My week at the CUNY Graduate Center Digital Research Institute (#GCDRI)

(written on June 10, 2016)

I have just had the best week in a long time (June 6-10, 2016) attending the CUNY Graduate Center Digital Research Institute, #GCDRI.  To put my statement into context, in preparation for my dissertation research, I have been attending a variety of excellent trainings at different institutions since the beginning of the Spring 2016 semester.  All of the trainings have been useful in one way or another, but the #GCDRI provided me with some critical knowledge and skills that I didn’t get elsewhere.  I can say without hesitation that the #GCDRI is the most comprehensive training I have attended in a very long time—and the only comprehensive training on digital research I have ever attended. The best part is that I didn’t have to leave town to participate.

Why this training matters

This training matters, and stands out to me for three reasons: people, practice, product.

People

I met SO MANY fun, interesting, and like-minded people at the #GCDRI.  First and foremost, the #GCDRI was led by Drs. Matthew Gold, Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Lisa Marie Rhody, Deputy Director of Digital Initiatives at the CUNY Graduate Center. About 60 graduate students, GC staff, alumni, and faculty from a whole range of disciplines were accepted to the training.  I was not able to meet them all, but made some really exciting connections and hopefully long-term collaborations/friendships with some attendees.  Many people here are one of the few, if not the only person in their department with an interest in digital research.  It can be a very lonely road in many ways. The #GCDRI is a great place to connect to people like you, whatever your situation.  I found out about people at Hunter College, where my lab is, with shared interests and feelings of isolation.  Now we are excited to stay in touch and support one another as part of a larger community we were introduced to at the #GCRI.

A lot of our workshops were led by the CUNY GC Digital Fellows.  I cannot say enough good things about each of them.  Not only are they all super talented, they are very approachable, and did such a great job sharing their knowledge with us and answering our questions.  I found out that the Digital Fellows have ongoing office hours, working groups, and trainings free and open to GC Students.  I was so impressed with the Digital Fellows that I half-jokingly tweeted about them.

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I met some important heads of GC programs, library staff, and colleagues of GC faculty/staff as well.  In summary, all the nerds you need to know to be a successful researcher were present and accessible at the #GCDRI.  The people were great!

Practice

A limitation of many trainings is that they are heavy on theory and light on practice.  The result is often people leave the training with short-lived excitement about ideas that are not bolstered by the confidence gained with guided practice.  The balance of training in both the introductory knowledge AND skill to engage in digital research permeated the #GCDRI sessions.

The tone was set first thing Monday morning with an “install-a-thon” session where #GCDRI staff and the Digital Fellows made sure we all had properly installed and working software for the week.  While our “install-a-thon” was happening we were each challenged to distill one research idea onto an 11 x17 inch sheet of paper in the most creative way possible; then present a 1-3 minute synopsis to as many fellow attendees as possible.  My idea involves adapting electrophysiology equipment and methods for flexible recordings out of a lab setting.  It is easy to get bogged down in technical details when talking about it—so at first I found the task quite challenging.  My confidence grew, however, as I began drawing out my idea.  Below is one panel describing the work of Dr. Stefan Debener and colleagues (2012) that serve as the foundation for my idea. It needs refinement but was a great way for me to practice talking about my research quickly with a large variety of people.  More details on my project here.

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The other workshops I attended were (see all workshops here):

Command line

Git/GitHub

Python

Time Series & Categorical Data

Databases

Machine Learning

Project Laboratory

Data Management Plans

Grant & Fellowship Tips

Most workshops included a generous amount of guided and independent practice time, some with challenges to reinforce what we learned.  We then ended the training with more practice presenting our research ideas and ideas for ongoing working groups to foster our collaborations and ideas.  This level of practice with such great people led to the extra valuable third reason this training matters so much: product.

Product

 The transition from a training, where attendees can shut out daily life—and the real world that is full of demands and the daily grind often interferes with immediate incorporation of new knowledge and skills into practice.  That is why I was so happy to leave the #GCDRI with some tangible product that I could put to use right away.  First, there are the two copies of my research idea that I presented, one from the first day and one from the last day.  This is something real that I have distilled, presented, and received feedback on already: priceless!  I have sample code and tutorials from my practices during the workshop, along with extras provided by workshop instructors. I have tons of technical reference sheets.  I have a comprehensive Project Laboratory guide that takes a project step-by-step from the initial idea to the presentation of the final product.  I have working group and collaboration plans in the works, and membership to the #GCDRI CUNY Commons group where collaboration and sharing can continue.  Most importantly I have confidence that I can turn my idea into a reality—with an overwhelming level of support.

