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Dispatches from Nerd Camp

May 30, 2007

If you’re wondering why I haven’t been posting post-MLA, it’s because I’m away in Woods Hole, MA at the Marine Biological Laboratory taking this week-long course on biomedical informatics, and our typical schedule runs from 8:30am-9:00pm each day. I’m running on dorm twin bed sleep and cafeteria food. I do love nerd camp, though.

Topics we’re covering include medical informatics in general, managing teams, building databases with web interfaces, NCBI and PubMed, evidence-based practice tools, telemedicine, database theory, decision-analytic methods, and clinical information systems. Care provider order entry, terminologies, various other branches of informatics, and the Visible Human Project are still to come. Y’all, just google any of that stuff, okay? Or click on the schedule link above to see what some of the presentations consist of.

I’ve met some interesting folks. My roomie (we’re in a dorm, twin beds and all) is the director of the library at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Il. We have someone in class who works for the Indian Health Service, someone from the Louisiana Public Health Institute, and various people who are medical librarians, physicians, and from other branches of healthcare. I had a chat with one of the instructors, who reports that my boss’s boss was one of his first students.

One for the librarians – our PubMed instructor declared, “I’m over the whole MeSH thing,” in the context of explaining that she thinks it’s completely unnecessary to know about and too hard to use. I don’t know about you, but my novice PubMed users are usually *delighted* to learn about the MeSH feature in PubMed, because they’re not confident that they’re using the right words for their searches and this gives them a starting point. The instructor suggested that keyword searching is always just fine because it will map to MeSH anyway. This is often true. However, I did a keyword search on “HRT” (a popular topic that most adult humans would understand) and discovered that this does not map to the “Hormone Replacement Therapy” MeSH, and returns a pretty poor set of search results. Discuss. 🙂

The trip here was bumpy to say the least. One extremely long line at the airport, followed by a delayed flight, then a cancelled flight, a cranky security lady (“It’s your responsibility to get your things onto the belt!” Uh, maybe if you didn’t have everything backed up all the way down the counter.), and one SUV that ran over the wheel of my luggage. While I was holding it. Close to my person. I did get an upgrade to 1st class on the flight that replaced the cancelled one – did you know that my feet won’t touch the ground flatly in the roomy 1st class seats? Ahem. The line and delayed and canceled flights were with the same airline that lost my luggage last week – on a direct flight!

Today we broke early, so I visited the (free!) local aquarium, which lets the public into the behind-the-scenes area, and walked to the beach to read for several hours. That was good for some much-needed alone time and relaxation.

More updates later and pics when there is more time.

PS-Today I saw two ducks, uh, trying to make more ducks.

Update: For anyone who’s wondering, “nerd camp” is meant quite fondly. I also want to note for the librarians (espcially since this has been picked up on the ExpertSearching list) that the seeming dismissal of MeSH was a very brief moment in the class, although I and some other librarian attendees caught it and were rather taken aback by it.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2007 11:09 pm

    Hi Rachel – interesting concept about PubMed and MeSH searching. Just today I tried a MeSH search for “homocysteinemia” and it wasn’t there. How odd; this has never happened to me before. This was a term that one of my docs had given me and I was surprised there were no results. I also tried it as a text word, but still no results. I thought at first that it was mispelled, but I checked it out in Stedman’s and it was there with the same spelling. I then went to Google (usually a last resort), and I found a link back to PubMed, but it was located in the OMIM database — a database I have had no experience with — but at least I will have a couple of results for the doctor when he meets with me on Friday. 🙂

    My thoughts about MeSH — especially since I just recently attended an advanced class on PubMed — I think every medical librarian should use it, if for no other reason to see where their terms are located in the Medical subject headings, and to check if there are other subheadings below it.

  2. May 31, 2007 6:06 am

    Mary,
    Agreed, MeSH has been a great tool in my work. Among the NCBI databases, I really love OMIM – glad you had a chance to play around with it.

  3. May 31, 2007 9:22 am

    Thanks for the update from nerd camp 🙂 The schedule looks fantastic!

    There was an article by Mary Shultz published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association last fall that looked at a sample of acronyms, abbreviations, etc and how they’re mapped in PubMed and Ovid Medline, and found some issues like the HRT one you note.

    I think MeSH terms can be very useful for users as well as librarians — I remember lots of times during PubMed training when students, faculty, etc have had an “ah-ha” moment about a concept they’re looking for – the process of looking up terms also helps us structure a search more logically too — think about what the important concepts are and how to represent them. The automatic mapping in PubMed is great but I can’t think of many instances when it was “enough” to make a search precise enough and thorough enough at the same time. Searching for articles on therapy of hypertension is a good example — difficult to do a reasonable search in terms of volume and relevance without using MeSH and the subheadings.

  4. Erika permalink
    May 31, 2007 12:47 pm

    I posted this at David Rothman, too…
    I’m very interested that this was coming from someone who presumably is at NLM. I know that when I teach PubMed to non-librarians, I tell them that they can usually get along just fine w/o using MeSH &/or the Details tab, but it’s important to know about it and how it works, so that when they don’t get the results they’re looking for they can find out why. Abbreviations tend to map poorly, terms w/ multiple meanings (blind) don’t get you what you want at all, and adding a term like “pediatrics” to a search, in hopes of limiting by age, will add the specialty of pediatrics. For my own searching, I use MeSH in combination w/ keyword–just as you’d see they do in Cochrane reviews. I don’t trust either to do the job completely.

  5. May 31, 2007 1:28 pm

    Erika,
    Same here – I use both MeSH and keywords in an attempt to cover my bases.

  6. Brian permalink
    May 31, 2007 1:31 pm

    As one of the “nerds” in question, I resemble that remark. Two of us got this forwarded to us at the same time. Funny!

  7. May 31, 2007 1:35 pm

    Brian,
    These are the wonders of the series of tubes. 🙂

  8. Erika permalink
    May 31, 2007 1:35 pm

    Rachel, saw your note to the Expert Searching list. I do think it was odd that the instructor was so dismissive–especially in a context where “nerds” who are presumably looking for applications of informatics in their own workplaces might be in a position to use MeSH for the greater good. 🙂 But I’m not trying to get you (or her) into any trouble!

  9. June 1, 2007 6:09 am

    Erika,
    No problem. I was quite interested in other librarians’ opinions of this statement, and am glad it has generated some discussion!

  10. June 2, 2007 7:33 am

    Over — I was in the classroom when this discussion happened and I think the missing link here is the confusion of the discussion and the context it was given….. it was Google Scholar vs PubMed and how the instructor did say that s/he was “over” that debate ( let people search what they want). docs and scientists can use PubMed the same way they use Google i.e. enter your search and let PubMed map to MeSH. MeSH is going to be included. Knowing the instructor as I do… s/he is in no way dismissive of MeSH.

    Having sat through 24 of these sessions in the past 16 years — I assure you no one is “over” MeSH —

  11. June 2, 2007 7:56 am

    Cathy,
    Thanks for your comment on this, especially I know that I’m not the only librarian in the class who came away with the same perception as I did. It was also adjacent to the presenter indicating that Boolean techniques were also unnecessary (as some of us interpreted it, in any case), so perhaps that enhanced the opinion that she was dismissive of advanced searching techniques. I do think it has generated some interesting discussion about the topic, though! Thanks for adding your take (also, thanks for a great week in Woods Hole!).

  12. June 2, 2007 7:59 am

    should be “especially as..” Also, I think the question of how well keyword maps to MeSH is one worth exploring.

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