The growing field of data science and analytics was at the center of the inaugural Women in Data Science Blacksburg Conference, held Feb. 11 on the Virginia Tech campus.

Hosted by the Virginia Tech College of Science and its Computational Modeling and Data Analytics Program (CMDA), the single-day event was part of the Global Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference, an initiative that began as a stand-alone event at Stanford University in November 2015. The conference has since grown to include more than 150 regional events happening in 50-plus countries. The conferences are designed to inspire current and aspiring women in data science to share their work and tell their stories. The marketing data and ratings firm Nielsen Holdings Inc. also sponsored the event.

At the conference, participants heard from women in industry, including Milinda Lakkam, a senior data scientist with LinkedIn, and academia, including Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science and a statistician by training with a long career in statistics data analytics. A career panel also was held.

“From the discussions I had with students, I think they really enjoyed the career panel,” said Eileen Martin, an assistant professor with the Department of Mathematics and CMDA, both part of the College of Science, who spearheaded the local event. “A big part of that was seeing these four women at different stages in their careers and in different industries talk about their paths in data science. The panelists were all so passionate about their common interest in math, statistics, and computing and clearly wanted to encourage others to pursue those areas.”

In addition to Martin, the event was planned and coordinated by several undergraduate students, including Aimee Maurais, a senior double majoring in CMDA and mathematics; and Zorian Thornton, Hiba Malik, and Tara Amruthur, all seniors in CMDA.

“What inspired me from that night was seeing so many successful women in data science/statistics all from different backgrounds,” said Amruther, who is also majoring in psychology. “It was reassuring to see that there is a place for women in the data science industry. I also found it interesting how despite all being interested in a similar field, the way they applied it was incredibly different. Data science and statistics is a versatile field and seeing all these women utilize it in vastly different ways made me more excited about what I can do in the future.”

Added Malik, “The most outstanding part of the evening was seeing a variety of women from different backgrounds and cultures coming together to empower each other in the field of data science. It was refreshing to see a room full of women (and men) encouraging and supporting each other.”

Student participants came from the College of Science, the College of Engineering, and University Libraries. Martin added that she expects the event to grow as the field of data analytics and science expands. “More people are beginning to apply data science to new fields, and there's also some rebranding of software engineers, applied mathematicians, statisticians, computational scientists, who have worked in data science under other names for a long time,” Martin said of the industry.

With Virginia Tech’s commitment to the Innovation Campus in Northern Virginia and a partnership with Amazon, the growth of data science, especially in Virginia, will be transformative during the next five years with data ethics and privacy and using data science for physical sciences, Martin said.

Sally Morton talks data science
Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science, was one of the keynote speakers at the Women in Data Blacksburg event. She talked about her long career in data science, starting at RAND Corp.

“WiDS could serve as a useful point of contact for developing and strengthening relationships between the campuses,” Martin added. “Ideally, we'd find a way to support travel for a group of students and faculty from the Innovation Campus to come to Blacksburg each year for the WiDS event. This would be a great way for students and faculty on both campuses to build connections over shared interests and find out about relevant opportunities at either campus.”

Science Dean Sally C. Morton is excited for the field and data science studies at Virginia Tech

“The College of Science has for several years thrown our full support behind bringing more women into the sciences, because diversity makes science stronger,” said Morton, who also holds a professorship in the Department of Statistics. “In the college we do a breadth of science, fueled by data and focused on decisions. Data science is an essential part of our present and our future. This event was inspiring; it was a grassroots effort, a show of camaraderie, and evidence of momentum for women in data science.”

The audience at the Women in Data Blacksburg event listens to speakers

Women in Data audience
Audience members from across the university, both female and male, listen to speakers at the inaugural Women in Data Blacksburg Conference.