April 10, 2018 | Katie Cousins and Katerina Placek
WCAI sat down with two organizers of the Philadelphia Chapter of the R-Ladies Initiative to learn more about what they do and how people can become involved with this program.
This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Marin Smith: Thank you so much for being here today.
Katie Cousins and Katerina Placek: Thanks! Thanks so much for having us!
Marin Smith: You got it.
Katie Cousins: My name is Katie Cousins and I’m a Postdoc here at the University of Pennsylvania. I work in the hospital in the Neurology Department and I use R for statistics in my research on language impairment in neurodegenerative disease.
Katerina Placek: Hi my name is Katerina Placek. I’m a fourth-year Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. I also work in the neurology department with Katie and I use R primarily for statistics in my research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Marin Smith: So tell me about R-Ladies on the global level. What’s it all about?
Katerina Placek: The purpose of R-Ladies is to promote the presence of women in the R community and, more broadly, gender diversity through non-binary categorizations. Through this, we seek to promote other marginalized groups who also need representation in the data science community.
The purpose of R-Ladies is to promote the presence of women in the R community and, more broadly, gender diversity through non-binary categorizations. Through this, we seek to promote other marginalized groups who also need representation in the data science community.
Marin Smith: So it sounds like you both have a use for R in your day-to-day. How did you come to start the Philadelphia chapter of R-Ladies?
Katie Cousins: What we didn’t mention was that we actually work right across from each other. And Kat was pretty much the person who took the initiative to start learning R herself. As the two of us are talking we realized, if we’re going to start learning R together, why not open it up to anyone who wants to learn in our lab. So, we started a little lab-based workshop.
Katie Cousins: Even then we knew what we wanted. We had attempted to go to some other R workshops and knew that we just wanted something that communicated that everyone was welcome, tha this was something accessible that you could do, and really encourage everyone who was interested in learning but who might be a little bit intimidated to come and join.
Katerina Placek: Yeah so we ended up starting a workshop in our lab and then we met another friend, Alice Walsh, who is the third co-organizer of R-Ladies Philly — but we’re always open to more as we’ll get into later. And she introduced us to the R-Ladies global organization and told us that she’d been wanting to start a Philadelphia chapter for a long time and we made a plan last fall. And here we are.
In addition to having a community-driven peer to peer community that's really open to anyone of all backgrounds, we want the R-Ladies Philly chapter to be focused on developing skills in our users despite whatever level they come from.
Marin Smith: We talked about how R-Ladies came to be. But can you talk about the Philly mission for R-Ladies?
Katerina Placek: So through our lab workshop we quickly realized that maybe people outside of our research group at the University of Pennsylvania would appreciate having a community that’s focused on advancing the interests of women and, more generally, gender diversity within the R community. And we think that R is a great platform to use this for because it’s free. So there really aren’t any barriers to entry.
Anyone can download it on their personal computer and also anyone can create and maintain packages so its user supported, user created and well documented. Also, there are free resources available for learning R and with all this said, R is one of the most popular programming environments in the broader data science community. However, right now it’s heavily overrepresented in terms of men versus women. So just to pull up a statistic here: The data science community is pretty evenly split between men and women, but only 11 percent of R package maintainers are women and attendees to the major R user conference are 75 percent male. The people who are actually attending conferences and working on packages for R are male. So R-Ladies is sort of an attempt to equalize this gender disparity and create a more welcoming and open opportunity for women and people who don’t identify in a traditional gender binary category.
We also wanted to make a group that’s not prohibitive based on prior experience. We welcome expert level R users and we also welcome people who have never even opened R in their entire life. We think that having advanced users and beginners together in the same environment is really beneficial for everyone. One, it gives advanced users an opportunity to take on leadership roles and share their skills and it gives beginners role models they can identify with. So if the learning curve, in the beginning, is steep, a beginner can look to somebody can identify with and realize OK this person can learn this, maybe I can too.
Katie Cousins: I think Kat and I firmly believe that if you’re interested in learning it you probably have the capability and we want to be there to help you get on that track. Sometimes the way people can communicate their knowledge is at a level that can be intimidating to the listener as opposed to accessible. I think it’s important that a variety of data scientists — even men — participate in the R-Ladies community. They can go back to their workplaces and promote the ideals of gender diversity in their own networks.
Katerina Placek: We have an emphasis not just on learning how to write R code. There are plenty of resources available online for that but we focus a lot on the conceptual knowledge of understanding what’s going into the code that you’re writing and how best to apply it. So, one great thing about having the R-Ladies Philly chapter is that we have students, statisticians, programmers, people of all different backgrounds and all different disciplines coming together and each one of them can contribute something special to the conversation.
I think it’s important that a variety of data scientists — even men — participate in the R-Ladies community.
Katie Cousins: I think a thing we hear a lot is “oh I don’t know if somebody will be interested in the work that I do”. But most of the people who attend Meetups like R-Ladies Philly genuinely enjoy learning and are often interested in new methods. It’s one of those things where if you only talk to people in your field you’re often not learning about new applications or new ways to do something. We think it’s a strength to have a diverse group, and so we’re interested in people from a variety of backgrounds and experience.
Katerina Placek: In addition to having a community-driven peer to peer community that’s really open to anyone of all backgrounds, we want the R-Ladies Philly chapter to be focused on developing skills in our users despite whatever level they come from. So with this in mind, we develop a workshop for each meeting with concrete goals for learning around a topic of interest to the Philadelphia community. So we actually use this great resource called OpenDataPhilly.com that hosts publicly available Philadelphia datasets that are approachable for our diverse members.
Marin Smith: That’s great! The Philly chapter is relatively new and your goal is to host workshops and Meetups. I understand you had one recently. How did that go?
Katerina Placek: It went really well – last week we discussed data visualization using ggplot, an R-package. We plan monthly events right now, which are held weeknights in Center City at a readily accessible location for our members and each meeting has a proposed topic. The previous month we had our first meeting that was just a “getting-to-know-you” mixer and sort of putting forth our intention for the group for the rest of the year.
Marin Smith: That sounds awesome. R-Ladies sounds like an amazing opportunity for the entire Philadelphia community to be involved with. How do we get involved?
Katerina Placek: Great question. So the best way to get involved is to find us on Meetup. You can search for R-Ladies Philly. This is where we post all of our information including events, a link to our Twitter, Slack channel, and blog. The best way to get involved then is to sign up for Meetup and show up to our events.
Marin Smith: Perfect! Just as a note for our listeners – you can also find upcoming events on the WCAI website, we’re going to help them out in getting their events out to the public. So look forward to that. Of course, we loved having you here today. It was such a great opportunity to learn about this amazing chapter going on right here in Wharton’s backyard. Thank you so much for being here today.
Katie Cousins and Katerina Placek: Thank you for having us. Thank you so much. This was really nice!
If you’re interested in getting in touch with R-Ladies Philly or want to join the Philly Chapter, you can find the organizers on these channels: