Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Picture's Worth 1000 Words: Tips for making data visual

Submitted by: Issel Anne Lim, PhD

Summary: In a world immersed in big data, how can we best show the messages gleaned from our findings? Enter data visualization and infographics -- artistically innovative ways to see the big picture as an actual picture.

Image: Infographic of Infographics as found via Infographic List
One of the trending buzzwords in the media today is "data visualization," also commonly found with "infographics" and "effective presentation skills." According to Google Trends, "data visualization" was a top trend in April of 2004 (99 headlines), sank down in September 2006 (24 headlines) and is now again on the rise in October 2014 (97 headlines). Interestingly, Google Trends also shows that "infographics" appeared in a paltry 8 headlines in April 2004, and didn't start increasing until 2010; now, "infographics" is nearing the same level as "data visualization," with 88 headlines in October 2014.

As found on Wikipedia, "data visualization is viewed by many disciplines as a modern equivalent of visual communication." Wikipedia defines "Infographic" as "graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system's ability to see patterns and trends. The process of creating infographics can be referred to as data visualization, information design, or information architecture." In a world filled with big data, analytics, and statistics, the products of data visualization lets us quickly see the big picture from all the details. Infographics are commonly used to sell a message in seconds. If a picture's worth a thousand words, high quality data visualization skills are priceless.

So, what makes a "good" infographic? Edward R. Tufte, deemed "The Leonardo da Vinci of Data Visualization" by the New York Times, wrote in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) that "Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency." Think about the information you need to present. What is the purpose of the data? What are the trends? Are you trying to emphasize a difference? Would you like to pinpoint a cause? If you showed this graphic to folks completely unfamiliar to the topic (e.g., your grandparents), then they should be able to understand your point.

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Affinity Group for Federal Innovation and Research Evaluation (FIRE) has listed a few resources for thinking about data visualization on our website. For example, Andrew Abela created a Chart Chooser Diagram that lets you select a chart based on the message that you want to send. John Schwabisch has a poster called "the graphic continuum," which outlines some of the methods for displaying different types of data. Ann K. Emery gave a talk earlier this year to The Washington Evaluators and described the Data Visualization Checklist, which she created with Stephanie Evergreen, who's teaching a class through The Evaluator's Institute in Washington, DC during January 2015. This checklist includes guidelines for the number of words to put in a title, how to play a hierarchy, how to label data, etc. These are simple starting tips, but definitely good ones to follow when creating a presentation or presenting data.

Interestingly, some agencies are historically very text-prone. For example, some colleagues at the Department of State showed me a fairly typical email that alerted employees about a huge upcoming event by listing names of streets and intersections that would be closed. By contrast, the Washington Post had a map that highlighted the streets to avoid. A simple idea, but it was more effective in getting the message across.

Many, many, many blogs showcase excellent examples of infographics. Some examples include:
  • Randy Krum's Blog has examples based on filmography, 20th century death, beer colors, good tools for making your own infographics, and much more.
  • FlowingData picks out projects from genealogy to shooting patterns for the Washington Wizards to the most cited research papers.
  • CreativeBloq shows animated infographics, comic book characters, and fonts.
  • ThreeStory Studio showcases videos and interactive media alongside 2D infographics.
Warning: These things are addictive. You could probably browse these collections for just an hour, and yet feel extremely productive -- lots of information has been packed in easily-digestible pieces. That said, perhaps the best aspect of infographics is the "light bulb effect" -- instead of being flustered by complicated data, the audience can now see a new idea that makes them think, "Aha! Yes, I get it." We, as scientists, should definitely be building our own data visualization toolboxes as we enhance our own communication skills.

Image: The Graphic Continuum from John Schwabish as found via Cool Infographics

Originally published on AAAS's science policy blog, Sci on the Fly, on 2014-11-05.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Things Change

Submitted by: Dr. Donna L. Vogel, MD, PhD
Director, Professional Development Office, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions


My original AWIS chapter is Bethesda, where for the last several years, I’ve been participating in the annual mentoring dinner. Those who register as mentees choose from a list of mentors, then are assigned to tables. We get food, find our places, and get to know each other. This year I had an interesting mix – from NIH, Walter Reed, and other government agencies. What were some common themes? How to figure out the right career path, how to get better visibility, how to deal with work-and-life. I brought to the table (literally) some of my own experience as a career-changer, along with what I’ve learned working in career development, so let me share some of the discussion. A key point is that Things Change. What may seem “right” early on may not be right later. It’s best to keep your options open by not closing any doors. Your own priorities will probably change. If you had asked me eight or nine years ago, what would be my top priority for my next job, I would have said “an easy commute.” I now take two trains and a bus every morning and people think I’m crazy …but I really love my job…and I never saw it coming. And networking is critical. Of all the moves I’ve made, I’ve gotten exactly one job by replying to a published announcement. All the rest were through networking. Which brings me to visibility. As women in STEM, we tend not to self-promote. How often to you even hear “self-promoter” without its being preceded by “shameless?” You might not be comfortable with the idea of networking, but you can’t avoid it. So start off small, but get out there! Build a rich LinkedIn profile and grow your connections. People in your network will have interesting careers, and you can set up an informational interview to learn more. As for work-life, that’s another whole post; I’ll just say there’s no such thing as “balance.” People in the field use other terms now, like work-life intersection. One is always up and the other down. It’s very individualized – you’ll find your own path. My two pieces of unsolicited advice are, 1) choose your spouse or partner carefully. He or she must ”get” what your life is like, and 2) when the time comes, do whatever it takes to get the best child care. It’s worth it to not have that anxiety. Knowing your child is in good hands makes you more productive and contributes to your success.

