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Faculty Profile: Karen Wickett

When she was in the second grade, Karen Wickett won the "What the Library Means to Me" essay contest.

It's not an honor she lists on her CV, and she laughs when she remembers how she worked a reference to elephants into the piece.

But her essay included a prescient observation about libraries: "There is a whole world in there to discover."

Years later, a library awakened Wickett to a different career possibility, prompting her to pursue a master's program that would reveal her true calling and ultimately lead her to Austin where she began teaching as an assistant professor at the iSchool in January.

Wickett brings a passion for logic, making sense of and organizing information, and preserving and broadening access to data. Her research areas include the conceptual and logical foundations of information organization systems and artifacts. She's currently teaching Information Modeling.

But back to the library.

While earning a degree in math from Ohio State University, Wickett had the opportunity to work as a student library assistant and then found a job in a hospital library.

After graduating in 2002, Wickett moved with her husband to the University of California, Davis where he pursued his PhD.

Library work still beckoned, so she took a job at the university library, which was re-organizing its technical services at the time.

Wickett picked up experience in catalogue maintenance as the library shifted from print to online journals. She worked on the bindery -- a job that was starting to disappear--and did acquisition, placing phone calls to vendors and updating invoices--not her forte, she quickly discovered.

But the library atmosphere suited her in some ways. After spending her undergraduate years in a male-dominated math program, she enjoyed being surrounded by women for a change.

And she thrived on learning new things and finding the "logic in libraries."

She would stare at a bibliographic record and delight in discovering all the connections she could make.

Wickett enrolled in a distance learning program at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illionois at Urbana-Champaign.

Halfway through the two-year program, Wickett realized that being a librarian did not match her temperament.

Her Information Modeling course flipped the switch on the proverbial light bulb in Wickett's head.

She loved figuring out systems and connections.

"What I really want to do," she remembers thinking, "is research."

The appeal of information science makes sense when Wickett looks back on her life.

Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she would read and then re-read books, discovering details she'd missed on the first pass. She remembers the excitement she felt in a high school math class when the teacher derived a quadratic equation and a window of understanding opened in her mind.

Her parents nurtured her love of learning.

Her father, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Cincinnati, and her mother, who had a degree in history and a fascination with geology, showed her how to approach the world with curiosity and to examine things closely.

After completing her master's degree, Wickett moved to Champaign to pursue her PhD, then lived with her husband in State College, Penn., as he did post-doctoral work. The academic-marital balancing act continued as the couple returned to Champaign where Wickett took a post doctoral research associate position. Because her advisor was serving as interim dean at the time, she was also able to teach his course.

At the university's Center for Informatics Research in Science in Scholarship, she focused on information modeling and conceptual modeling in data curation.

Her eyes light up as she describes the challenges of making data more widely accessible to scientists and scholars.

Often, she says, scientists will work on a single research project with a single publication, noting, "That's a lost opportunity for anyone else working in the same problem area."

How do you make the data accessible - both intellectually and technically? This is a question Wickett is determined to tackle.

For example, she says, "If the U.S. government funds a research study, it shouldn't just be the paper that people can get to, it should be the data set."

Researchers in the field of genetics have developed a practice for sharing data in terms of using common terms and language.

But scientists as a whole, she says, struggle with these common standards.

"Most scientists aren't prepared to do this kind of thing."

Wickett is happy to have landed at the iSchool where these issues are on the forefront.

She's also relishing the chance to teach students in person as her previous course was taught online.

"It's easier to elicit the students' perspectives in a face-to-face classroom," she says.

Those perspectives, she has found, tend to be inspiringly diverse both academically and professionally. For example, a student with a background on linguistics has shared valuable insight on grammars and markup languages.

"One of the most rewarding things about teaching," she says, "is when you have the back and forth."

As Wickett has learned, there's also a "whole world to discover" in the classroom.

View Dr. Wickett's Google Scholar profile