R consortium talked to Emily Bellis and Asela Wijeratne, organizers of the A-State R User Group, about their campus R user group. They discussed the struggle of managing a new user group during the pandemic. They also stressed the need for a centralized R Certification program for R proficiency.
Emily Bellis is an Assistant Professor of bioinformatics at Arkansas State University. She works in Evolutionary Genomics, Spatial Ecology, and Machine Learning.
Asela Wijeratne is an Assistant Professor of bioinformatics at Arkansas State University. He is a Molecular Biologist in training and loves analyzing data. He also co-organized an R user group at the Ohio State University.
What is the R community like in Jonesboro?
Emily: I would say for now at least, it’s mostly centered on our campus community and many graduate students are active participants in our group. We have a few faculty members as well who take part and lead sessions. We also have some undergraduates who will attend here and there, but I think the core of it is a lot of our graduate students who are doing research projects and using R for their research. In the Meetup group, I see more people joining from the industry, but they are not very active in the group.
Asela: I would say it’s small compared to what I have seen in Ohio State. But I see a huge growth potential as well. A few people from our incubator programs who are running their own startups are also a part of our group. But it is a small number. Hopefully, we will engage more folks from the industry as well in the future.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
Asela: As a new group, it was really challenging for us. We only had one physical meeting before COVID. I feel online meetings do not have the same impact as physical ones. It has been difficult, but we hope to get back as things are getting better.
In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, videoconferencing, or online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive of people that cannot attend physical events in the future?
Emily: Mostly, we have been using Zoom for our virtual meetings. And then, we also have a Slack group, but it’s not as active as I hope it would be. We also ask our presenters to post their code and slides on their GitHub and we link to that on our website. We don’t have a central repository for our group, but we encourage our speakers to post on their own GitHub.
Asela: I don’t really like the idea of hybrid events, as it’s difficult to communicate with two different audiences. But it seems like hybrid events are more common these days. Personally, I prefer physical or virtual events, as it is easier that way. But we will see how it goes.
Can you tell us about one recent presentation or speaker that was especially interesting and what was the topic and why was it so interesting?
We actually really liked two of our recent presentations. One we really loved was Alix Matthews’ presentation about GGplot. It was really great, especially for our new users. And then we also liked Aaron Shew’s presentation as we learned a lot of new tips and tricks for working with spatial data.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
Emily: I am really appreciating what’s going on with reproducibility reports like rmarkdown. I integrate those into my teaching as well. So for one of my courses, everyone has to write their paper or their project report with rmarkdown. I have taught this course twice. From the first time I taught, there is much more support for making tables and citing references, etc. So it’s been really fun to see all the developments. I am also really excited about interoperability. I prefer to use Python for a few things and then a few things I prefer to do in R. In rmarkdown I love how things are becoming so smooth and integrated with the ability to inter-operate.
Asela: I think every field is becoming data-intensive now. Being able to analyze this data, in fact, is critical. Since I started using R 10 years ago, R has become really user-friendly. R Studio and all these other tools that Emily mentioned for reproducibility make it very convenient. It seems like even the syntax is getting easier. These are all positive developments, which make R more available to people with different backgrounds. R is really useful for data analysis as it allows one to analyze new data effectively and produce really nice visualizations. So I see a huge potential for growth as well.
Do you know of any data journalism efforts by your members? If not, are there particular data journalism projects that you’ve seen in the last year that you feel had a positive impact on society?
Asela: We do not know of any data journalism efforts in our group. But I like data journalism in general. If you ask me about something that affected society, it is this article published in the Guardian “Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis”. It’s about how we haven’t kept up with diversity in terms of our food production. So by breeding these crops, we have created these monocultures and with climate change, we are going into this crisis in the future. It has really nice visualizations, and I loved it. I don’t entirely agree with what they are saying, but in terms of data journalism, they have done a remarkable job.
Of the Funded Projects by the R Consortium, do you have a favorite project? Why is it your favorite?
Asela: Database interoperability for spatial objects in R seems interesting.
Of the Active Working Groups, which is your favorite? Why is it your favorite?
Asela: I like the idea of R Certification. But it seems it is for clinical trials only. It would be really nice to have a unified certification for R proficiency in other disciplines. It would be very useful as right now there are so many certifications but there’s no certain way to tell who has the skills.
When is your next event? Please give details!
We will definitely get back on track in the summer once the semester is over. We really want to get back to physical events and hopefully start some activities soon.
How do I Join?
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