Wishing you success

About the Author
Donna L. Vogel, M.D., Ph.D. is the Director of the Professional Development Office, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.  She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, and the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her
Ph.D. is in developmental biology, and her clinical subspecialty is endocrinology. She worked at NIH for 25 years, initially as a fellow conducting clinical and basic research.

Dr. Vogel managed a grant program for 13 years, and then became the first Director of an office for postdocs at NCI. She joined the Professional Development Office in 2007. She has an ongoing interest in career development and mentoring for students, postdocs, and early-career scientists.   A member of AWIS for over 10 years, she was a co-founder of the Greater Baltimore chapter in 2009.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Interested in Interviews?

Submitted By: Issel Anne Lim, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dept. of Radiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


After finally getting that oh-so-elusive academic degree, the next step is usually figuring out how to get a job. Whether you're trying to get an interview or get the offer, here are a few things to think about: showcasing your skills, customizing your application, and brainstorming your interview answers.

Your Skills

Most job applications require your résumé. The first step is actually do things that you can put on your résumé . Join some of the local nonprofit organizations or extracurricular governing bodies, like the Association of Women in Science or Johns Hopkins PostDoctoral Association, which let you organize events, create resources, and/or meet lots of interesting people. Leadership positions not only teach you how to manage people/resources, but also help make an impact on the community.

If you're interested in a particular field, make sure that you've got some background in that field. This sounds straightforward, but requires a bit of work. For example, if you are interested in management consulting, then join the Johns Hopkins Business Consulting Club and practice case reviews. If you want to do policy work, then implement changes through student government, complement existing organizations by organizing events, or supplement your knowledge on what the federal government does. If you're aiming for industry, then try an internship, network, and go to career fairs. If you'd like a teaching position, then develop your own curriculum for a class, apply for teaching fellowships or adjunct positions, tutor students, and/or volunteer in teaching programs. If you want to be in academia, publish papers, organize seminars, and network at conferences.

Be confident. Meet people. Read, write, and share your science. Communication skills are becoming more important as we transition to the digital age. Make a website or blog that showcases your skills, or use social media for professional networking.

These suggestions are by no means all-inclusive. The best place to start is talking to people in your field of choice, and seeing how they got to where they are. Maybe they'll even have a few leads on job openings...

Your Application

Now that you've got a good skill set, showcase yourself on your résumé, curriculum vitae, and/or cover letter.

A résumé is a summary of the skills that you're bringing to an organization, so don't forget to customize each résumé for each job that you apply to. Oftentimes, a non-technical person will be searching through applications to find candidates that match a particular position. Therefore, sprinkle your résumé with words or phrases from the job description. A "Summary of Qualifications" can also describe how your skills will be useful to that particular organization. Check the job's requirements; for example, some government positions want to know the hours you worked per week on a particular project. Limit your résumé to two pages maximum, or one page for some consulting jobs.

For many academic, teaching, or some consulting positions, a curriculum vitae (CV) is acceptable. Unlike a résumé , a CV is the history of your professional life. It can be much longer, since it’s a list of what you have accomplished in relevant fields. However, don't use that as an excuse to list every little detail about every little thing you did. Focus on what the employer is looking for. If you're applying for a teaching position, emphasize your teaching history. If you're applying for a consulting position, emphasize your business history. If you're applying for a policy position, emphasize how you've made an impact on the community. If you're applying for a science writing position, emphasize your communication skills by listing your blog posts or articles.

For each bullet point, think about "STAR": Situation, Task, Action, Result. What was the situation or problem at hand, and what task did you need to do to solve the problem? What actions did you take? What were the results of this endeavor? Use action verbs, so that you sound progressive. In order to clearly describe your impact, quantify them where possible -- for example, "Organized publicity campaign that grew membership from <10 people to >300 on our mailing list." Focus on what you did, not what the team did.

