewer was Ashley Hamer.

Michelle Thornt…:        04:37                My name is Michelle Thornton. I work at the O R N L, D A A C. ORNL is the Oak Ridge National Lab. It’s a D O E facility and D A A C is D-A-A-C. It’s a Distributed Active Archive Center. We can talk about what that means. And my current role, so on paper, I am a technical professional, but more broadly, I often say that I’m a geospatial data professional.

Ashley Hamer:              05:11                Nice. Perfect. Yes, that is many acronyms. And then just to pile on it, D O E, you said, the Department of Energy.

Michelle Thornt…:        05:20                Department Of Energy, yep.

Ashley Hamer:              05:21                All right. Great. We’ve got it all. We’ve got it all set.

Michelle Thornt…:        05:25                Yeah.

Ashley Hamer:              05:26                So with all that very long title, what exactly do you do?

Michelle Thornt…:        05:31                Yeah, that’s a good question. And I get that question sometimes by people who really care about what I do, and I find that when I start telling them what I do, I see eyes glaze over. So my elevator speech is, we are a data library. So if you think about a library, it’s curating and archiving books and manuscripts, and it makes those books or that information discoverable. So we do that for data. So in other words, somebody can find data that they’re looking for, they can get to it and they can have it available. So it’s downloadable, it’s accessible, it’s discoverable, which is really important. We use the word metadata a lot. It’s data about data, but that’s a really important part of curating data is making sure that you can find it 20 years down the line. So taking care of all of those pieces is what I, and my colleagues, do on a day-to-day basis.

Ashley Hamer:              06:37                Great. A high-tech librarian, sort of.

Michelle Thornt…:        06:39                Yeah.

Ashley Hamer:              06:40                That’s great. And then just briefly, what sorts of things is this data used for?

Michelle Thornt…:        06:47                Well, we are a NASA Earth Science Data Center, and so we archive data from NASA funded researchers who are out there doing research either in the field or modeling, or some of the data is from airborne instruments, some of it’s orbital, so satellite data. So what it’s used for is anybody’s guess. So we are invested in the bio geochemical community, so the terrestrial ecology more generally. So that is our main focus, our main research focus, and a lot of our users are terrestrial ecologists, either in wildlife or climate change, or a whole host of earth science in the terrestrial ecology program.

Ashley Hamer:              07:42                Great.

Michelle Thornt…:        07:44                So yesterday I got an email from a person who was doing research in Yellowstone. Last week, it was somebody from British Columbia who was doing studies on mule deer populations. So we definitely are very user focused, and that means both in terms of people who are giving us data. So the NASA researchers who are, once they’re done with their research and they’re ready to archive that data, we will interact with them on a, sometimes, day to day level, understanding their data, standardizing their data, making sure it’s documented properly, and then there’s the user community who’s using that data who might have questions about it or need help.

Ashley Hamer:              08:31                It’s a wide variety of responsibilities there.

Michelle Thornt…:        08:35                Yeah, yep.

Shane Hanlon:              08:42                Vicky, would you say that your job, outside of the podcast, of course, but your job is user focused?

Vicky Thompson:           08:50                Oh, definitely. I work with, so in my regular job at AGU, I work with donors.

Shane Hanlon:              08:54                This isn’t your regular job? This isn’t your number one job? Maybe in your heart.

Vicky Thompson:           09:01                In my heart, yeah. But no, in my regular daily job at AGU, I work with donors to connect them to AG programs to provide new opportunities for all AG members so I think that’s pretty user focused.

Shane Hanlon:              09:15                I would say so. Mine is teaching fellow scientists or helping fellow scientists communicate more effectively. So look at us in both of our normal jobs, and then, of course, on the podcast, I’m just patting ourselves on the back now.

Vicky Thompson:           09:30                It’s a theme.

Shane Hanlon:              09:33                I guess it is a theme. So in addition to hearing about the user side of things from Michelle, we were also interested in what got Michelle interested in science in the first place.

Michelle Thornt…:        09:45                I can remember being in junior high and high school and just really enjoying my science classes. I remember doing a report, probably in elementary school, on Jacques Yves Cousteau, and he was, I think, that period Calypso and Jacque Cousteau was big in probably television programs and a lot of entertainment of that day. So that’s very memorable. As an undergrad, I did go into science, so I have a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and minored in chemistry, and I have a secondary teaching certification. So I taught public school out of my undergrad and taught for several years. And, at one point, I felt like I wanted to do a better job as a teacher, and the path for me to do that was to go back and do a master’s degree. What I wanted to do, more hands on science. I wanted science to be more experiential for my kids, and I was having a hard time making that leap.

