Workshopping, with diversity in mind

I once saw a video on YouTube that showed a scientist explaining their research to people of different age groups and backgrounds and it completely fascinated me. I had always wondered how I would go about doing that. Fortunately, I did not have to wonder for long.

I hosted my first ever virtual workshop for Digital Biomarker Discovery Education (dbpdED) last month. The aim of the workshop was to introduce high school students to the digital biomarker discovery pipeline. The workshop was held at the North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) where 9 students with different levels of coding experience all successfully executed code at their own pace to discover how physical activity affects heart rate. Dr. Hubbard, a Duke BME PhD alumnus and current instructor at NCSSM, helped us set up the workshop to take the students in her bioinstrumentation class through wearable data analysis. We hope to continue the collaboration and organize multiple such workshops in the future.

In many ways, a class I took last semester on science communication helped me prepare for this journey. It made me reflect on things such as how to adapt your content based on your audience as well as the type of event and the medium of communication. Moreover, it made me realize the importance of communicating research to diverse audiences. As part of the course, we also prepared for a ted talk about our research which really helped me think about how I can make my research engaging for anyone who knows nothing about the field. I am truly grateful to Duke University for emphasizing the importance of science communication and offering such incredible courses (kudos to Dr. Jory Weintraub for doing a fantastic job teaching the course).

The experience of putting this workshop together taught me the challenges associated with introducing your research to diverse audiences and the importance of doing so. By improving access to scientific methods and research, I hope to generate interest in the field of biomedical data science. When I was a student in high school back in India, I did not have a lot of opportunities to engage in discussions about research practices with researchers. I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity during my first year of college when I was chosen to be the event host for a science conclave where I got to meet and attend seminars from several Nobel Laureates and eminent scientists. Hearing some of the best minds speak passionately about their research and its implications was an amazing experience. I was also fascinated by how they could captivate diverse groups by styling their presentations according to the audience, be it high school students, or undergraduate and graduate students. Engaging in discussions with scientists, researchers and students who had come from all over the world, I realized how much of an impact hearing about research could have in igniting passion for science in students. However, I also realized that all students do not necessarily get access to such opportunities.

Looking back, I know I would have loved an opportunity to hear about the experiences of researchers much earlier. Why do scientists do what they do? What motivates them to dedicate themselves to advancing a particular field? Is this the correct path for me? Can a scientific career help me accomplish my goals and reach where I want to see myself in a couple years? These are just some of the questions I would have asked if I had an opportunity to engage with researchers. As I embark on my own journey as a graduate student researcher, I hope to be able to do my part to help all students get that opportunity.

The field of digital biomarker discovery is fairly new and holds tremendous potential. The ubiquity of smartwatches and wearable trackers has enabled continuous, long term physiological data to be available from diverse demographic groups. This has given us the ability to identify early signs of health concerns and help us prevent diseases from progressing substantially in many individuals. However, there is little awareness about the field. Exposing more students to engaging experiences in the field can help get more students interested in the field at an early stage and increase representation from various groups in research. For me, dbdpED It is an opportunity to reach hundreds and thousands of students from diverse backgrounds and provide them an opportunity to freely access research tools.

This idea has probably never held as much importance as it does in the current difficult times. With multiple studies exploring the use of smartwatches and smart rings for early detection of COVID-19 infection, there are still concerns around how the process works. Our project CovIdentify was also launched last year to explore the potential of smartwatches for early detection of COVID-19 infection. We need more transparency around the process of utilizing wearable device data for disease detection and we need to generate more awareness about the field. Not only this will help increase representation from all groups in scientific research but will also help build and strengthen public trust in digital biomarker discovery.