A Data Steward journey 

Author: Esther Plomp 

When I started as a Data Steward at the Faculty of Applied Sciences I attended the Essentials 4 Data Support course to learn more about research data management support. I was therefore happy to accept Eirini Zormpa’s invitation to discuss my Data Steward journey with the participants of the Essentials 4 Data Support course. Together with Zafer Öztürk from Twente University we shared our experiences during the data supporter panel on the 14th of April. This blog post is a summary of what I highlighted during the panel. 

The Essentials 4 Data Support course is an introductory course about how to support researchers with the management and sharing of research data. The course materials are helpful to gain an overview of what research data management support entails. The course also provided an opportunity to link up with peers (such as Lena Karvovskaya) and meet experts (such as Petra Overveld).

The role of a Data Steward visualised by The Turing Way. A Data Steward can facilitate the exchange of data, identify gaps in services, provide insights in best practices and point researchers to existing tools that they can use. This image was created by Scriberia for The Turing Way community and is used under a CC-BY licence.

In December 2018 I started as the Data Steward at the Faculty of Applied Sciences. In my first couple of months I had the privilege to be peer-mentored by Yasemin Türkyilmaz-van der Velden, who showed me the ropes of data management support. Initially, I had to get to know the position, the workings of the faculty, my new colleagues and the researchers I was now supporting. 

In this first year I worked together with Yasemin on our Faculties Research Data Management Policies, based on the TU Delft Research Data Framework Policy. This was an arduous process, as we visited all departments of our faculties. The policy was discussed with many stakeholders, including PhD candidates. In the beginning of 2020 the Applied Sciences Policy on Research Data Management was officially released! Yasemin and I also worked together in the Electronic Lab Notebook pilot that took place at TU Delft resulting in TU Delft licences for RSpace and eLABjournal

In 2019 I followed a Software Carpentry Workshop to learn basic programming skills so I could better support researchers with any software support questions. I later took the train-the-trainer course and became a Carpentries Instructor myself. By being a Carpentries instructor I can teach basic programming lessons set up by the Carpentries community. With the pandemic we had to shift these trainings online, and I coordinated these workshops for a year (2020-2021). 

Over the years, I also increasingly supported researchers with Open Science questions. This is an aspect of the role that I very much enjoy and currently try to expand upon. My role differs somewhat from the other Data Stewards at TU Delft: we each have our own preferences and areas of expertise next to data support (such as software, ethics, or personal data). Another difference is my involvement in a side project focused on PhD duration. At TU Delft and at my faculty we try to reduce the amount of time that PhD candidates take to finish their PhD project. While the official duration for a Dutch PhD is four years, the majority of PhD candidates take much longer. This often means that they have to finish the project in their unpaid free time. As someone who has spent seven years on a PhD project I can say that finishing your PhD next to a full time job is no joke. 

As a Data Steward I’m also a connection point in the university network. This allows me to address researcher’s questions myself or to connect them with the expert that they need. 

  • My position at the Faculty itself allows for close contact with researchers. Before the pandemic I regularly hopped between their offices to help them with any questions. At the Faculty I’m embedded in the support team where I work together with the Faculty Graduate School and the Information Coordinator. I’m in regular contact with project officers, managers and researchers from all levels at the faculty. 
  • As part of the Data Stewards team I meet the other Data Stewards once a week (virtually) and we communicate through Slack/Teams. 
  • I’m also in contact with colleagues from the Library and the Digital Competence Center, either through collaborative work or because they are the experts that can address questions from researchers. 
  • Sometimes I reach out to central experts from the Human Research Ethics Committee, the Privacy Team and ICT Security when needed. 

Next to my activities as a Data Steward at TU Delft, I’m also involved in several other initiatives that are revolving around data and open research:

Visualisation of mentoring, where you help each other in taking a step up the ladder. Image by Esther Plomp, created for an Open Life Science Programme blogpost on mentoring.

Over the years I very much enjoyed writing blogs like this one, summarising my experiences of conferences, activities and learnings. 

I very much enjoy the Data Steward role, for various reasons: 

  • I support researchers in making their research more transparent.
  • I work with amazing colleagues and collaborators 
  • I meet new people interested in similar topics.
  • I can continuously develop and learn new skills.
  • I have a lot of autonomy over my working activities and schedule.

A lot of this is made possible by a supportive manager, and many individuals that I learned from along the way. 

“Create the world you want, and fill it with the opportunities that matter to you.”

– Alicia Keys

My tips for people just starting in a data support role:

  • Accept that things can take more time than you originally anticipated. Starting in a new role will take some time to adjust and achieving cultural change in university processes will not happen overnight. 
  • The downside of being able to create your own opportunities is that there might be a lot of things that you want to do. Even if everything seems important or fun to do, it could mean that you will end up with too much on your plate. Sometimes it is good to say no to shiny opportunities. 
  • In whatever you do I would recommend you to not take the road alone and seek out others to collaborate with, or ask feedback from. Exchanging expertise and experience will not only be more efficient, it will make the road more worthwhile to walk.

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