Frances Lightsom, dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and black vest, holds a glass award and speaks into a microphone.
Frances Lightsom speaks to the United States Geological Survey Community for Data Integration after receiving the 2015 Leadership and Innovation Award. Credit: Keith Kirk
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Many perceive publishing as the end of a scientific project, but for Frances Lightsom, the work is just beginning. Lightsom is an information manager for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS): She helps scientists publish and release their data, then makes sure the data are easy for citizens and other scientists to find.

Information was not Lightsom’s first love, however. Instead, she was fascinated by how water moves. Growing up in Tennessee, she could often be found canoeing, wading in streams, and moving rocks to see how the current would circumnavigate them.

“I got to enjoy thinking about the data without having to write all the papers!”

This fascination led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in geology and physics from Oberlin College, then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Lightsom’s research varied widely during graduate school and subsequent university teaching positions, from asking how water moves deep in the submarine Hudson Canyon, which lies off the coast of New Jersey, to how hurricanes affect sewage outflow.

Often the schedule was intense. Lightsom worked many 60-hour weeks and went on research cruises with little notice. When she became a mother, she knew it was time to pivot.

Information management brought Lightsom a new type of delight: “I got to enjoy thinking about the data without having to write all the papers!” Over the years, she has ensured that USGS data are accompanied by the appropriate metadata, maintained a library of nondigital data, and devised systems that allow USGS scientists to standardize data management.

Her career has been “an opportunity to make sure that science is relevant.”

As Lightsom contemplates retirement, information management is taking off. FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) and open research practices are gaining momentum, creating demand for computer-savvy people who can design, build, and manage databases. At the same time, the field needs people focused on preserving data produced before the digital age.

These positions bring meaning to the scientific method, Lightsom said. Because she ensures that others can find the data scientists have produced, her career has been “an opportunity to make sure that science is relevant.”

—Saima May Sidik (@saimamaysidik), Science Writer

This profile is part of a special series in our August 2023 issue on science careers.

Citation: Sidik, S. M. (2023), Frances Lightsom: Pivoting to information management, Eos, 104, Published on 25 July 2023.
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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