                                    11:02                So I went back and did a master’s degree, and during that experience, when I had to choose what I was going to do for my master’s thesis, GIS or geospatial work, back in the early nineties was just becoming, it was becoming more accessible and more popular. And so I approached my professor and said, that’s what I want to do and there wasn’t a lot of that going on, especially in that lab, but he was very supportive of it. And so I designed my thesis around GIS and a little bit of aerial photography, and that was my introduction into the geospatial world and where I was able to find gainful employment afterward.

Ashley Hamer:              11:50                I mean, you definitely have one of those jobs where you wouldn’t have been able to say when you were a kid that this is what I want to do when I grow up, because it didn’t exist.

Michelle Thornt…:        11:59                It didn’t exist in the form that it is today. Yeah, for sure.

Shane Hanlon:              12:13                I know we’ve talked about jobs before, but I don’t know if I know when you decided you wanted to, or were going to get into the fundraising side of things.

Vicky Thompson:           12:25                Yeah, I don’t think we’ve talked about that, and I don’t think anybody, I’ve never met somebody that decided they wanted to go into fundraising so I feel like it’s something-

Shane Hanlon:              12:37                I would love to see the kid version. I don’t even know what the kid version of this would be, just asking people for money.

Vicky Thompson:           12:42                Yeah, I don’t know either. So I was really interested in non-profits and went to grad school for nonprofit management, and I think fundraising is just an easier way to get, or one of the ways, to get into working for nonprofits. So I started, I found my first job in higher ed fundraising at a law school, and just kept moving along in that field the whole time. But my main interest was always in nonprofits and supporting causes, worthy causes.

Shane Hanlon:              13:19                And it seems a pretty core component of being a nonprofit, that lack of profit. It’s in the name, is needing to have at least money to keep the wheels going.

Vicky Thompson:           13:29                Yeah, exactly. So all nonprofits need a fundraiser, so it’s a good spot to be.

Shane Hanlon:              13:35                Yeah. I didn’t know, I’ll talk about the podcast in particular because this is a lot of my job these days, but I basically got nominated to be co-host of this when we first started years ago, and it snowballed, I guess, in a positive way. And here we are. And that is a longer story for another bit or another intro. But speaking of stories and interesting stories, we talked with Michelle and assume that she would have some interesting stories as well.

Ashley Hamer:              14:10                And then do you have any funny or memorable stories from your career? I mean, I can imagine maybe there’d be some really strange uses of data that people are reaching out to you about, but I mean, anything you can think of.

Michelle Thornt…:        14:24                So, I guess, if I go back to what are my favorite memorable stories, I think it was the brief couple of years that I was in grad school and really doing some hardcore field research. And I was in Idaho at the time, I went to school at Idaho State, and we had field sites in southern Idaho on the Snake River plane and then we had field sites way up in northern Idaho. And it took a couple of days to get there, and we’d be in a big suburban and hauling a bunch of field equipment and often camping for weeks on end next to field sites and other sites that we had. I remember, one of the most memorable field experiences I had, we were putting a chemical in a small stream that deoxygenated the stream and it causes all of the macro invertebrates or the bugs to, they’ll just release themselves and float downstream as a way to escape that pressure.

                                    15:32                And I was downstream with a couple of researchers, and we had these little nets in the creek, and we were catching bugs as they went by, and I knew that the chemical had been put in, but we weren’t seeing any bugs coming down the stream. And I remember seeing a little caddisfly on the outside of the net. I popped it inside the net because I was worried we weren’t going to catch anything. And the researcher next to me said, “No, you can’t do that.” But after a little while, our little nets that we were collecting bugs in just became overloaded with insects that were coming down the stream. And just seeing the amount and the diversity of that macro invertebrate community in a stream with that treatment was just phenomenal. So me poking that little bug in the net, I didn’t give it enough time before everything really came downstream and started filling everything out.

Ashley Hamer:              16:37                A lesson in patience.

