Diversifying Data Science

R-Ladies East Lansing — a local chapter of R-Ladies, a global organization — is a vibrant community focused on providing a safe environment for women and gender minorities in-and-around MSU to discuss, learn, and teach anything pertaining to R (a popular statistical programming language) and data science. As a diversity initiative, R-Ladies focuses on achieving equitable representation by supporting minority gender R enthusiasts to achieve their programming potential.

Identifying a clear need for R training and a local R-user group on campus, Dr. Janani Ravi, a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, founded R-Ladies East Lansing at MSU. In Summer 2018, she joined forces with Ms. Camille Archer, the Director of Training at Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research (ICER) to lead this local chapter. The East Lansing chapter was the first (and currently the only chapter) in the state of Michigan. Although the organizers have prioritized serving MSU students, faculty and staff, the chapter remains open to all R-users from the Greater Lansing area, and beyond. In just a short time, a little over two years, this grassroots organization has seen rapid growth and has become an integral and essential part of the broader MSU community; collectively training, connecting, and inspiring nearly 500 members of the extensive MSU community with over 20 well-attended events. In February 2020, the R-Ladies East Lansing co-organizers, Janani and Camille, were nominated and awarded MSU’s Excellence in Diversity for Emerging Process Teams. The award recognizes “individuals, teams, units and organizations that have performed above and beyond what they were hired or designated to do, to demonstrate outstanding leadership and creativity in the area of diversity”1. The recognition has not only served as a confirmation of how valuable their work is to the populations they serve, but promotes the group’s efforts, broadening their reach on campus.

Both organizers are very passionate about the R-Ladies initiative. Archer wanted to highlight that, “Although having access to the resources, such as training, is critical to succeeding, confidence in your ability to do that task also plays a role.” Archer and Ravi identified confidence-building among scientists new to programming with R as one of the strengths of the group. Dr. Ravi states, “We want to make sure … that there are opportunities for all to participate at every level of coding expertise; and to be as inclusive as possible.” Unlike the typical lecture-style courses or lessons, R-Ladies East Lansing takes a different approach; members teach what they know, even if they only know a single function, and more advanced R-coders support beginners in the planning phase by guiding the structure of the overall lesson and coordinating with the workshop contributors. Archer remarks “You don’t have to know it all to add something meaningful to the group.” The group hopes that this exposure will empower women and gender minorities to lead in the area of coding and package development in R. 

R-Ladies East Lansing is intentional about fostering interdisciplinary and interdepartmental connections at MSU to better address common goals and promote complementary activities aimed at preparing the next generation of data scientists. Almost from its inception, several campus units have supported the group's work, including the colleges of Natural Science, Engineering, Business and Veterinary Medicine, SSDA, CSTAT, BEACON, BMB, CMSE, MMG, Digital Humanities and ICER. Apart from Camille’s involvement with the group, ICER remains one of the group’s primary supporters, providing administrative support, spreading the word across campus, and providing venues for meetups since its start. The community has a Slack group and encourages members to ask R-related questions outside of planned activities, post job opportunities and disseminate information about useful resources.

Moving forward, R-Ladies East Lansing have plans to further their reach as well as solidify a process to ensure the community remains diverse for years to come. Specifically, the group plans to increase their outreach to diverse communities, including under resourced minorities. Secondly, the group hopes to engage more broadly beyond MSU to create a professional network that supports not only MSU researchers, but also Michigan women and gender minorities involved in data science. This fall, they plan to kick off an online learning series to continue supporting local R-coders and developers. Moreover, the group hopes to team up with other R-Ladies chapters in similar time zones to co-host meetups, thereby providing opportunities for members to engage and network outside of MSU. The R-Ladies East Lansing also currently maintains a Slack group and encourages members to network on this platform, get help with R-related questions outside of planned activities, post job opportunities and disseminate useful resources. 

In this information age, data and computing are transforming genetic, biomedical, clinical, environmental, and social sciences practice in innumerable ways. Taking full advantage of this information landscape requires a new set of cross-disciplinary skills in data-driven quantitative thinking along with knowledge in specific domains. R-Ladies East Lansing is playing the critical role in preparing and developing data scientists of the future.