As with all campus units, the pandemic led to a busy and interesting past year at the DataLab. Despite the transition to a remote work environment, we still accomplished a great deal. Since last summer DataLab has offered over 20 virtual workshops on a variety of data science skills and topics, and reached learners from over 80 departments. We’ve collaborated with partners from across the university on dozens of data-driven research projects, including several relating to COVID-19, and continued to work on two externally funded research projects. Our weekly drop-in office hours have continued via Zoom. The Research and Learning Clusters, including Spatial Sciences, Hack4CA, Data Feminism, and the Davis R-Users Group, have continued to engage together while remaining physically apart. And, while working entirely remotely, we founded a new interdisciplinary cluster at UC Davis Health focused on applications of data science in medicine.

DataLab has also continued to evolve and grow as an organization, adding several new staff data scientists to our team, including an expert in data visualization that is expanding our ability to foster research innovation and collaboration through the use of virtual reality environments.  Additionally, we welcomed three new Faculty Directors:  Professor of Veterinary Medicine Titus Brown (Director of Community Initiatives), Professor of Computer Science Vladimir Filkov (Director of Translational Data Science), and Professor of Statistics Bala Rajaratnam (Scientific Director). We launched our new Advisory Board consisting of faculty from STEM, the social sciences and humanities, reflecting DataLab’s broad reach across UC Davis and UC Davis Health.  

This quarter we’re kicking off our next round of competitive “Start-Up” collaborations, which provide high engagement support to faculty tackling data-driven research questions. These projects will involve techniques from natural language processing to image classification and 3-D visualization, and engage teams from the social, physical, and health sciences. This round of Start-Ups is particularly exciting because we’re integrating our research support with our training mission to provide more experiential learning opportunities. During this past winter quarter we offered an Integrated Studies Course (IST08x) through the Office of Undergraduate Education to train honors students in the Social Sciences and Humanities in fundamental data science skills. This spring, students who completed that first quarter are embedded into the Start-Up projects with the DataLab staff, giving them the opportunity to apply their newly acquired knowledge in a real world research setting and contribute to novel research. We’re excited to see where these projects take us and the students as they begin to build their project portfolio and prepare for today’s data-driven workforce.

Unique Learners636
Winter 2020 Workshop Attendance

As we’ve navigated these and many other activities – from our first wholly remote hackathon to weekly online team office hours – during the pandemic, we’ve kept a close eye on both the costs and benefits of virtual engagement.  We’ve all certainly felt the loss of not being able to meet in person with our colleagues and students.  But, we’ve also learned that many of our training and research activities are more efficient, scalable, and equitable when conducted virtually.  For example, in winter quarter alone we were able to serve 905 registered participants (636 unique learners) across 11 workshops. This is more learners than we typically can serve given the physical constraints of our classroom, and has enabled participation of a greater diversity of learners including those residing at remote field locations and from across the UCs. This has come at a cost as remote instruction has also affected the data science topics we have been able to offer, and how we teach them. Our pedagogy, which is focused around hands-on learning, requires more resources to conduct virtually and has to be adapted for some topics. While we look forward to returning to campus, we anticipate that virtual offerings of some activities will become a regular part of our training program and research services.

While I am proud of what the DataLab team was able to accomplish under the difficult and dynamic circumstances presented by the pandemic, I am most proud of HOW they were able to accomplish it.  As a team, we made a point to hold “Virtual Stand-Ups,” led by DataLab’s Associate Director Pamela L. Reynolds, almost every weekday during the pandemic.  We continued to meet with our research partners and students weekly, adapting to and accommodating new workflows and needs imposed by the pandemic. These engagements, and our frequent Slack conversations, cut through the isolation of COVID-19, allowing us to maintain a true sense of esprit de corps. In fact, we onboarded four new employees (postdoc Tyler Shoemaker, data specialist Naomi Kalman, data scientist Nick Ulle, visualization specialist Oliver Kreylos) during the pandemic, all of whom became fully integrated members of the team despite the fact that they have never met the full team in person! In some ways this time apart has drawn us closer to one another. This is a testament to how we work at UC Davis, the commitment that all of the DataLab team has to supporting our community, and a reflection of the fact that we love what we do. 

As we look towards summer and the upcoming new academic year, the possibility of once again meeting in person is on the horizon and we look forward to this transition. We’ve been pushed to grow and develop our ability to engage with the entire community, no matter where they are. We will carry these lessons forward and integrate them into our ongoing efforts to make data science accessible and inclusive for everyone. I look forward to an engaging spring quarter and seeing you – virtually or otherwise – again soon.

~ Carl Stahmer, DataLab Executive Director