As Virginia Tech shifts its academics online during the coronavirus pandemic, organizers of spring events are faced with a tough decision whether to cancel, postpone, or go virtual.

That’s the conundrum that faced Department of Mathematics faculty member Eileen Martin and a team of undergraduate students and recent alumni in recent weeks as they pondered the fate of the second Women in Data Science (WiDS) Blacksburg at Virginia Tech Conference, scheduled for April 2.

“For all of us on the organizing committee, things are changing quite rapidly,” said Martin, an assistant professor. “It would have been easy to call it off and invite speakers back next year, but if you look at what’s happening with students, especially those graduating this year, it seemed like it [going online] would be worth it.”

Adapting the original conference — which included big-name presentations, small-group breakout sessions, and a student-led poster display of data science projects — required nimbleness, a willingness to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and no small amount of teamwork.

But for Martin and the WiDS event committee, that was a small tradeoff to carry on with an event that has the potential to boost the career prospects for a wave of students preparing to enter a job market that’s reeling from effects of the pandemic and widespread social distancing.

Before the conference went online, Iulia Voina, a junior double-majoring in statistics and mathematics, had attended conference committee meetings, contributed ideas on nearly all aspects of planning, and served as primary point of contact to leaders of the planned tutorials. She was going to be the moderator of a career panel and lead a dinner discussion on how to obtain an internship, but both events were cut from the online version.

“Overall, I think we've been really good at adjusting to these changes and have made the most out of the parts we could keep,” Voina said. “Eileen was very quick to act. As soon as the university announced that all large events must be cancelled, she emailed everyone on the committee so we could have a meeting on it. We discussed the changes we would have to make to turn this into an online event. After we had decided which parts we could keep, we contacted our planned speakers and notified them of the changes. Additionally, we had to plan out new advertising tactics, as we had been planning on advertising mainly through posters around the Blacksburg campus.”

The Women in Data Science Blacksburg Conference, even in its stripped-down online format, stands as a valuable experience for students to hear first-hand about what data science careers look like in private industry, the nonprofit sector, and government.

“Staying home is the easiest way to serve others, so it was an easy decision to move the conference online while still inspiring young data scientists in a new and exciting field,” said Allison Woods, a sophomore in computational modeling and data analytics.

With the pandemic, “there aren’t going to be a lot of the usual kinds of career services events that people would normally have,” Martin said. “We’re trying to give students opportunities to get a leg up and to be competitive in the job market.”

As a graduate student at Stanford University, Martin benefited from engaging with Women in Data Science, a Stanford-grown initiative to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide, regardless of gender, and to support women in the field.

Soon after Martin arrived at Virginia Tech in 2018 as an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics, she helped established the Women in Data Science Blacksburg chapter. It held its inaugural Women in Data Science  Blacksburg Conference in February 2019.

When the coronavirus pandemic put an end to group gatherings, the future of the 2020 conference was thrown into doubt.

“We were hoping to scale up this year,” Martin said. “We had almost everything set up. We had our website set up and speakers all lined up. Then, a couple of days before the university decided to move classes online, we started thinking maybe we shouldn’t have the event in person. At that point, we were only a few weeks out. We had to hustle to figure out which parts we were going to be able to keep and what we had to scrap.”

These decisions were made by an event committee that included Martin, roughly a dozen undergraduate students, and a recent alumna who had worked on the 2019 event as a student. The committee worked as a team, lining up a new keynote speaker and reshaping the event for an online format. That process involved hard decisions, such as to eliminate a panel discussion, the use of small breakout groups, and the display of student’s project posters showcasing their work on data-related topics.

“We did calls a little more than once a week to figure out which parts we could save,” Martin said. “It was hard to replicate some parts of the program we were excited about, because they were more interactive. We did keep the keynote talk and longer tutorial talks, which will focus on how to learn a tool that could be useful in your own careers. Those parts we could replicate online.”

The WiDS committee eventually landed on a more streamlined format that will be confined to one evening. The schedule includes a keynote speech titled "To Do Your Best, Be Yourself,” to be delivered by Meera Parat, data scientist at Microsoft, and two tutorial talks: "Back to the Moon with the Help of Data Science," by Anne Driscoll, collegiate assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Statistics, and "Differential Privacy: What is it?” by Claire McKay Bowen, lead data scientist for privacy and security at the Urban Institute.

To register, visit the Women in Data Science Blacksburg Conference website.

For more information, resources, and answers to frequently asked questions about Virginia Tech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, visit the university’s dedicated COVID-19 page.

— Written by Mason Adams