Women of Data Science – Dr. Rebecca Nugent and the CMU Statistics & Data Science Team
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. Rebecca Nugent is the Associate Head of the Department of Statistics & Data Science and WiDS Ambassador hailing from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. PhD students Kayla Frisoli, Shannon Gallagher, and Amanda Luby attend CMU and are also WiDS Ambassadors.
Through their role as WiDS Ambassadors, the group planned and carried out a successful event, WiDS Pittsburgh @CMU, which featured respected speakers from around the campus and industry.
We talked with Dr. Rebecca Nugent, Kayla, Shannon, and Amanda to learn about their experience planning a successful data science event.
First off, how did your event go?
REBECCA: It went well for a first-time event! There was no WiDS Pittsburgh or WiDS Carnegie Mellon before we became ambassadors. We had about 175 people, 8 featured speakers, and multiple networking events. There was so much enthusiasm for even bigger and better events in the future!
When did you get the idea that you wanted to be a WiDS Ambassador?
REBECCA: It wasn’t actually a long process. We first found out about the opportunity only a few months before the already scheduled WiDS events in March, so we didn’t have much lead time. Most of the planning and logistics were done within a few months.
Why were you interested in the ambassador position?
REBECCA: One of things that I thought was interesting about this setup for WiDS was the focus on building local communities. What I really appreciated about our event, in particular, was that the price barrier for people to participate was much lower than a national conference. We could be more inclusive to students of all types of backgrounds.
Once you started planning for your event, how did you find local speakers and attendees?
KAYLA: We reached out to our contacts, whether alumni or people from industry. Shannon and I help run a data science group in Pittsburgh called useR, which helped us connect with a few hundred data scientists from our local community.
Also, I was a judge for a high school data challenge in Pittsburgh. This helped me reach out to high school students who were interested in data science. We even invited one of the all-women groups to host a table in the networking portion of our WiDS Pittsburgh @CMU event. Everyone was so excited to see these young women doing data science!
AMANDA: Diversity is also something that we looked for from our speakers. They had backgrounds in neuroscience, psychology, machine learning, public policy, and more. We had a little bit of everything to suit everyone’s interests.
In your experience, what does the data science community look like in Pittsburgh?
REBECCA: We actually had this really funny quote from our conference:
“If data science were a country, Pittsburgh would be the capital.”
The unique part about Pittsburgh is that almost everyone is doing something data science-related. We have people working in digital humanities applying data science to archives from the 1600s. Researchers are applying data science to art and engineering. We’re diverse from both a research and industry perspective.
SHANNON: Pittsburgh is a great place to be if you love data science. We have so much going on with our university and nearby hospitals. A lot of tech companies have a strong presence in the area, too. There’s just a lot of growth and great people to connect with.
Moving forward, how do you think data science will impact people in their day-to-day life?
REBECCA: Nowadays, kids see self-driving cars everywhere. They don’t know a world without this technology. Also, recommendation engines will keep rising in importance. But, there will be a growing need for people to pay attention to the ethics behind how data is being used.
KAYLA: I agree with Rebecca about recommendation engines. They could even be used at work to help inform our decisions. If you think about it, the algorithms that are behind these technologies already impact people in their everyday life.
REBECCA: It’s important to remember that you can’t do data science properly without people. You have to have people interacting with data at every single step to find meaningful solutions.
What was your biggest takeaway from being a WiDS Ambassador?
KAYLA: It’s important for there to be an outlet to bring together data scientists. It was amazing to see all the different groups come together.
SHANNON: Seeing all the enthusiasm from the attendees, even high school students, reminds me why I first got interested in data science. It was great to see the energy from our community.
AMANDA: The topics that our speakers touched on were so diverse. It was fun to get a sampling of the different types of data science that people are doing.
REBECCA: Any day that you can spend being surrounded by incredibly brilliant women who are changing the world with their work is a good day!