On 24 November a new group for women in data science will launch at Oxford with its inaugural event. Josie Eade speaks to Sara Khalid, the WiDS Oxford ambassador and Maria Sanchez, WiDS Oxford advisor to hear about their journey to data science, their inspiration for forming the new group, and hopes for the future of women in data science.
WiDS Oxford is part of the Global Women in Science Network that started as a one-day conference at Stanford in November 2015. In just five years, WiDS has grown to a global movement that reaches over 100,000 people in more than 60 countries with a number of initiatives to inspire and educate data scientists regardless of gender.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your background?
SARA: Career choice comes easy to some but for me, all I knew was I did not want to be a doctor like all the other girls around me, so I chose electronics engineering for my undergraduate studies in Pakistan. I then moved to Oxford for an MSc in biomedical engineering and PhD in engineering (what we call a DPhil at Oxford) when I won a Rhodes scholarship. Soon though I realised I was actually interested in helping to improve people’s health, so I moved into health informatics. I'm now a Senior Research Associate in Biomedical Data Science.
I am an only sister to three brothers and so I grew up on quite an equal footing with boys and men. Anything they could do, I could too, and (as I was always reminded by my Father) better!
MARIA: My degree was in statistics, and in my last year of study I decided to be a medical statistician.
I loved it, and I wanted to go further so I did a Masters in epidemiology and one in statistics.
I started my research career in my home country, in Spain, but came to the UK to work on a collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I joined NDORMS as a medical statistician and epidemiologist in 2013 and am now working on a large representative population-based study of elderly people, focusing mainly on risk factors for poor health outcomes, such as frailty or mobility decline.
Q What is data science and who is it for?
SARA: Although the term data science is relatively new for many, the field of data science has long been in the making.
In the 70s, 80s and 90s there used to be data analysts, statisticians, and computer scientists. And now data science has become an umbrella term for pretty much anybody who is working with data i.e. applying models to it to derive knowledge, be that in STEM, social sciences, even arts and beyond!
There are two things that brought this about. One is the data explosion, which is something that happened in the late 90s and early 2000s with the digitisation of data. At around the same time, after what is sometimes called the AI winter, there were rapid advances in scientific methods for analysis of large volumes of complex data, broadly speaking machine learning. The two things happened approximately in tandem, and the field of data science was formed.
MARIA: I don’t think I ever thought “I want to be a data scientist”, but I want to use data to help people to make better decisions for good and know who will benefit most from those decisions. And so that makes me a data scientist.
Q. What is WiDS Oxford and what inspired you to start the group?
SARA: I became aware of a global network of Women in Data Science which is quite active around the world but had no link yet with Oxford. It made me realise that there are so many women doing amazing research in Oxford, we should definitely share our work with the global community and learn from them, with the aim to inspire, educate (all regardless of gender) and support women in the field. And so WiDS-Oxford came about.
MARIA: We want to be able to excite women who maybe don’t classify themselves as data scientists, to join and be part of it.
Q. What are your goals for the Oxford group?
SARA: Our hope is that the Oxford group will grow into a community that celebrates women in data science and STEM and inspires more to join the field. Through WiDS-Oxford, researchers will hopefully form new connections and collaborate with each other on research using data science across disciplines and divisions at the University.
All upcoming events, such as research showcase days and datathons will be open for all to participate in. One principle, however, is that the stage is given to women talking about their own work. And I think that is an important point because historically women's voices have been lost and women's contribution to science has not been recognised as it should.
When you become a member of WiDS Oxford, you also become a part of the global WiDS network. For example, in March, there's going to be the annual worldwide WiDS conference. So, anybody who's signed up to WiDS Oxford can register and be involved in the global network.
MARIA: WiDS Oxford is very young. Everyone is welcome to join the group, contribute ideas and energy, so that together we can take this group forward.
Q. What are your hopes for women in data science in the future?
MARIA: We all know of the underrepresentation of women and the gender gap in data science. So, one of our hopes is that in the future our community can help to create a gender balance, helping and inspiring women to study or work in data science if they wish to. We don’t want to force anyone into data science, we simply want them to know: I can do it.
SARA: I agree with Maria on that entirely. Recognition of barriers, gaps, and glass ceilings has already happened. Now it’s about helping women navigate these and about moving the narrative forward. So, when women choose one way or the other, it is not because “well I’m not going to get paid as well as my male peer”, or, “I’m not good enough to get to the top”, or, “someday I’ll have a family.” It’s because you can, and the support and opportunities are there.
The future of WiDS Oxford is bright. Please join us on the 24 of November to mark the beginning, get inspired, and get involved.