Meet Natalia Maass, an endangered species specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). While Maass continues to tackle challenging programming languages, she stresses that having an advanced degree isn't a qualifier for being a “real” scientist. People can do meaningful work in science as citizen scientists too.
What drew you to your particular area of study?
I fell into the data management field! My research background had been more housed in behavioral ecology, with a side interest in insect taxonomy. I really like the why’s and how’s of both fields and thought my career would go in a more fieldwork-oriented direction because of those interests. I had applied to a seasonal field tech position with the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves but was offered a data technician position instead. As it turns out, I really enjoyed the work! Having that experience with how data is collected in the field and different types of surveys has been helpful. The different aspects of data management really appeal to the detail-oriented parts of my personality and it makes me feel good knowing the work I do now can be helpful to scientists and other organizations far into the future.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
One challenge I’ve had to face, especially since my career seems to have shifted from more fieldwork/data collection to data management is learning new programs and programming languages. I knew R from taking statistics in school, and I knew my way around an excel sheet but that was about it. I’ve done a lot of self-teaching when it comes to SQL (the language Biotics uses for queries) and I know I have even more to learn. But, I’m an eager student!
What do you wish more people understood about being a scientist?
This is more of a personal anecdote, but something I wish I had understood earlier in my career as a scientist is that having a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job, nor is it a qualifier for being a “real” scientist. People can do meaningful work in science as citizen scientists, or with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a scientific field.
What are some common misconceptions about your role?
When I was doing fieldwork more often, I feel like a lot of the non-scientist people I interacted with thought I was out there playing with nature or just hanging out. For example, my cousins asked if I ran around with a butterfly net to catch the birds for bird banding. As for data management? For myself, other data managers, and techs I’ve interacted with, we love what we do but wish we could get out in the field more.
What’s it like doing this job in the middle of a pandemic?
I ended up starting this position remotely from New York because I have had no luck finding an apartment in Illinois, at the point of writing this. I’m no stranger to remote work, but I’ve still had my challenges. Training is a little more difficult because it’s all online and my WiFi desperately does not want me to attend video meetings. I’m familiar with Biotics but the protocols Illinois uses are different than what I’m used to. I would love to be able to ask my questions and show my supervisor my screen in person, rather than having to take screenshots and email questions, or try to share my screen with her remotely.
What advice would you give to those just starting in your field?
My undergraduate advisor told me to get as much training as you can in data collection and analysis techniques to build up your “tool kit” and I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful. I’ve found getting experience in different fields useful (and interesting) and it’s helped me determine what I want to do, as well as more easily collaborate with other scientists.