“Open for All” as a Vision for the Open Science SIG: An Interview with Kirstie Whitaker
By Elizabeth DuPre
The Open Science Special Interest Group (SIG) is a relatively new organization within OHBM; however, it is responsible for several increasingly popular community initiatives including the hackathon and the open science room. As the Open Science SIG assumes new leadership this month, I sat down with the incoming chair, Kirstie Whitaker, to hear about her hopes for the upcoming year.
Elizabeth DuPre (ED): Today I’m here with Kirstie Whitaker, Chair of the OHBM Open Science SIG. Kirstie, can you first tell us about yourself?
Kirstie Whitaker (KW): I’m a research fellow at the Alan Turing Institute – the UK’s national research institute for data science and artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of research going on there, but one of the projects I work on is trying to incentivise reproducible research across all of data science. I’m a neuroscientist by training, and I did my PhD in UC Berkeley, followed by a postdoc in Cambridge at the department of Psychiatry. I then had a one year fellowship with the Mozilla Science Lab before I transitioned to working in the Turing Institute.
ED: It sounds like you’ve seen many aspects of neuroscience and data science, both in academia as well as in industry through your fellowship with Mozilla. Those can all lend very different perspectives on the thing we’re both passionate about: open science. Can you tell us your thoughts about open science following from those experiences?
KW: Open science, as you’ve said, can mean different things to different people. You can imagine our friends in the library sciences are extremely passionate about open access. We should all be passionate about open access and being able to read our colleague’s work. There’s also a lot of work going on at OHBM using open data. That’s making science more efficient and allowing us to answer more interesting questions with different types of techniques – by harnessing different peoples’ data and sharing that with our colleagues.
There’s another aspect which is pretty prominent in neuroscience, with huge influence around the world, which is open source code. I write some analyses and importantly I allow other people to use it – so in that sense it’s similar to open data – but they’re also able to see it and interrogate it. So instead of building a black box we’re building tools that you can look inside.
There’s also an additional angle of making sure that science is open to all people. This includes citizen science – and one of our hackathon organisers this year is Anisha Keshavan, who’s one of the coolest and most exciting citizen science people that I’ve ever worked with – which means breaking out of the ivory tower, and allowing everyone who’s interested in helping us understand the brain to productively take part.
It also means making sure that there are scientific career paths for people with diverse experiences and opinions. That means we allow women to succeed as well as men. We ensure that people from different cultural backgrounds, different races, different countries who speak different languages, are all given a fair shot at expressing their goals, and completing the analyses that they want to do.
So for me, open science is just doing science, and doing science well. But my particular passion is to ensure we are being diverse and inclusive.
ED: Over this past year you’ve served as chair elect while I’ve been secretary elect – and we’ve gotten to see the leadership do some amazing things. Anisha was the co-organiser for our hackathon. And this was the first time that the hackathon has sold out – so it was really exciting to see all the enthusiasm that the open science events are generating. We also had Felix Hoffstaedter organizing the open science room at the annual meeting, where we even decided we needed a bigger space.
And of course our current chair Chris Gorgolewski and secretary Matteo Visconti di Oleggio Castello have done a great job about communicating to the community what we’re so excited about. Given all this, now that you’re taking over as chair where would you like to take the SIG?
KW: I know, it’s such a brilliant and terrible problem to have sold out the hackathon! The other person we should mention is Greg Kiar who co-organised the hackathon. He liaised with ethnographic researchers who specifically do research on hackathons to create a survey that asked attendees what they gained from the event, how they felt it accommodated more junior members, and importantly, how these events could be improved in the future. I’m so glad Greg conducted that survey - before we closed out the room on Saturday we all had 30 minutes to fill in our survey and answer our questions - and we’ll see the fruits of that survey in next year’s hackathon. He gave a brief overview and one of the biggest themes was people being so excited and grateful that there were so many skills available – and that there were so many different levels of people that were there.
I think that the event selling out reflected that excitement. But selling out means we’ll have to confront some issues; in particular, we’re going to have to figure out if we want to keep the hackathon small and intimate or let everyone who wants to come attend. One of the big sells of a small event is that you can easily make some connections with individual people who can share their expertise with you or point you in the right direction. Once you get larger you effectively start building OHBM [laughs]. I mean, we’re the hackathon, we’re not trying to take over the entire conference, so we’ll have some interesting challenges about how we include everyone.
My goal is to think about culture change, and making sure we give credit to early career researchers that are doing excellent work that supports others. Historically, the incentive structure in academia has been to encourage very sharp elbows and making sure “To get to the top I’ve got to be number one. I’ve got to be uniquely better than everyone else.” One thing that really impressed me at this year’s OHBM conference was a presentation by JB Poline where he talked about the work that the community has brought together for a publishing platform where you don’t just publish traditional papers, but you might also publish code, data or tutorials. These are things that we all know are very useful, but that aren’t fully recognised. I’d love to see early career researchers get a bit more credit for that sort of thing.
I also think that the wider community should take back that spirit of the hackathon – the feeling in the open science room of these really helpful conversations and try and take that out into the OHBM community all year long. We have a Slack channel where you can get in touch with people, by pinging questions out. But I think it would be really interesting to see if we can solicit ideas from our community and actually get our members involved. It doesn’t have to be the SIG that puts on an event – it could be that we help our members make the connections (and we perhaps help out with a little funding).
One of the initiatives [Elizabeth] and I have been doing is the demo calls. There, we reach out to people and I sit on YouTube live and I ask people about their experiences with open source and their projects, and how others can get involved. Maybe those demo calls are useful and we can take them forward and keep them going. But maybe there are better ideas and that’s what I’d love to explore – how we can generate more ideas and bring them to light.
ED: I’m really excited to see where that goes. That leads into our recent round of elections…
KW: Yes! Traditionally there were just two members of the committee and they’ve done a lot of work. Thank you to the previous leadership of the OHBM hackathon and the Open Science Room and the brain hack and everything - all the people who have run so many of these initiatives. It was a lot of work! I was very happy that we created quite a few more positions to bring more people in that were passionate and wanted to help nurture the open science community. For example, this year we realised that we didn’t have a treasurer position, and keeping track of all this money and paying for these things was a lot of work, so we’re introducing a new role to cover this need.
We’ve talked about my vision and my passion for open science. But one of the things that is so fun, and frightening, about open science and diversity is that you have to eat your own dog food; that is, to practice what you preach. The success of open science in general and the SIG in particular relies on bringing in new people, new points of view, and I’m looking forward to it.
ED: Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing everything that happens and our new initiatives. Thanks so much!
After our conversation took place, we concluded the most recent round of elections. We’re now excited to announce the new leadership joining the Open Science SIG:
Greg Kiar - Treasurer
Camille Maumet - Chair elect
Ana Van Gulick - Secretary elect
Sara Kimmich - Treasurer elect
Roberto Toro and Katja Heuer - Hackathon co-chairs
Tim van Mourik - Open science room organizer
Cameron Craddock - Council liaison
Look for a follow-up post where we find out more about their pathways into open science!
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