Robert J. Robbins is a biologist, an educator, a science administrator, a publisher, an information technologist, and an IT leader and manager who specializes in advancing biomedical knowledge and supporting education through the application of information technology. More About: RJR | OUR TEAM | OUR SERVICES | THIS WEBSITE
Scientific Data Management
In 1990, the National Science Foundation supported a workshop on Scientific Data Management hosted by the Computer Science Department at the University of Virginia. The workshop convened a group of senior database researchers, together with domain scientists from several different fields, to consider problems associated with scientific data management, which at the time was a newly emerging concern. Although the results of such workshops are often ephemeral in value, this particular workshop surfaced an issue that is still relevant today: the direction of flow of data has a signficant effect upon the best practices for data acquisition, management, analysis, and storage.
Specifically, the attendees concluded that research in some sciences (e.g., astronomy, high-energy physics, earth observing systems) is often associated with very large, very expensive instruments that produce large data streams, emanating from a single source (the instrument). This originally single data stream often splits and changes as various subsets are extracted or rectification algorithms applied. Other fields (e.g., biology, clinic science) produce many small data streams or sets, which are then aggregated for integrated analysis or even combined into large data sets (e.g., DNA sequence data or clinical trials or long-term ecological data) for holistic analysis. In considering factors that affect the effective management of scientific data, the workshop concluded that:
This dimension (single vs. multi-source data source), which is not generally mentioned in the database literature, may be the most fundamental. ...
[For example, consider] a single mission, such as the Magellan planetary probe, generating the data. Either raw or physical data may be retained in its original state in a raw data archive. Commonly, the raw data will be processed, by instrument calibration or by noise filtering, to generate a collection of more usable calibrated or validated data. Finally, this processed data will be interpreted in light of the original goals of the generating mission. Both the syntactic complexity and the semantic complexity of the interpreted data will be much greater than any of its antecedent data. It will have different search and retrieval requirements. Possibly, only the interpreted data will be published.
In contrast to such a single-mission/single-source data archive one has data archives that are derived from multiple sources employing multiple data generation protocols. ... This structure would characterize the Human Genome project in which several different agencies, with independent funding, missions, and methodologies, generate processed data employing different computing systems and database management techniques. All eventually contribute their data to a common data archive, such as GENBANK, which subsequently becomes the data source for later interpretation by multiple research laboratories that also manage their local databases independently. In each of the local, multiple, and probably very dynamic, databases one would expect different retrieval and processing needs, as well as different documentation requirements.
RJR Experience and Expertise
Robbins holds BS, MS, and PhD degrees in the life sciences. He served as a tenured faculty member in the Zoology and Biological Science departments at Michigan State University. He is currently exploring the intersection between genomics, microbial ecology, and biodiversity — an area that promises to transform our understanding of the biosphere.
Robbins has extensive experience in college-level education: At MSU he taught introductory biology, genetics, and population genetics. At JHU, he was an instructor for a special course on biological database design. At FHCRC, he team-taught a graduate-level course on the history of genetics. At Bellevue College he taught medical informatics.
Robbins has been involved in science administration at both the federal and the institutional levels. At NSF he was a program officer for database activities in the life sciences, at DOE he was a program officer for information infrastructure in the human genome project. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, he served as a vice president for fifteen years.
Robbins has been involved with information technology since writing his first Fortran program as a college student. At NSF he was the first program officer for database activities in the life sciences. At JHU he held an appointment in the CS department and served as director of the informatics core for the Genome Data Base. At the FHCRC he was VP for Information Technology.
While still at Michigan State, Robbins started his first publishing venture, founding a small company that addressed the short-run publishing needs of instructors in very large undergraduate classes. For more than 20 years, Robbins has been operating The Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, a web site dedicated to the digital publishing of critical works in science, especially classical genetics.
Robbins is well-known for his speaking abilities and is often called upon to provide keynote or plenary addresses at international meetings. For example, in July, 2012, he gave a well-received keynote address at the Global Biodiversity Informatics Congress, sponsored by GBIF and held in Copenhagen. The slides from that talk can be seen HERE.
Robbins is a skilled meeting facilitator. He prefers a participatory approach, with part of the meeting involving dynamic breakout groups, created by the participants in real time: (1) individuals propose breakout groups; (2) everyone signs up for one (or more) groups; (3) the groups with the most interested parties then meet, with reports from each group presented and discussed in a subsequent plenary session.
Robbins has been engaged with photography and design since the 1960s, when he worked for a professional photography laboratory. He now prefers digital photography and tools for their precision and reproducibility. He designed his first web site more than 20 years ago and he personally designed and implemented this web site. He engages in graphic design as a hobby.
RJR Picks from Around the Web (updated 11 MAY 2018 )
Science Policy & Funding
Big Data & Informatics