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The WiDS Oxford network officially launched with an online speaker event featuring three researchers using cutting-edge data science to solve real-world problems

Women in Data Science Oxford logoAs I and 70+ attendees dialled into Teams on 24 November, Women in Data Science Oxford (WiDS Oxford) was officially born. The event marked the launch of Oxford’s newest network for women (and men!), working in or interested in data science. 

And what better way to start the WiDS event than with a pop of data! Sara Khalid, WiDS Oxford Ambassador welcomed guests and visitors and opened with a breakdown of the more than 140 people registered to attend. Reflective of the way that data has become pervasive across all subject areas, attendees represented 50 departments and colleges from Oxford across a range of disciplines. 

But as Sara pointed out, there is still work to be done. “Women represented only 35 out of 100 people in core STEM subjects in 2017/18, so the gender gap is still real, not just in education, but the decline continues into the workforce with women dropping out of their careers in the area.” 

Important then to hear from the line up of three stellar women speakers sharing their research using data science in Oxford: Naomi Allen, Chief Scientist for the UK Biobank, Dr Jenna Reps, Associate Director in the Observational Health & Data Analytics group at Janssen Research and Development, and Dr Katie Smith, Hydrologist at the UK Centre for Hydrology and Ecology. 

Naomi explained the vast breadth and depth of data held by the Oxford Biobank to understand how lifestyle, genes and the environment interact to cause diseases in some people but not others. For more than 10 years they have been following the health of 500,000 people in the UK and have collected arguably the most accessible, in depth, largest, easy to use and adaptable biomedical resource in the world. With up to 15 petabytes of data (once they have the full genome sequencing data) the sheer size of it is almost incomprehensible but put in context it is about 4.5 times the entire Netflix catalogue! 

This vast and unique combination of data about participants will help in future research to understand how genetic factors cause disease, will lead the way to precision medicine and inform public health policy. 

Jenna spoke of her work during 88 hours of an OHDSI study-a-thon. Researchers collaborating from all over the world on Covid-19 had access to real world data for the pandemic; 4.5 million patients tested, 1.2 million patients with positive test, 380K patients with positive lab test, and 249K patients hospitalised with a Covid-19 diagnosis. It was fascinating to hear how working day and night across time zones they were able to analyse the data and develop models to predict the likelihood or level of risk of the virus to patients in different demographic and vulnerable groups. 

Stepping in on behalf of Louise Slater, Katie Smith, shared how she uses the open-source programming language R in hydrology research and in environmental science. Driven by vast amounts of publicly available data and significant increases in computational power, R is now routinely used in hydrology research and teaching. I enjoyed hearing of her work using R to complete 457 million model runs to reconstruct historic flows and provide data on drought events going back to 1891, which can be used to explore the risks of future drought events. 

A panel discussion, moderated by Maria Sanchez, which brought in Antonella Delmestri, opened up to the audience for questions. We discovered that while each of the women’s journeys into data science was so different, some of their challenges were common to women in the workplace; the struggle of balancing family life, finding the field that brings you joy, and the value of finding mentors and support. 

The WiDS mantra is to inspire (more women to join the field), educate (participants regardless of gender), and support (women in the field). And that’s what WiDS Oxford aims to provide going forward. Attendees were invited to stay at the event to help shape the future direction of the network which will include an annual research showcase, networking events and careers talks. The next event will be a datathon and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the results of the collective mind of Oxford’s Women in Data Science.  

Tune in to see a recording of the WiDS Oxford launch event.

Sign up to join WiDS Oxford: wids-oxford@ndorms.ox.ac.uk 

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