Sharing WISDOM at the Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference

Kimberly F. Sellers, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Georgetown University

The 2017 Women in Statistics and Data Science (WSDS) conference occurred on October 19-21, 2017 in La Jolla, California, bringing together women statisticians from industry, academia, and government. WSDS is a unique, three-day conference that features plenary talks from leaders in their respective fields, as well as short courses and concurrent sessions addressing a variety of issues ranging from technical topics and cutting-edge research to social discussions regarding career development and other issues in the statistics community.

WSDS 2017 was the third conference of its kind; this year’s conference held 420 participants. Susmita Datta (University of Florida), Jeri Mulrow (Bureau of Justice Statistics), and Bonnie Ray (Talkspace) served as plenary speakers while Donna Brogan (Professor Emerita, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University) was the conference keynote speaker. What was most interesting with each of their talks was the commonality in their experiences — each spoke about their “winding road” through their respective careers; each spoke frankly and openly about the adversity they faced in life and/or through their career because of their gender, and how they addressed or overcame it; and each offered advice to attendees, young and old, on how to navigate through life in this field and advance in one’s career path.

Technical talks spanned across a diverse array of topics in statistics and data science. Representatives from AT&T Labs spoke on harnessing data streams to gain knowledge through statistical models, and applying machine learning methods to develop “intelligent digital care” thus improving customer service for businesses. Statisticians from The Climate Corporation meanwhile discussed various issues surrounding methodology and implications in working with “digital agriculture” to aid farmers in making key decisions that could impact their crop yields. The conference also featured four speed sessions where speakers could summarize their respective research topics and results in an “elevator pitch”, thus promoting their work that would later be featured in a subsequent poster session during the conference. All of the speed and poster sessions were particularly well attended.

A unique attribute of this conference is that it provides opportunities for speakers, panelists, and audience members to have open and frank discussions about topics not usually discussed at “traditional” research conferences. Some sessions discussed social issues impacting women in the discipline, including the imposter syndrome, the continued need for better gender diversity, and intersectional feminism. Other concurrent sessions discussed and offered tips for mentoring and networking, paths to leadership, and career development. The panel session, “Call Her Madam President: A Discussion with Women Leaders in the Statistics Community”, for example, provided an opportunity for audience members to engage with women statisticians and data scientists that each currently serve as president of a corporation or organization. Scarlett Bellamy (President, Eastern North American Region (ENAR) of the International Biometric Society), Anne Lindblad (President of The Emmes Corporation), and Nalini Ravishanker (President, ISBIS) served as session panelists. Each of the speakers discussed their respective leadership paths, and encouraged audience members to get involved and engaged within the field as there are numerous opportunities to contribute and advance the discipline and larger statistics community.

For the first time, the WSDS conference included a data hackathon where teams spent the weekend analyzing human trafficking data. Sponsored by Microsoft, the final conference session hosted six teams that presented their research findings and analyses which included some impressive and interesting preliminary results and thoughts for future work. I predict that this feature of the conference will quickly grow in interest and participation at future WSDS conferences!

Audience feedback regarding WSDS is consistently positive! Attendees describe WSDS as a community of strong, intellectual women of and for all ages that is an empowering opportunity for women to realize their full potential. This year’s conference housed 420 participants in a conference that continues to grow with each future occurrence. Many attendees look forward to attending subsequent WSDS conferences to reconnect with friends and networks established at a previous WSDS meetings, while others learn of the positive reviews associated with this conference and want to gain this experience for themselves. This conference is particularly popular for young attendees as it serves as a great opportunity to present their research and learn about other works in the field, while also finding opportunities for supplemental mentorship and career advice. Even while the conference continues to grow in size, the atmosphere remains intimate and comforting so that women can talk freely and openly about sensitive issues and experiences that they may face in the larger society. As suggested by this year’s conference theme, the WSDS conference is truly an opportunity to “Share WISDOM” because, as I stated in the conference opener, “it is who we are, and what we do”; WISDOM was an acronym for “Women In Statistics, Data science, and –OMics”.

As the 2017-2018 chairperson of the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Women in Statistics, I’m honored to serve on the steering committee for the WSDS conference, and I’m touched by the impact that it makes on the lives of so many statisticians and data scientists! Want to experience a WSDS conference for yourself? Mark your calendars for October 2018, and be on the lookout for information on next year’s WSDS conference!


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