Informatics specialist contributes to campus innovation

By Erinn Aspinall

Mary Clay and Steven Braun
Mary Clay and Steven Braun

When you learn of Steven Braun’s background, you might wonder how he came to call the Bio-Medical Library his home. Braun studied chemistry and Asian studies at St. Olaf College. He then moved from Minnesota to Japan, where he spent time at Kyoto University as a Fulbright Fellow. Next, he was off to Yale as a graduate student in biophysics. 

Today, Braun works at the Bio-Medical Library as the Informatics/Data Services Specialist.  It was his interest in computer science that drew him to this new role within the library that was developed to meet emerging needs around data and informatics. 

“My academic background crosses many different disciplines, but the common thread in all of my work is computer science,” says Braun. “When I discovered my current position, I instantly knew that it would be an excellent opportunity to leverage my computational skills in some very unique ways.”

Scholarship metrics initiative

It turns out that Braun’s prediction was true. Since he began working at the Bio-Medical Library in 2013, he has applied his unique skillset towards innovative work that has made a meaningful impact within the Academic Health Center and the University of Minnesota.

Much of Braun’s time has been spent working alongside Mary Clay, Special Project Associate in the Medical School Dean’s Office. Together, they have supported the Scholarship Metrics Initiative of Medical School Dean, Brooks Jackson. This initiative aims to assess faculty scholarship within the School. The result of Braun’s work is a tool, dubbed Manifold, that provides real-time data on researcher impact.

As Braun explains, “Manifold provides a full-featured interface that automatically generates a visual interpretation of faculty productivity in context through real-time analysis of publication data, research impact, and other productivity metrics.” 

Braun’s work on measuring scholarship is receiving increasing attention throughout the Academic Health Center and within the Office of the Vice President for Research. His work has also stimulated thoughtful and important discussions around research metrics and their interpretation.

Through his work, Braun has shown great technical skill, along with a collaborative work ethic.

“The brilliance of Steven’s computer science skills is complemented by his deeply respectful interest in his directors’ and his colleagues’ needs as they work together in a teaching and learning environment” says Clay. “He has the ability to relate and respond to many different simultaneous activities in a logical and controlled manner, which allows him to also take on projects that are extremely challenging.”

Wall of Scholarship

One tangible outcome of Braun’s work has been the development of the Wall of Scholarship, which recognizes current Medical School faculty members who were first or last authors on papers that have received more than 1,000 citations in two of three citation indexes (Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar).  Twenty-three faculty members representing 26 papers were inaugural honorees on the Wall of Scholarship, which was unveiled on October 23, 2014. 

This recognition of faculty scholarship is intended to inspire current faculty, build collaborations, and attract interest from student researchers. 

Work rich in opportunities

Braun can now add visualization of productivity and impact metrics to his resume, which already includes work related to molecular visualization and computational characterization of biomolecular structures, computational linguistic approaches to the analysis of scientific writing style, and computational modeling of neuronal activity data.

Braun loves the breadth of skills that his role as Informatics/Data Services Specialist requires. On any given day, his interests can jump between computer science, mathematics, linguistics, cultural studies, natural sciences, philosophy, and design.

“I really enjoy the fact that my colleagues can appreciate the importance and richness of that,” he says. “That’s what I like the most about my work – I have opportunities to work on projects that cut across so many disciplines.” 

Braun’s colleagues are equally appreciative of his skills. Clay speaks highly of his contribution to the Scholarship Metrics Initiative and of their collaboration. 

“The computational requirements of the Wall of Scholarship and the Manifold projects were staggering, and Steven is solely responsible for their programming design and implementation” she says. 

“Along the way, these projects brought us together; two people who were at the opposite ends of the computer science spectrum,” adds Clay.  “But these are two of the most rewarding projects that I have had the pleasure to work on during my career at the University because Steven enjoys teaching at any knowledge level.”

Finding balance

Braun anticipates that his skillset will be leveraged to solve some difficult and unprecedented problems around data analysis, management, and governance as the Bio-Medical Library responds to changing user and researcher needs.

As he works towards this vision, Braun is faced with tasks that require incredible focus. 

“I can sometimes spend an entire day intensely programming, or trying to hack out a data analysis problem,” he says.

Braun finds balance in his life through his passion for Japanese language and culture that guides his day and his approach to work. He extends an invitation, “Talk to me about Japan, about my experiences, or about philosophy of life — chances are you will learn much more about me as a person than you could ever learn from working with me as a colleague.”

He welcomes any opportunity to discuss his interests (which also include playing the clarinet, cooking, and running) over a cup of hot tea, coffee, or hot chocolate at any time of the day.

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