Feb. 27, 2019

Women lead the way at global data science conference

Cumming School of Medicine to host internationally renowned conference with Stanford University
Attendees at the 2018 Women in Data Science Conference at Stanford University. Photo by Ved Chirayath
Attendees at the 2018 Women in Data Science Conference at Stanford University. Photo by Ved Chirayat

It’s the biggest data science conference in the world — and it centres entirely around the work being done by women in the field.

In numbers provided by the California university, in 2018 Stanford’s Women in Data Science (WiDS) Conference drew more than 100,000 participants through 150 regional events in countries around the world. This year, the conference is coming to the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). 

Co-hosted by the CSM’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the new Centre for Health Informatics, the March 4 event at the University of Calgary Foothills campus will showcase the latest in data science-related research being done by women — work that conference Chair Dr. Cathy Eastwood, PhD, hopes will inspire more women into this fast-paced, rapidly expanding field.

“Women are more likely to pursue data science — a lucrative and in-demand career — if they are exposed to female role models and mentors in the field,” says Eastwood, operations manager for the Centre for Health Informatics, affiliate of the O’Brien Institute and member of the CSM’s Libin Cardiovascular Institute.

And female role models is something WiDS has in abundance. 

Conference speakers 

Keynote speaker Dr. Lisa Lix, PhD, a leader in data-science related research and training, will talk about her experiences in Manitoba helping build a data science group and establish research collaborations — an area where women can offer great value, she says.

“We need a greater number of both men and women who are skilled in working with complex data. However, I am keen to mentor more women in this area because I strongly believe that women are great at collaborating across disciplines,” says Lix, director of Manitoba’s Data Science Unit Platform in the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovations.

As for why women are underrepresented in the field of data science (a recent article in Forbes notes that women hold only 26 per cent of data jobs in the United States), keynote Jacqueline Harris, has some insight.

“I think entering male-dominated fields is always a challenge for women. It’s difficult to be the odd one out,” says Harris, a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Alberta and AI student ambassador with Intel.

“It will take time to see a real change — but as more women move into this field it will be easier and more natural for young women to see themselves doing the same.”

Keynote speakers for the 2019 Women in Data Science Cumming School of Medicine Conference are: Rena Tabata (top), Dr. Lisa Lix, PhD, (bottom left), Jacqueline Harris (bottom right).

Rena Tabata (top), Dr. Lisa Lix, PhD, (bottom left), Jacqueline Harris (bottom right).

Harris, who will discuss how AI and machine learning can be used to improve patient care in psychiatry, says there are a number of great initiatives supporting girls and women with interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Cybermentor, for example, pairs young women with mentors and Canada Learning Code provides low cost programs that teach coding — with many courses designed for women and girls.

The third keynote at the conference will be Rena Tabata, CEO and founder of ShareSmart – an app that enables healthcare professionals to use their own smartphones to take clinical photos and discuss patient cases with colleagues securely.

This is the first year WiDS is coming to the CSM, but not a first for the conference at the University of Calgary. On March 4, Schulich School of Engineering will also host a WiDS satellite event.

"We are thrilled to be hosting this event for the third time,” says Dr. Qiao Sun, PhD, Schulich Associate Dean, Diversity and Equity.

“It gives us a platform to showcase the great work female researchers and students do, and their achievements in data science. It also gives us the opportunity to connect local industry with talent at the University of Calgary."

About the conference

WiDS aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide, regardless of gender, while showcasing and supporting women in the field. While all of the speakers at the conference will be women, men are invited and encouraged to attend.

The Cumming School of Medicine’s O'Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary supports excellence in population health and health services research, while realizing the benefits of such research by using that knowledge to inform community, policy and health practice stakeholders. The Institute's membership includes more than 500 multidisciplinary researchers from 13 Cumming School of Medicine departments, nine additional University of Calgary faculties, including Nursing, Veterinary Medicine, Kinesiology and Arts; health professionals in Alberta Health Services; and, research users and policy makers from municipal and provincial institutions. As an Institute, we share a vision of "better health and health care," reflecting our two priority research areas of Improved Population Health and Enhanced Health Systems Performance.