Voices of Data Science at UMass Amherst
On February 19, a team from the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) at UMass Amherst hosted the Voices of Data Science 2021 conference. This year's event aimed to amplify the voices of data scientists from underrepresented communities, specifically women and non-binary people. An engaging virtual experience, the conference included talks over the course of two days from esteemed data scientists, diverse panels, a student work showcase, and opportunities to network with peers and professionals.
Dean of UMass CICS Laura Haas gave the official welcome on the first day:
“We believe that computing and data science are for everyone. You don’t have to be a geek or a nerd. You don’t have to be a genius...basic data literacy is increasingly important to understand the world we live in and to shape it. We need the people who create our algorithms and systems, and who use them, to reflect the population at large so that it serves all of our needs and not just those of the predominantly white, predominantly male, predominantly upper middle class who today dominate the field. That is why this conference is important,” she said.
Talk with Amy McGovern
The first speaker of the event was Professor Amy McGovern of the University of Oklahoma. Having earned her Ph.D. from UMass Amherst in 2002, Amy is now the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate, and Coastal Oceanography. She makes it a point to note that she is the only woman director of the seven NSF AI Institutes that were recently funded.
Amy’s team uses artificial intelligence (AI) to predict convection hazards, major rainfall events, coastal fog and cold stunnings. The overall goal is to improve climate resiliency. In her talk, she stressed the need to care about the social impacts of one’s work — especially since different end users have different needs. Weather forecasters, emergency managers, schools, businesse,s and the general public are all going to have to make their own critical protective decisions in times of severe weather. It’s in those critical moments that trust is very important. Amy has risk communication researchers on her team to assess the perceptions and trustworthiness of the AI.
I found it fascinating to learn about the interdisciplinary elements of Amy’s work. It wasn’t just computer science, but environmental and social sciences were involved as well. It really echoed the theme of the event—that data science is for everyone.
When an audience member asked about her career journey, Amy cited her commitment to making a difference: “The weather was a huge hook because I could use my machine learning and AI to save lives.” Though she appreciates the work of data scientists who prove theorems, she personally wanted to take on the route of real life applications that can help the masses.
That same motif of interdisciplinary work carried over onto this segment of the event, for these panelists attributed a lot of their success to social scientists.
“The most important skills for this kind of work aren’t really technical at all,” claimed Su Lin. “In fact, the framework we’re drawing on comes from the social sciences… A lot of my work is fundamentally about technology and society.”
To add on, Laure added: “A lot of this work connects with humanists and social scientists. None of this is exclusionary because so many people use these methods in their spaces whether or not they want to call themselves a scholar or even a data scientist…Really this view of gatekeeping should not be at play here because so many people are using data science in so much of their daily work.”
Inclusivity and Accessibility
It was so interesting to hear the different ways that the speakers work to expand the reach of data science to underrepresented communities.
Amy McGovern, for instance, is affiliated with Del Mar College—a community college in Corpus Christi, Texas that primarily serves the Hispanic population. Del Mar is working to prototype a data science certificate with the hopes of making it a nationwide program one day. Students are required to take 14 hours of AI classes to earn a certificate, which they can then use to get a job after graduation or transfer to a four-year university.
Su Lin Blodgett’s focus is on natural language processing. As such, she has worked on broadening dependency parsing, the process of analyzing the grammatical structure of a sentence, to include Black Vernacular English.
To make the event itself more accessible to audience members, American sign language interpreters were stationed at each talk and panel discussion.
Hear from the Organizers
Q: What is your role for the team? How has it been working with such a diverse group of women?
Neelima Jyothiraj, Class of 2023: I am a member of the Speakers and Sponsors committee within Voices of Data Science. We are responsible for identifying the best possible speakers and panelists for our conference, reaching out to these candidates, and trying to accommodate any needs they may have in regards to our conference.
Cecilia Ferrando, Co-Chair: Working with this team has been a truly enriching experience for me. We are a group of CICS women students at all levels, from undergraduates to Ph.D. students. Everyone on the team is incredibly motivated and committed. Over the course of our many meetings, I've enjoyed getting to know each of my teammates better, their different expertise and strengths. The diversity of perspectives in the team has been crucial to our meetings and discussions; at the same time, it's really the shared passion for data science for the common good that has pushed us forward and given shape to our program for the event.
Q: Can you talk about your experience with UMass CICS?
NJ: My favorite part about CICS is the community! When I was considering where to attend college, I found the atmosphere and the people of CICS to be like no other. Everyone is highly motivated, and it really makes you be the best version of yourself.
CF: What makes CICS unique is not only its excellence in computer and information sciences, but everyone's commitment to building an inclusive, diverse and supportive environment as a college. As a Ph.D. student, I'm fortunate to work with incredibly smart, passionate, kind people across the board, from my advisor to my labmates to collaborators on the committees I'm part of. I've also had the chance to contribute to the college by joining groups and committees that share my values.
Q: What would be your best career or life advice for anyone going into the data science field?
NJ: Recognize that imposter syndrome is a very valid feeling that many students experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or stand out, because the more you push yourself to act like you belong there, the more you will start to believe that you do.
CF: Ask yourself what excites you, what problems you want to contribute to solving, and why it is important to you. Be ready to work hard, and to fail sometimes—that's part of the process, but the good news is persistence pays off! Talk to people, share your ideas, and contribute to the community around you.