An Interview with tiNA Helt, a brave volunteer
Bio: Tina Helt is a chemistry and chemical biology librarian at Harvard University (2018-present). She previously worked as the liaison librarian for chemistry, chemical engineering and mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University (2016-18) and as the science librarian at Michigan State University (2013-16). Tina received her graduate degrees in library and information science from Indiana University (2013) and in paper and chemical engineering from Miami University in Ohio (2010), and has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Dalian University of Technology in China.
Svetlana Korolev: Greetings Tina! Let us begin our conversation on the steps of your career ladder. When did you first realize you were interested in science? Who or what influenced your transition to the field of chemical information?
Tina Helt: When I was in high school, I always liked science subjects, and I wanted my future job to be in a STEM field. I also believed that technological advancement was one of the great drivers of progress in our society and that the dramatic changes in the past decades were due to scientific innovations. I specifically chose chemical engineering as my bachelor's degree because it lined up with my interests in energy issues and global sustainability. I liked the math and logic part, but I did not see myself working full-time in a lab. Still, I enjoyed working with scientists and my fellow students, and I loved teaching when I was a teaching assistant. So, I started to rethink my passion and career choices through my college time.
During my graduate education in chemical engineering, literature searching had always been a favorite part of my study. I also realized that information was a fundamental part of supporting search and scientific communication. I was looking for a meaningful job to match my new interests. Luckily, when I volunteered at the Georgetown University library, I met Mr. Mark Puente from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) who inspired me to try applying to library schools. In the library school at Indiana University, I was heavily influenced by the professor of my chemical informatics class, Dr. David Wild. I learned semantic web concepts for my work on building networks connecting proteins, drugs, and diseases. I found it fascinating to build connections of knowledge for science innovations. This passion eventually led me to a career path in academic librarianship.
SK: You relocated for graduate studies from China to the United States of America. Could you walk us through what it was like? Have you noticed major distinctions between the academic systems (in terms of academic libraries, information resources and services) in the two countries?
TH: I have been fortunate over the years to live in two countries, experience two cultures, and study in two educational systems. When I arrived in the United States, I started as a graduate student. I remember that I felt surprised to always be asked “What are you interested in?” because personal passion or self-expression was not highlighted in my previous education in China. Such culture shock also helped me discover more distinctions of social context and communication styles while I was studying in graduate school and later working as an information professional.
In the United States, academic librarians certainly wear more hats. In addition to being the information gurus on campus, librarians are educators, researchers, customer service providers, and coders, among many other roles. In China, libraries carry robust collections in both Chinese and foreign languages. In both countries, the library system is the central hub, providing resources for teaching and learning on campus, and library spaces are always students’ top go-to places for study.
SK: Let me ask one more question in the comparison frame. Based on your work experience at one state and two private universities within a brief period, could you share with us one best and one worst attribute of each?
TH: At Michigan State University, the librarian’s role is ranked as faculty with a continuing appointment system. Similar to tenure-track faculty, librarians are expected to have primary duties as well as duties in scholarly publications and professional services. As it was my first job after library school, I was able to join professional associations through scholarly publishing and service capacities. I joined the American Library Association (ALA) and the Special Libraries Association (SLA), both of which opened new opportunities progress, both to me in the profession and to me as a professional. The most valuable part was building connections with peer academic librarians all over the world. Taking the faculty role was not easy. It required going through a rigid evaluation each year for re-appointment before getting a continuing appointment after six years.
In my job at private universities, Vanderbilt and Harvard, I had a staff role which offered more flexibility of publications and professional services. I enjoyed working with my awesome colleagues inside and outside of the library. For example, I worked with our library technical specialists on emerging technologies, and I worked with department admins on creating a video streaming collection that combined valuable chemistry seminars from past decades. Those projects allow librarians to contribute their deep knowledge about information management, research skills, and innovation capacities. There are always projects going on and learning is endless. I enjoy the learning journey, but I know this attribute is not suitable for everyone.
SK: Moving on to your current position, please describe the main activities of your role as the chemistry and chemical biology librarian at Harvard University.
TH: I started working at Harvard Library in December 2018. I was amazed by how knowledgeable their staff were in their specialties, in supporting the intellectual exploration by Harvard students and faculty. I work as a liaison to the department of chemistry, and my duties include, but are not limited to, collection management, teaching, and all the information services. I am passionate about promoting the generation of, access to, and use of chemical information and cheminformatics research in support of scientific and communication. For example, I am currently working on creating a space for depositing chemistry data in Dataverse (https://dataverse.harvard.edu).
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, like many universities, Harvard shifted to remote teaching and working from home. The library rapidly adapted by shifting all the information services online. It was interesting and challenging. I remember that we discovered online platforms for mixed reality teaching and obtained ebooks to replace the print course materials. This experience will help guide and inform how we should be prepared for a hybrid environment post-pandemic.
SK: According to your ORCID profile, you were the recipient of the S.T. Lee Innovation Grant by the Harvard Library in 2020. Please tell us about this program and the project.
