Kerstin A. Lehnert

Kerstin A. Lehnert
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

2017 Outstanding Contributions in Geoinformatics Award

Presented to Kerstin A. Lehnert

Citation by Leslie Hsu

The Geoinformatics Division presents its 2017 Outstanding Contributions in Geoinformatics award to Dr. Kerstin A. Lehnert. Kerstin’s contributions to the field of geoinformatics far exceed the space allotted here, but some words about her background and experiences will illustrate her incomparable visibility and leadership in the community.

Kerstin’s training as a petrologist at the University of Freiburg laid the foundation for her to understand the geoinformatics needs of practicing research scientists who work with geologic samples. In subsequent years, her roles as an executive assistant, coordinator of research administration, and administrative director for research at the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Chemie and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory gave her unrivaled training in how things really work at research institutions. The combination of these skills sets Kerstin apart and has led her to the life of a lead principal investigator for over 20 geoinformatics projects funded by the NSF, NASA, and the USGS. She has superior ability to bring people together in community workshops to solve issues, and to contribute to important and widely read editorials and publications about stewardship of geoscience data.

Kerstin is not just a member of many committees and organizations, but serves as the chair or president. For example, she has served as the GSA Geoinformatics Division Chair, the AGU Earth and Space Science Focus Group President, the chair of the EarthCube Leadership Council, and leader of numerous other committees. Her work in data rescue and in bringing capabilities and best practices to the researchers who work in the long-tail of data helps a very wide range of geoscientists to properly make their data accessible. Finally, Kerstin’s passion for her early work with geologic samples has made her a leader and go-to collaborator for curation of physical geosamples in a digital world, evidenced by her work on the International Geo Sample Number (IGSN) and the System for Earth Sample Registration (SESAR). Congratulations, Kerstin.

top2017 Contributions to Geoinformatics Award — Response by Kerstin A. Lehnert

It is a great honor to receive this award, and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the members of the Geoinformatics Division and the GSA for giving me this recognition and in particular those who nominated me and supported the nomination. I am deeply touched by this recognition. It has a special meaning for me because my involvement with the geoinformatics community started at the GSA. It actually dates back to a time before the Geoinformatics Division existed. My very first talk at a GSA meeting was in 2001 about the PetDB database, the project that brought me into geoinformatics. I gave a talk in a session titled “Databases to Knowledge Bases: The Informatics Revolution” that was organized by Walt Snyder, Herbert Zimmermann, who was director of the Earth Sciences Division at the National Science Foundation, and Lee Allison, none of whom I knew at that time.

I learned to my surprise about a wide range of database efforts going on and how the PetDB database was in some way part of a larger development of data infrastructure which was clearly in its infancy then. The night after my talk I ended up sitting at a bar next to a guy by the name of Krishna Sinha. Krishna started talking to me about his ideas of making geoinformatics a fundamental component of Geoscience research and establishing a division for geoinformatics within GSA. Krishna ended up being the first chair of the Geoinformatics Division.

Developing the PetDB database was my start in geoinformatics. I stumbled more or less accidentally into scientific data management when I had just come to the U.S. and started my job at Lamont. My boss at Lamont, Charlie Langmuir, told me that he had a grant from NSF to develop a database for volcanic rocks from the ocean floor. So I learned what a relational database was and how to organize geochemical data into a relational structure. And I spent many years compiling data and loading them into this database, which was a painful process at a time when most of the data were in data tables in printed papers that needed to be ordered via library loans. The important point that I want to make here is that it was not me, but Charlie Langmuir and Bill Ryan, two exceptional Earth scientists at Lamont, who had the vision of making scientific data available online in a searchable database. I don’t think that either of them knew the word geoinformatics at the time, but they sure made a fundamental contribution to the field.

In the many years that I have been in geoinformatics I have seen how important it is that active scientists are involved in the design and development of cyberinfrastructure. It is eminent that geoinformatics strengthens its presence in the geoscience disciplines and facilitates collaborations between earth, information, computer, and data scientists. The Geoinformatics Division in GSA has powerful opportunities to advance such collaborations and exchange as the division has a very strong representation of active geoscientists among its members. Also, the fact that the GSA membership has a very high percentage of students and early career scientists offers ways to engage the next generation of researchers in geoinformatics. I think that an important part of my contributions to geoinformatics has been to facilitate the building of new data communities through lots and lots of outreach, talks, workshops, town halls and more.
In 2012, I had the honor to present the first Outstanding Contributions to Geoinformatics award to Linda Gundersen. At the end of her speech, she urged everybody to reach out to someone new and ask them to join this community. She said that the “GSA Geoinformatics Division could become a forum for supporting advances in informatics tools and standards needed for the geosciences and help build a communal infrastructure that lets the power of our data shine and light the way for generations of geoscientists to come.” Linda’s words express my thoughts better than I can.

I clearly cannot end without giving credit to all those many colleagues who I have collaborated with over all these years. Many of them deserve this award probably more than I. There are too many to name them all. But I want you to know how grateful I am for all the help, mentorship, advice I have received. I mentioned earlier the conveners of the first geoinformatics session that I attended in 2001. One of them was Lee Allison. Lee became an important colleague and mentor for me in later years and I would like to take this opportunity for us all to think of Lee who so tragically passed away last years. I would like to take the freedom to propose that the Geoinformatics Division consider renaming this award in Lee’s honor.