Women of Data Science – Nicky and Amel Spread Data Science Across Africa
Western Digital is pleased to be a corporate sponsor of the Global Women in Data Science Conference (WiDS) since 2018. This new series of profiles features a select group of WiDS global ambassadors. They share their stories about leading events in their local communities that inspire and educate data scientists, while supporting women in the field.
Dr. Nicky Mulder is a Professor and Head of the Computational Biology Division at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She also leads H3ABioNet, a Pan African bioinformatics network.
Dr. Amel Ghouila is a Bioinformatician at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis in Tunisia.
Outside of their work, Dr. Mulder and Dr. Ghouila are bringing together female data scientists around the African continent. To support these efforts, Nicky and Amel joined forces to lead the first-ever entirely online Women in Data Science regional event, WiDS PanAfrica. We talked with Nicky and Amel to learn about their experience.
First off, how did your event go?
NICKY: Given that it was our first such event, I think it was a success! The audience at any one time during the online conference grew and shrank. But, that also had to do with time differences in different countries. I think all our participants enjoyed the panel session.
When did you get the idea that you wanted to be a WiDS Ambassador?
NICKY: Amel did an H3ABioNet internship in the United States, where she was introduced to WiDS. As soon as she told me about it, I was interested in being involved. I more formally became an ambassador when we started planning an online WiDS conference for Africa.
AMEL: I had the opportunity to attend the WiDS conference organized by two prestigious universities in the United States in 2017. I also became an ambassador when we started planning our online WiDS event for Africa.
Why were you so interested in the ambassador position?
NICKY: When Amel told me about WiDS, I knew immediately that it was an important initiative and that we should get women doing bioinformatics involved. Some of the best contributors to projects and initiatives in the H3ABioNet network are female scientists and students.
At UCT, I work with other “Big Data” domains and have been involved in a new Masters in Data Science degree. I’ve seen the value in developing data science skills, particularly in women, with applications to life science data. As the leader of H3ABioNet, I have access to female scientists across Africa and want to set a positive example for them.
AMEL: When I attended the WiDS event in Boston, Massachusetts, I was amazed by the diversity of talks featuring work achieved by women who used data science in many fields. However, when the different WiDS groups around the world were presented, I noticed that women from Africa were underrepresented.
I knew many women from Africa who were talented in science and thought it would be great to build this community. I talked to Nicky about it and she immediately shared my enthusiasm for the idea!
Once you started planning for your event, how did you find local speakers and attendees?
NICKY: This was actually a challenge. We knew women working in bioinformatics, but not in other fields of data science. So, we had to draw on other contacts and networks to identify suitable speakers to invite. We also put out a call for abstracts for reviewed talks, and again initially struggled to reach other areas of data science. Two H3ABioNet colleagues, Sumir and Katherine, were instrumental in planning and running the conference.
In your experience, what do the data science communities look like in South Africa and Tunisia now?
NICKY: Data science is an up-and-coming “field” in South Africa, though the individual components and contributors have been around for a while. South Africa has the world’s largest radio telescope, which is a well-funded astronomy project that is and will increasingly be generating vast amounts of scientific data. We also have a big bioinformatics community that works with researchers to generate large, functional genomics and sequence data sets.
There are other communities that deal with climate change, social science and other topics that generate big data. They have a critical need to train data scientists. As I mentioned earlier, UCT has recently established a Masters in Data Science degree. Similar degrees are emerging from other universities in Africa. H3ABioNet has been working with other organizations to develop a data science course and bioinformatics module in Trieste, Italy.
AMEL: The field is growing quickly in Tunisia. Right now, there are only a few universities that offer a dedicated data science curriculum. But, there are cooperative working groups that are interested in training people to acquire real-world, data science skills. Also, these groups apply data science for social good to address different community challenges.
Moving forward, how do you think data science will impact people in their day-to-day life?
NICKY: It depends on how it will be used and in which field. I can speak for my field of bioinformatics. Data science is certainly helping us to work with ever larger data sets. Using new data mining tools has the potential to generate new discoveries. In the biomedical sciences, data science has the potential to transform how we treat patients.
AMEL: Data science is playing an increasingly important role in our daily lives. Sometimes, the impact is invisible and taken for granted. In the field of medicine, data science harnesses complex genomics datasets and handles big data generated. If used the right way, data provides insights for better health outcomes and treatment experiences.
What was your biggest takeaway from being a WiDS Ambassador?
NICKY: The message for me is that women can make essential contributions to science. Data science is one of the key “new” disciplines that has the potential to impact many different fields. For women building skills in this area, they will open doors to many new opportunities and career options. Since most of the work is computational, there’s also the flexibility to work from home, if necessary.
AMEL: We need to showcase successful women in the field to make data science more attractive to young women in Africa. This could narrow the gender gap and start to overcome cultural and educational barriers.
“Women are actively contributing to the field of data science, but sometimes their contributions need to be more valued.” – Amel Ghouila