TH: At an ACS annual conference several years ago, I learned about virtual reality (VR) utilized for drug discovery in the exhibition sessions. This experience made me wonder: Can we extend the use of VR into chemistry teaching? Can VR be useful for students visualizing and analyzing proteins, human-body, atoms, etc.? Soon after I started my job at Harvard Library, I saw a call for applications for the S.T. Lee Innovation Grant, so I finally had a chance to convert my idea to reality, and I was lucky to receive the grant. Our idea was to embed our library VR facilities into science curricula. VR aimed at converting physical space to information-related laboratories. The S.T. Lee Innovation Grant allowed us to bring in a number of Oculus VR headsets and their software, which are heavily used in chemistry classes, both in-person and online.
SK: Your recent article about utilizing virtual reality in the chemical laboratory was fascinating because of the high levels of imagination and experimentation offered to students. What were the research questions for this pilot and the benefits of virtual reality in the classroom?
TH: Sponsored by the S.T. Lee Innovation Grant, we conducted a pilot project embedding VR in an undergraduate chemistry class with 200+ students enrolled, and we published our research in the Journal of Chemical Education (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00954). Our hypothesis was that VR experience in visual, auditory, tactile modalities will enhance students’ vision, understanding of microscopic worlds invisible to the naked eye, and willingness to communicate. Our quantitative and qualitative measures aimed to help researchers and educators set design principles for utilizing VR in teaching activities.
SK: What is the role of the Office for Scholarly Communication for other librarians at Harvard University? Are you involved in the scholarly communication initiatives or other committees on campus?
TH: Our work is closely connected to the Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC). First, we collaboratively work on Open Access (OA) initiatives with OSC, such as ACS’s Plan S OA publishing. OSC also handles reimbursement of processing fees for OA publishing that is greatly appreciated by researchers and our liaison librarians. Second, I am one of the Copyright First Responders (https://library.harvard.edu/services-tools/copyright-first-responders) of the OSC, an awesome group providing training and tackling copyright questions. On campus, I am also active on the library's Research, Teaching, and Learning Standing Committee.
SK: Continuing in the context of professional service, how did your personal involvement in ACS and CINF start? Which program themes at ACS national meetings were of interest to you to present talks and write blog posts about?
TH: I became an ACS CINF member immediately after I started my first job as a science librarian. My former supervisor, Anita Ezzo encouraged me to attend the ACS annual meetings and join in the chemistry librarian communities. Influenced by our CINF colleague, Leah McEwen, I was introduced to the CINF executive committee and later ran for the CINF Secretary position. At the ACS national meetings, I follow the chemistry data-related themes, such as CINF’s “Educating Chemists on Data Science and Cheminformatics Skills” symposium organized for the 2022 spring meeting.
SK: After finishing your four-year term as the division secretary, why did the role of the CINF fundraising chair attract you in 2020? What are your goals for this function in the short term?
TH: After serving as CINF secretary for two terms, I was thinking of shifting gears to engage in CINF in another role. One of the open positions then was Fundraising Chair. I heard it was a challenging but important role for the division. Encouraged by Graham Douglas, I decided to do the fundraising work for CINF, and I still enjoy doing it today.
Fundraising is exciting because it requires me to expand my network to industry, government agencies, and other ACS divisions. Although we only fundraise for two national conferences, it is a year-round job to keep relations with donors and discover potential ones. My short-term goal is to successfully support the 2022 fall meeting in Chicago, IL. It is a hybrid meeting, and I heard many colleagues have decided to attend it in-person. To host both online and in-person events, the fundraising will be more creative and interesting.
SK: Let me conclude our conversation on a personal note. Please tell us something about yourself beyond your professional life. What are your favorite activities outside work? Is there anything else I did not ask that you want to add?
TH: I love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, camping, and kayaking. Moving to Boston just two years ago, we enjoy exploring the New England area. We had a wonderful vacation in Cape Cod last summer. I want to share the exciting news that we had a baby girl two months ago. My husband and I really enjoy this bundle of joy. After returning to work after maternity leave, I am currently interested in topics of “work and life balance” for academic librarians. Thank you for asking!
SK: Thank you for sharing your expertise with the Division of Chemical Information. Best wishes for your new endeavors.
CINF interviews http://www.acscinf.org/content/interviews
Helt, T. ORCID profile https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5240-2587
Qin, T., Cook, M., & Courtney, M. Exploring Chemistry with Wireless, PC-Less Portable Virtual Reality Laboratories. J. Chem. Educ. 2021, 98, 2, 521–529. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00954
Qin, T. Integrating chemistry Wikipedia projects to foster scientific communication skills. ACS Fall National Meeting and Exposition, 2019, 310-CHED
Qin, T. Teaching InChI to chemistry students. InChI Symposium, 2019. https://www.inchi-trust.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/5.-Tina-Qin-Teaching-InChI-Presentation.pdf
Qin, T. Blog posts about retractions, open access, and electronic laboratory notebooks. 2014-15.