Meet Our Team: Isaac Pratt, Research Data Management Specialist

Meet Our Team: Isaac Pratt, Research Data Management Specialist

Dr. Isaac Pratt is the Sherman Centre’s Research Data Management Specialist. In just over two years at McMaster, he has single-handedly revitalized the university’s programming on the research data lifecycle, including planning, storing, and publishing data. Isaac’s portfolio includes maintaining an impressive suite of online resources, running the popular RDM workshop series, and developing McMaster’s Institutional RDM Strategy.

Learn more about our dynamic Research Data Management Specialist in this quick Q&A.  

SCDS: You have a science background, including a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. During your doctoral work, you studied the connection between vascular canal orientation (i.e. the amount and direction of blood vessels in the outer layer of bone) on birds’ and bats’ flight and growth. How did you decide to focus on this topic? It’s always interesting to learn what led a scholar to their unique niche.

Isaac Pratt: I’ve always been really interested in bones and fossils and the remnants of creatures from the past. When I was a kid I collected natural history bits and pieces that we found camping. I was also really into technology and electronics. In undergraduate I studied biological anthropology and physics. I learned a lot about the traditional ways that bones were studied using direct measurements and microscopy, but when I learned about modern methods like electron microscopy and especially micro-CT I was instantly hooked by the technology side as well. Using micro-CT we can create incredibly detailed 3D images of the inner structure of bone, and learn about how bone acts to support an animal as a material in addition to its form.

SCDS: How did your doctoral work lead you to a career in Research Data Management?

IP: Historically, RDM services have been provided by librarians, but I came to RDM from the research side of things. Like many researchers, I struggled with managing my own research data during my graduate work. Image data and Micro-CT data in particular is quite large, and over the course of my degree I probably collected around 10 TB of data. Managing and organizing that data was a real challenge. I also learned some programming and wrote some scripts for my own analysis. My experience there naturally lead me into research support working in RDM.

Micro-CT scan of an ant-like insect trapped in amber
Micro-CT scan of eocene insect trapped in amber by Isaac Pratt

SCDS: Scientists are often more engaged in RDM than scholars in the Humanities, who may hear the words “Research Data Management” and think that the field doesn’t have relevance for their work. Please take this question as an opportunity to tell Humanities folks why they should consider RDM.

IP: ‘Data’ can be a loaded term for many and it definitely doesn’t resonate with everyone. Someone might be doing humanities scholarship or arts based research where they don’t work with data as it’s traditionally defined. I like to think of data as a term that includes ‘digital materials’ – almost everyone working at the university will be working with some form of digital materials that they need to store, organize, archive, and share. Those are all areas where RDM has valuable insights to share.

SCDS: I want to focus on the central term in RDM: data. Data is often seen as objective or neutral, but data is gathered by humans and thus subject to human frailty. Movements towards Data Justice and Indigenous Data Sovereignty have exposed how poorly collected and/or manipulative data can misrepresent marginalized groups and even contribute to their oppression. How do these broader concerns intersect with your work in RDM?

IP: Data reflects the goals of its collector and research practices need to be grounded in respect and good ethical principles. I try to educate myself on and support efforts related to Indigenous Data Sovereignty as much as I can. I see Indigenous Data Sovereignty as a place where I can work towards reconciliation. That means working with Indigenous communities to support them in managing their data and working with researchers to support ethical research and data management practices. The OCAP principles developed by the FNIGC are a great example of Indigenous Data Sovereignty efforts in Canada.

McMaster Research Data Management services logo.
Research Data Management Services Logo

SCDS: RDM services are expanding at McMaster University and across the higher education sector at large. What do you think lies behind this increased interest in a relatively new field? And what new services do you expect to see launch at McMaster in the next few years?

IP: Research Data Management is part of a broader trend in research towards more formalized and rigorous data practices. It ties in strongly with ideas like reproducibility, openness, and transparency. Part of this drive has been an increasing awareness of the loss of older research data and the desire to verify and preserve good research data. In 2023 McMaster will be launching its first Institutional RDM Strategy and really articulating what services and supports we will be providing for researchers, so stay tuned for that!

SCDS: Just for fun, what’s a dream project you’d take on at work if you had endless time and resources?

IP: I used to work in a makerspace and would love to work on more projects that integrate data and digital objects in the physical world.

SCDS: Last but not least, I’m asking everyone about their life beyond work. Tell us something interesting about yourself—your favourite movie, a unique hobby, whether you’re #TeamJacob or #TeamEdward. Anything!

IP: This is certainly not unique but I love word games and the popularity of wordle has truly been a blessing. Not just wordle itself but all the themed versions and spinoffs have been very fun to explore. Games like worldle, absurdle, semantle, and redactle are really interesting and challenging to play and have really expanded what a word guessing game can be.

Screenshot of Wordle home page. Instead of guesses at an actual solution, the tiles have been filled in to read Research Data Management is Great.
Not at all an accurate wordle, but impossible for the SCDS Coordinator who runs this interview series to resist.

Browse McMaster’s RDM resources and watch recordings of past RDM workshops. If you’re interested in learning more about RDM, consider reaching out to Isaac at pratti@mcmaster.ca.

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