The most recent Software Carpentry workshop took place at the UA on Oct. 3 and 4.
The most recent Software Carpentry workshop took place at the UA on Oct. 3 and 4.

Computational Skills Key for Research

At UA-led workshops, researchers, students and educators across Arizona hone the skills needed to meld big data and scientific outcomes.
Oct. 15, 2015

To advance science today, researchers must not only be experts in their field, they must also be able to use computing to analyze, interpret and share data. Because most scientists were not formally trained in computational processes, they must learn the skills necessary to quickly, efficiently and reliably process data sets and analyses.

In answer to this need, the University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute and iPlant Collaborative have teamed up to host a series of Software Carpentry workshops, offering instruction to researchers, students and educators across Arizona that will help them to hone their computing skills. At the same time, the organizations are aiming to increase the number of trainers able to provide instruction in managing big data.

Uwe Hilgert, director of STEM training for BIO5 and iPlant, envisioned these workshops as an opportunity to "bring together already existing computational strengths and collaborations at the UA." Hilgert has seen how important it is that researchers be empowered with the ability to utilize big data to further scientific goals.

The first workshop, held in February, proved to be a huge success. The two-day session attracted more than 50 participants hailing from all three of Arizona’s public universities and a wide range of disciplines, including biosciences, management information systems, computer sciences, engineering, physics and statistics.

The most recent workshop was held at the UA on Oct. 3 and 4, with nearly twice as many registrants. Instructors included attendees of previous workshops from the UA’s School of Plant Sciences and iPlant. Cutting-edge software and infrastructure support for complex data sequencing and cloud computing developed by iPlant and University Information Technology Services are used extensively in the training.

"We want the attendees to walk away with a sense of how different software-related technologies can, and do, fit together," said Jonathan Strootman, an iPlant software developer and workshop instructor. "We can't teach them everything we know in two days, but we can remove enough of the mystery to help them get started."

Attendees were led through basic programming and data management skills, and they were trained to work with the software that will allow them to efficiently handle large data sets.

"This training has better positioned me to make full use of R-programming and the iPlant cloud to better manage my data, analyses and figures to deliver higher-impact science in tree-ring research," said workshop participant Paul Szejner of the UA’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Without the need to outsource, researchers are given more control over their work, the interpretation of their findings and how to better share this to maximize collaborative impact. These skills traditionally weren't needed for researchers. However, as science moves fully into the Digital Age, knowing how to handle data and computational analyses becomes imperative.

The Software Carpentry workshop also was supported by the Arizona Environmental Grid Infrastructure Service, a statewide Arizona initiative to provision the transition to informatics-intensive research programs, funded by a Regents’ Innovation Award to the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

Founded in 1998, Software Carpentry hosts brief, intensive workshops geared toward researchers in science, engineering, medicine and related fields, covering skills including program design, version control, testing and task automation.