Michelle Thornt…:        16:38                But I’m glad I had that experience. I think it gives me a good, I appreciate how much effort goes into the field data that we often see the end of. We see all the cleaned up data at the end, but I appreciate all of the work and logistics and energy that it takes to get to that one file of results oftentimes.

Ashley Hamer:              17:05                Right. And hopefully that data doesn’t have an extra caddisfly.

Michelle Thornt…:        17:12                Exactly.

Ashley Hamer:              17:12                No, you can’t do that.

Vicky Thompson:           17:20                So Shane, you’ve done some field work in your day. Have you ever felt like you needed to fudge things during a frustrating experience or been tempted to?

Shane Hanlon:              17:32                Yeah, I will say being a published researcher, I have never fabricated data.

Vicky Thompson:           17:38                Good.

Shane Hanlon:              17:38                But I am positive that I’ve had points of exhaustion and exasperation, but honestly, it may have been, if anything, it probably would’ve been in the other direction, not a, oh, we need something versus we have too much. One of my first research experience involved counting hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny plants and flowers in these plots in the middle of a forest that was full of mosquitoes and was about, I don’t know, humidity at around 90 some percent. So it was rough. There was a point, for a while, that I hated plants.

Vicky Thompson:           18:21                I feel like you were probably like, “Okay, we’ve got enough, we could go now.”

Shane Hanlon:              18:24                Yeah. So definitely felt that way. But if I’m being honest, that was a relatively small challenge compared to some other bigger issues in science that are out there.

Ashley Hamer:              18:37                What do you find is one of the biggest challenges in science today?

Michelle Thornt…:        18:42                Gosh, science in general, or science in my world?

Ashley Hamer:              18:47                Whatever pops out at you really.

Michelle Thornt…:        18:49                Renewable energy, I think, is an important scientific topic right now. Being in Oak Ridge at Oak Ridge National Lab, we see a lot of different kinds of renewable energy research, and that’s an exciting field right now. So I think that lessening our dependence on fossil fuels and those things that are contributing to climate change are important.

Ashley Hamer:              19:15                What’s next on the horizon?

Michelle Thornt…:        19:18                Oh, gosh. One of the fun things about what I do, and I think what science does is that there’s always something new. So it is really a continually educating myself and keeping up on things. One thing that NASA has embraced, especially this year, is an open science initiative and a cloud-based work environment and so that is challenging me, and I think a lot of folks to better understand cloud-based file formats and access methods, and in turn, helping our users to be able to take advantage of that initiative. It’s kind of a paradigm shift from the download data to your work environment, your laptop or your workstation. Do your analysis on your laptop or personal computer to being able to log into the cloud and access data there and do analysis using cloud-based infrastructures and platforms. But it allows access to very large volumes of data. So big data, that’s a lot of the breakneck that people find with some NASA data, especially the satellite data, is that the data volume is very large. So those platforms are going to better enable researchers to work with and analyze data.

Shane Hanlon:              21:10                Well, Vicky, have you ever worked with big data?

Vicky Thompson:           21:15                Oh, big data. It’s like “big data.” I’m currently working on a program like getting another master’s degree in data, analytics and visualization. So I feel, I hesitate to say that I’ve worked with big data, capital B, capital D, but yeah, I have some data experiences.

Shane Hanlon:              21:41                I mean, you’re working with it. When I was a researcher, I worked with data, and as I say, data, and you say data, and I think it’s a tomato, tomato, though who actually says tomato.

Vicky Thompson:           21:57                [inaudible 00:21:57] the whole thing off.

Shane Hanlon:              22:01                Anyways, there we go. But never with capital B, capital D data. And definitely not these days. My version of data is the master spreadsheet for this show.

Vicky Thompson:           22:14                Right.

Shane Hanlon:              22:16                So yeah, not quite as impressive, but really happy to hear from Michelle and want to thank her for sitting down with us. And with that, that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           22:28                Special thanks to Ashley Hamer for conducting the interview and to NASA for sponsoring the series.

Shane Hanlon:              22:34                This episode was produced by Jason Rodriguez and me with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Karen Romano Young.

Vicky Thompson:           22:42                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at

Shane Hanlon:              22:49                Thanks all, and see you next week.

                                    22:58                So I’m going to ask you about the data.

Vicky Thompson:           23:00                Yeah, sure. I got some.

Shane Hanlon:              23:01                We’ll see.

                                    23:09                Oh, I wish that was the take. All right.


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