(Update on June 24, 2016)

I have been attending a really great #NEURAL2016 conference at the University of Alabama.  On the second day of the conference we received an email about a “Shark Tank” contest with a $1000 travel award given to 3 winning students.  The explanation was:

In the spirit of the television program, contestants will be given 3 minutes to sell their project to the panel of judges, in front of the NEURAL Conference Audience.  Two minutes will be added for questions from the judges.  Extreme enthusiasm from the audience is required.   The main point of the presentation will be to effectively communicate the impact your project will make on the world.   You may use a sharpie and large-tablet easel or white board, as the room provides.  The point of this contest is to celebrate and reward preparedness and passion.

We have slots for ~27 participants.  Each trainee can enter the contest by writing their name on a piece of paper supplied to you by Tiffany/Jamie at any point during the conference, but only one name per trainee.  Participants will be selected right before a shark tank presentation by drawing three names.

Three awards of $1,000 each will be made in the following categories:

Travel Award 1 – $1,000

Graduate Trainees within 1-2 years of their graduate training.

Travel Award 2 – $1,000

Graduate Trainees within 3-5 years of their graduate training.

Travel Award 3 – $1,000

Graduate Trainees 5 + AND postdocs, all years.

With the #GCDRI presentation practice fresh in mind I decided to give the contest a shot.  In the first picture below you can see I drew a brain inside a heart and below that a chain.  I opened with, “I love the brain” pointing to the picture on top.  Then, “this is a chain” pointing to the picture on the bottom, and explaining that most EEG researchers and participants are “chained” to labs, which have advantages and disadvantages.  The goal of my “Flexible Field Recordings of Central and Peripheral Electrophysiology” project is to break those chains, allowing for new discoveries based on recordings in more naturalistic settings. I was tied with an outstanding researcher and presenter, Cagney Croomer Felton, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, in Molecular and Cellular Development Biology, in the Graduate Trainees within 3-5 years of their graduate training group.  The #NEURAL folks decided to give us both the award, which was great.  Cagney is a force of nature, a really magnetic presenter.  It says a lot about the #GCDRI training that I was able to present along side her and other great presenters and win this contest.  The second picture below is a screenshot from the University of Alabama Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program Facebook page, announcing our win.  The confidence I gained at the #GCDRI paid off immediately, and continues to pay off, as I develop my project.

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Presenting my “Flexible Field Recordings of Central and Peripheral Electrophysiology” project idea at the #NEURAL2016 Shark Tank Challenge.

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Screenshot from the University of Alabama Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars Program Facebook page, announcing the Shark Tank challenge winners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praxis

One of the prompts we received to prepare our final #GCDRI presentations was, “I learned this new thing called:”

I initially wrote, “comprehensive digital research methods.”  That description didn’t necessarily roll off the tongue.  After writing that down I recalled that the #GCDRI was described on the website as “A Week-Long Intensive Course on Digital Research Methods and Praxis.”  I didn’t remember the word praxis being used the whole week but wondered if it captured what I was trying to say better.  It did!  Praxis is described as the the process that takes a person from ideas and theories to tangible results and products.  So, although I don’t remember the word praxis coming up during my week at the #GCDRI, I was living it, receiving exposure to the people, practice, and product that embodies the idea.

Below is my final Tweet from my week at the #GCDRI.  In it there is an image of me taken by a colleague of mine at the #GCDRI during the final networking reception.  In the image I am clearly tired, but clearly satisfied, and as the caption says, “ready to solve many problems after the great week with the @Digital_Fellows at the #gcdri.”  If you are serious about digital research make it a priority to apply for and attend the next training.  Feel free to contact me if you need help locating the information.

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To   see more of my tweets about the #GCDR to to: https://twitter.com/ASLXchange and look for the #gcdri hashtag.

~ Mani

 

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