During a recent trip to Texas for the Non-hematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells meeting, I took a little side trip to the University of Texas at Austin to meet one of Mendeley’s power users. We talked about his research, new projects he is working on and how Mendeley helps him collaborate with his colleagues in South America.
How Dr. Keitt is using Mendeley in his research
Dr. Keitt finds a great deal of value in the collaborative aspects of Mendeley, allowing him to share papers with colleagues distributed around the globe, no matter what OS they use, but he also sees a lot of value in the development of a new citation infrastructure. One application he mentioned here was correction for “citation mutation”, the process wherein a citation gets repeated in successive papers slowly accumulating transcriptional errors until it no longer can be traced back to the original work.
Insights from Integrative Biology
It was really fascinating for me to hear him talk about ecosystem patterns because one of my earliest scientific fascinations was with fractals, a type of pattern found throughout nature. While much of his earlier research involved fieldwork, he’s started doing more molecular work with the advent of better molecular tools for studying and identifying species similarity.
In this respect, large scale biological datasets have become very important to him. One project, which may lead to the creation of a HapMap-style database for non-human species, has made him particularly aware of how idiosyncratic the metadata associated with database entries can be. While having access to larger-scale data has made some scientific questions more tractable, it has also raised its own set of challenges. He gave an example here which I think is instructive for many of the issues scientists are now facing as we put more and more data online and seek effective tools for facilitating collaborations.
In the early days of sequencing, each research group would have their own database with its own structure and that worked just fine, until confusion arose regarding how to refer to a specific sequence and people started to try to merge databases to prevent duplication. We now have the GenBank as a centralized repository for sequence information and sequences can be unambiguously identified by referring to their accession number, but we didn’t get there until editors started requiring that manuscripts reporting sequences contain the Genbank accession number.
Editors forced the issue in this case, but any effort to systematize the reporting of sequences initially would have faced challenges such as who controls the repository and why should a busy researcher bother submitting to it. Repeat that last sentence again, and if you’ve followed any of the discussion about online engagement of scientists with literature, it should sound very familiar.
From Molecules to Ecosystems
Dr. Keitt got his start working in the rainforests of the Amazon where he studied species variance in one of the most diverse ecosystems on planet. Later, he came to the University of Texas where he continues to work on the effect of ecosystem patterning on species diversity. While he no longer does a great deal of fieldwork, he still collaborates with colleagues in South America for ongoing projects. He’s done some work on the Bachman Sparrow in Texas and is really excited about a upcoming project studying coral in Micronesia.