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Use of R for Meta-Research in Zürich

By June 14, 2023Blog

The R Consortium recently talked to Rachel Heyard of the Zürich R User Group to discuss the vibrant R community in Zürich. The group collaborates with different companies in Zürich to host events, providing network opportunities for the R community.

Rachel currently works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Center of Reproducible Science at the University of Zürich. She uses R for her work and for teaching in her course on good research practices. 

Please share about your background and involvement with the RUGS group.

I received my Masters in Statistics from the University of Strasbourg, France, and my Ph.D. in Biostatistics at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. I started using R during my Masters for different projects and assignments. During my Ph.D. I became more proficient in it and also wrote my first packages. After my Ph.D., I left academia and worked for the Swiss National Science Foundation in Bern as a statistician. 

I used R to analyze data on how the Swiss National Science Foundation is distributing funding to research projects and got to also do some research but this time research on research. I got very interested in what we call meta-science and decided to go back to academia. I have been working on my postdoc since October 2021 a postdoc at the Center for Reproducible Science at the University of Zürich. I do a lot of teaching: I am teaching good research practices to Ph.D. students and postdocs from different disciplines.

I joined the R User Group organizing committee at the end of my Ph.D. We were very regular before Covid and had meetings every six weeks to two months. Different companies hosted our events, and we had nice aperos that were sponsored. We got a little stuck during Covid and decided against hosting online events. We felt that there were a lot of online events happening and we couldn’t add much to it. Our meetups are more about the networking and community aspect and less about the talks. We also have this setup where people can pitch a job or people who are looking for a job could pitch themselves. It really brings people together at the apero. We felt that this community aspect would be missing in online meetups. 

After things settled down a bit, we tried organizing a few meetups, but we struggled to gain momentum in the team. However,  now we have planned three sponsored events for this year. One in July, one in September, and one in November. We are hopeful that it will work out and we will gain momentum again with the meetups. 

Can you share what the R community is like in Zürich?

It is actually very diverse, and we have a lot of people from different domains. There are many from academia as we have two big universities in Zürich, the University of Zürich and ETH.  Data journalists are attending, as well as people from re-insurance, official statistics, pharma, and other fields. 

What industry are you currently in? How do you use R in your work?

I currently work in academia and I teach a block course on Good Research Practices. We teach the steps of good and reproducible research including starting with a study protocol and then registering this study protocol. We also teach them all kinds of steps to avoid questionable research practices like p-hacking. 

Part of this course is two hours on dynamic reporting with R as well as another hour on how to use Git for version control. The course is very interesting because participants are early career researchers doing their Ph.D. or postdoc. They all come from very different fields and some already have some experience in R while others are using it for the first time. So you never know what’s gonna happen in the course. Sometimes it is easier to teach the course because the participants are familiar with R. Other times it’s really difficult because they are all coming from different backgrounds and some have never used R before. So you have to be very dynamic in teaching and adapt to the level of the participants. The goal is not to make people who’ve never used R or R Markdown before proficient in R. It is to have them experience it once and see the benefit. Maybe get them interested in it, hoping that they use it in the future or learn more about it. 

What trends do you currently see in R language and your industry? Any trends you see developing in the near future?

I need to follow the latest trends more often. For example, I am still teaching R Markdown but we have been thinking about switching to Quarto. That might be a big development because some of our participants are Python users. So for them, it might be good to use Quarto because it’s easier to use with Python. 

When I did my Ph.D. I was a base R user and at the university, people are still using a lot of base R. When I left academia to join the Swiss National Science Foundation, I started using tidyverse and also got proficient in it. It is so much easier to handle messy data and do data processing with tidyverse. 

Now that I am teaching R, I also teach tidyverse. For people who are not statisticians like me and have to do a lot of data handling, tidyverse is much easier to get into as compared to base R. That’s not very recent anymore but for me, it’s one of the biggest changes I saw for my personal work. 

Any techniques you recommend using for planning for or during the event? (Github, zoom, other) Can these techniques be used to make your group more inclusive to people that are unable to attend physical events in the future? 

I think Slack is a really great tool for organizers. It’s an asynchronous conversation that you can always go back to. We also collect ideas for speakers in a Google doc. Whenever we talk to somebody who could be interested in giving a talk, we quickly write down their name and contact details. So whenever we need a speakers we go back to this document. 

I also feel that it is very productive for the organizers to meet in person and have a drink or coffee together and discuss. Because it feels more urgent and is great for discussing future meetups. While Slack is great at times we might forget about conversations when we get busy. 

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 accounts are awarded based on the intended use of the funds and the amount of money available to distribute. We are now accepting applications!