A wonderful resource for Hopkins folks is the JHMI Professional Development Office. Gaelle and Donna are especially skilled at honing in on what employers are looking for, which aspects of your résumé or CV should be emphasized, and how to whittle away the fluff. For example, you may be quite proud of your long list of conference abstracts; however, if you're applying for a non-academic position, you can simply use one bullet point under your PhD section that says, "Co-authored 2 journal articles, 3 oral presentations, 5 posters for international journals/conferences."

Some jobs also request essay questions that require you to answer a particular prompt. For example, "Describe a leadership position." This is an opportunity for you to not only show how awesome you are, but to also describe the skills that you can offer to this particular job. Make sure that you answer these in a logical fashion; use the "STAR" process to organize your thoughts, explaining what the problem was, how you solved it, and what the results were. If English isn't your first language, then have someone read over your essays to check your grammar and general tone.

The final step is composing a cover letter -- even if the job doesn't specifically call for one. If you're sending along your résumé, then you'll have to send someone an email. Whether it's a formal letter or a more casual message, tailor it to the job description and the organization. Usually, these start with a greeting (from "Hello!" to "To Whom It May Concern:"), an introduction ("I'm a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University..."), why you're writing to them ("Through __ website, I saw that you have a position open ..."), a quick summary of your particularly good qualifications and how they'd fit in with the job ("I have been writing for the AWIS blog for __ years, and would love to continue developing these skills in scientific communication..."), a description of your attachments ("Attached are my résumé and cover letter"), how to contact you if they need more details ("If you have any questions, my phone number is..."), and a closing. Your email signature should have your current title, where you work, and your contact information.

Your Interview

Research the job and organization so that you're familiar with the lingo (e.g., if you're interviewing for the FDA, find out what a "PMA" is). See which things they emphasize on their websites, and get a feel for how you may fit into the work environment.

The best way to prepare for an interview is to practice with a real, live person. Schedule a mock interview with the Professional Development Office to figure out what questions you may need to answer.


Why do you want to join the field you're applying for?
This is not just a philosophical question -- this is a chance for you to showcase your skills. If you are changing fields, then focus on the skills that are translatable from your current field and state how they would be valuable in the position that you're applying for. For example: "I know how to solve problems analytically, communicate effectively, be resourceful, ... and I want to apply them to [your field] because ..." Be ready to discuss why you're leaving your current field, and don't sound negative about your current position. Do some background research to figure out what the job entails or what makes people in that field successful, and how you can fit in, so that the employer will want you to join the team.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?
This is a tough one. Among your strengths, choose something that is applicable for the job (e.g., science communication, analytical skills), and point to specific examples to back it up. For weaknesses, focus on something that you "are working to improve." Do NOT point to a medical problem, religious and political views, or a social issue. Also, don't bring up anything that could be a deal breaker for your interviewer, like bad time management skills or inability to talk to strangers. If something was difficult for you in the past, but you've overcome previous weaknesses, then that's a great story to talk about: "I used to be terrified of public speaking, but I've learned that I get less nervous after practicing many times. Now I feel more confident when giving an oral presentation."

Much of our job involves working in teams. Describe how you worked in a team. How did you resolve any conflicts that arose in this collaboration?
Your answer to this question should come from experience. It's especially helpful if you've worked with a team that consisted of people at higher professional positions than you, because it means that you can persuade people even if you have no direct influence over them. This is a measure of your people skills, your tactfulness, and your resourcefulness.

Tell us about a time you solved a problem.
Try not to use typical things that everyone is expected to go through (e.g., do NOT say, "Well, I had this class, and it was really hard.") Instead, use concrete numbers to show how much of an impact you had. Use that STAR approach and focus on what you did -- say "I" and not "we" -- so that the interviewer knows what you (not the team) are capable of.


Feel free to write out your thoughts in bullet points first -- do not memorize word-for-word speeches, which could make you sound insincere. Make sure that you can describe each aspect of your résumé in a concise manner. Practice your answers in your head and out loud whenever you can. All of these questions are designed to let the employer determine how well you will fit in the job and job place. Remember: you are showing them a product (you), and you are the expert on yourself.

Good luck!

About the Author

Dr. Issel Anne Lim is currently the Vice President of Communication for AWIS Baltimore. She is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Radiology at Johns Hopkins University. During her PhD in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins, she focused on developing and implementing a new MRI technique to visualize iron in the brain and spinal cord at the FM Kirby Research Center for Functional Brain Imaging. Continuing as a postdoc at the Kirby Center, she is applying her method to multimodal clinical MRI studies of schizophrenia and Huntington Disease. She also majored in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her "free" time, she manages her own freelance company (Quirky Ink, LLC), which promotes creative communication through designing customized graphics, editing articles, and building websites (including the aforementioned websites for the Kirby CenterAWIS, and JHPDA). Feel free to email her if you have any questions: issel@quirkyink.com

* A version of this article has also been published in The Transcript, a newsletter from the Hopkins BioTech Network, with a lengthier three-part version published on the Johns Hopkins PostDoctoral Association blog.