The R Consortium caught up with Michael Schulte-Mecklenbeck of the BernR User Group to talk about the challenges of organizing an R User Group during the pandemic. The group has focused many of its meetings on introductory level R topics. Michael discussed the challenges of maintaining the frequency of the meetings as they shifted events online. He also shared his hope of bouncing back with in-person meetups next year.
Michael finished his Master’s and Ph.D. in Psychology and currently works as an Associate Professor at the University of Bern.
How did you get introduced to R?
I am a Psychologist by training and have been working mainly in academia but also in industry. For the past 15 years, I have been using R for research and training. I teach R courses at the university and through the Advanced Studies Program at the University of Basel together with Dirk Wulff – a course series called The R Bootcamp. We started the BernR User Group several years ago, and it grew really quickly. Once we hit the number of members required for a professional meetup account, I learned about the support we could get from the R Consortium and applied. So we set up a professional Meetup account with the R Consortium’s support. Thanks for that!
What is the R community like in Switzerland?
R is being used extensively in the Pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland, but most of these groups are based in Basel. Here in Bern, the use of R is mostly in academia and administration. In universities, many departments use R, but we also had people from finance and medicine, so there are additional interesting use cases outside of academia.
How has COVID affected your ability to connect with members?
Before COVID, we were a small group, with events hosted regularly. We met once a month and around 10-15 people attended these in-person meetings. Everybody involved liked it because it was a pleasant group to participate in with a really welcoming atmosphere. In our group, we prefer to talk about basic stuff as most of our members are beginners. It didn’t make sense to talk about super advanced stuff when there is a need for basics. So our talks were on topics like introduction to R or introduction to graphics using ggplot, wrangling data with dplyr, and using RMarkdown.
During COVID, we stopped the in-person meetings and sat out the first year. Then we started hosting online meetings, but the frequency declined a lot. So there was a big hit that was brought in by COVID in terms of how often we meet. We went down from eight times a year to maybe twice.
In the past year, did you have to change your techniques to connect and collaborate with members? For example, did you use GitHub, video conferencing, online discussion groups more? Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future?
For our online meetings, we are using Zoom. There are no online discussion forums that we use. We post the slides and code produced during our meetings to GitHub. We do not record or upload our session because we feel it hinders discussions. If a session is being recorded, people are less likely to speak up, especially newcomers. So I feel that not recording our sessions gives a bit more room for people to talk.
From my teaching experience, I know that hybrid events can be tricky and I don’t see a lot of benefit in hosting hybrid events when it comes to small groups. In the future, I might consider recording specialized talks for members to go back to.
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?
One of our organizers, Simon Schwab, did a really amazing talk titled “Introduction to R with the Standford heart transplant data”. He works in the medical area of transplantation medicine or transplantation research, so it’s really down his avenue. He’s an expert on these data sets and gave a detailed introduction to them at a very nice pace. It was a two-part talk series in which he covered loading data sets, displaying them, some summary stats, and then a bit more advanced regression.
What trends do you see in R language affecting your organization over the next year?
For my group and maybe our department, I think it is clearly reproducible science. Reproducible code is something that has a strong future. I have started using Quarto and trying to introduce it to my group for presentations and projects. This is where things should go at the end – fully reproducible science.
When is your next event? What are your plans for the group for the coming year? Please give details!
We are struggling at the moment to book a space for physical events. We are bound to host online events, and we agreed that there have been too many online meetings. So we really want to go back to in-person events. We are hopeful that we will get a room from the university next year to host our in-person events and start out again in January or February. I want to give a shoutout to Simon Schwab and Fabio Molo – they are the two in the ‘we’ I am talking about throughout the interview.
How do I Join?
R Consortium’s R User Group and Small Conference Support Program (RUGS) provides grants to help R groups around the world organize, share information and support each other. We have given grants over the past four years, encompassing over 65,000 members in 35 countries. We would like to include you! Cash grants and meetup.com accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!